A Frustrated TV Comedy Writer Turns to Street Art, Using the Tag "Kale Urself"
Like many Angelenos, Carlos Herrera spends a lot of time in his car. His iPhone email signature even taunts, "Sent while driving." When we speak by phone one afternoon, he's driving to an art supply store on Fairfax to pick up spray paint for his next project. But 27-year-old Herrera, who once described himself in an Instragram photo as "Zac Efron without the hair," is not an artist.
If you've spent any time driving the streets of Hollywood, Echo Park and Fairfax, you've no doubt seen his work. A comedy writer by trade (though he's currently unemployed), Herrera recently took to the streets to make fun of the industry that's constantly rejecting him.
In one of his more self-deprecating pieces of graffiti, spray painted on a temporary construction wall outside a new clothing boutique on Beverly Blvd., Herrera wrote the purposefully-misspelled "Just Looking 4 a righting JOB." Next to that, he put an x next to each of the words "SNL" and "Conan," both TV shows for which he had been turned down for writing gigs.
Lately, he's found other ways to get his writing seen: short, witty phrases painted on discarded mattresses ("Rest Coast" reads one on a Hollywood Blvd. sidewalk; "I want celebrities to sleep on me" reads another outside Paramount Pictures) and scribbled across the ubiquitous white wooden fences that shroud construction sites all over the city. ("I miss Mad Men" is written on Beverly Boulevard.)
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"Imagine you have this wall on Beverly Boulevard to write anything you want, and a million people are going to drive by it like three hours later, what would you do?" he asks, in a rare moment of artistic reflection. "I want to make fun of people."
One of his graffiti pieces, for example, makes fun of an unnamed comedian whom he's got beef with. "She's really into yoga but she does a lot of drugs, and she tweeted or instagrammed her vision board one day," he says, forgetting where he had first seen the inspirational collage. "So I wrote down 'vision bored.'"
Many of Herrera's sardonic, spray-painted scribbles take aim at stereotypes about Los Angeles neighborhoods. On Coronado Street in Echo Park, Herrera transformed a mattress into a billboard: "U-Turn: Hipsters ahead." Meanwhile, the white stucco wall behind a pay phone reads: "Reeeal hip Echo Park," as if the phone itself were an obsolete, ironic sculpture.
Fittingly, the comedian's foray into street art began as a joke on another piece of L.A. graffiti he saw: "Read Kerouac" spray-painted on a blank wall near Melrose and Highland. "I thought it was, like, really pretentious," says Herrera, who insists the piece wasn't his doing, even though the handwriting resembles his own. He attempted to dumb down the artwork by writing over it: "Re-watch The Sopranos." The directive points to yet another unfavorable stereotype about Angelenos: We don't read books, we watch TV.
"I think people are afraid to poke fun at things on a public scale unless they're getting paid a lot of money, and even then, they're not good at it," says Herrera. "It's not that difficult to do it. You just get in your car, park it and wait for a red light." That's when inspiration strikes for Herrera, who typically hits the streets with a can of spray paint around 1 a.m., before the bars let out and the cops start cruising.
If "Re-watch The Sopranos" was his artistic debut, then Herrera's magnum opus is "kale urself," a joke that he says originated in a Tweet by one of his writing partners, Eric Gruber. After Googling the phrase and discovering its popularity on social media (there's a food blog and an Instagram hashtag of the same name), Herrera decided to adopt it as his brand.
"So I went on Beverly Boulevard late one night while my fiancé was sleeping and I just wrote it on the corner because I thought it would be funny," Herrera says, admitting that most of his illegal stunts are committed out of sheer boredom. "I think with anything, I just want to get a rise out of people."
Images of the graffiti surfaced on Instagram and Twitter, the place where the sinister pun began. In late June, comedian Marc Maron tweeted the image to his 400,000 followers with the caption "a little street genius."
What happened next is something that could only happen in L.A.: The graffiti was featured as no. 26 on a Buzzfeed list of "26 Things You Will Only See in Los Angeles," along with topless maid service and cell phone towers disguised as palm trees.
Herrera's goofs might be mean-spirited ("kale yourself" evokes suicide) but he insists the art is self-deprecating. "I eat kale salads every night," he says. "I literally do. My fiancé makes them for me."
The mantra even spawned a website where Herrera sells white "Beverly Blvd" tank and crop tops spray painted with the words "Kale Urself." As for the price tag? Thirty-six dollars. Herrera doesn't think it's that expensive and he says if he didn't start selling the shirts, somebody else would. "I would've felt like an idiot if someone else had done it."
In fact, someone else had done it: The t-shirt was partly inspired by a bootleg version he saw on Instagram. "The photographer wrote ["kale urself"] on a t-shirt and took a picture with one of his models and it had like 10,000 likes on it," says Herrera. The photo has been liked 798 times as of this writing. "He clearly saw my graffiti and wrote it down."
While "Kale Urself," was lifted directly from Twitter, Herrera's most original piece is on Beverly Boulevard, where eight spray-painted words are styled like a movie script. "Exterior, Beverly night," the wall reads, followed by dialogue: "Me: Pay attention to me."
In some ways, all of Herrera's graffiti tags are screaming just that: pay attention to me. And so far, the desperate cry for attention has worked, garnering validation from all corners of social media. The ultimate badge of approval came from the 17-year-old pop musician Lorde, who posted one of Herrera's pieces on Instagram. "Lorde help me," it read in lipstick-red paint. "I'm on my way," Lorde responded.
While Herrera basks in the social media shout-outs from celebrities, he says it'd be naïve to think the graffiti will ultimately yield the thing he wants most: a writing job. Or at least one that's legal. "That would be like the greatest thing in the world," he says, "But I don't think it'll get me a writing job, except for, like, just being funny on the Internet."
In the meantime, he continues to spend his nights alone in the car, cruising Beverly Boulevard in search of blank white construction walls.
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