On an otherwise normal Saturday night in Cypress Park, a man with a microwave over his head pointed at a skateboard deck and nodded with gusto.
He stood in an underground tunnel with many other art enthusiasts, all squeezed into the space to get a view of skateboard decks artistically re-interpreted by Angeleno artists.
"Tunnel Rats: A Skateboard Art Show" -- curated by Alex Larin Baranda and Kelly Thompson -- took place on the second Saturday of July in an underground tunnel on Figueroa street. The monthly series started because of Yancy Quiñones, a Cypress Park resident with a unique vision.
It all began in the '80s, when Quiñones went to school near the tunnel, a structure originally used for pedestrians to get from one side of the street to the other.
"You could cross the street, but the thing is they were vandalized with a lot of graffiti. I still remember when I was five, [seeing] people shooting up heroin," said Quiñones. "The schools were trying to monitor the tunnels but there wasn't a lot of community involvement. People weren't involved like they are now."
The tunnel at 3400 N. Figueroa turned into a location for gang fights and increased violence. Eventually it shut down and the Department of Transportation took over.
Quiñones left his Cypress Park school, moving on to a job at an architectural firm, and even traveled to coffee farms in Atitlan, Guatemala. He brought back his coffee knowledge to Cypress Park and created Antigua Coffee House, a business that stands right across the street from one side of the tunnel. The history of the tunnel stuck to him and as he saw the changes happening in Cypress Park, a new idea came to mind -- an underground art show.
That meant dealing with the city attorney's office, LAUSD and Ed Reyes, the councilman at the time for District 1, which includes Cypress Park. Quiñones started speaking with him in 2010 and struck a deal, volunteering to take care of half the effort and costs needed to transform the tunnel into a gallery. Through a collaboration with LA Works -- an organization dedicated to community projects and volunteer efforts -- the space began to change.
"I got 40 or 50 volunteers on a Saturday or Sunday and we got the paint donated by a local paint company," said Quiñones. "They came over and I'm not kidding you, they wrapped it up in two and a half hours. The picked up trash, they chipped walls they -- they did everything... The pressure was on -- I did my part and I said, 'Where's your part?' and the councilman was like, 'Oh my god, you're really a doer.'"
Quiñones credits that progress to a sense of community. The shows take place every second Saturday of the month, with the first one taking place May 11 and the next one set for August 10.
Quiñones continues to cater Antigua Coffee at events in the area and sees Cypress Park's changes -- which some might view as gentrification -- as opportunity to convert forgotten places into inspiring spaces.
"One time I did an interview with KCET and they asked me, 'What do you think about gentrification?' And I thought fuck, why do they have to ask me this shit?" said Quiñones. "I said, 'I'm gonna tell you guys this -- you could also look at reverse gentrification because think of our communities of South Gate, Lynwood, Maywood. At one time they were white communities and white flight happened and Mexicans came in and now its 100 percent Mexican. That's gentrification too. It's reverse gentrification...In Cypress Park, it's not gentrification -- we live there."
This viewpoints explains Quiñones' mindset about his area -- he strongly believes that only the people who play a large part of the community should have a say in its transformation.
"I have that attitude... either you live here or you have a business and you contribute. Otherwise get the hell out of it," said Quiñones.
A number of local artists roamed the tunnel during the last event, ranging from former Occidental College students to artists also involved in the monthly Downtown Los Angeles Art Walk. All the proceeds from the art sales go to the artists, and the curators of each monthly show receive a stipend.
Now, Quiñones sees many other areas in Los Angeles begging to be transformed. He hopes to make the underground art shows an event that happens twice a month.
"It's recreating your community and reclaiming the space and shaping out the city that you live in," said Quiñones.
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