Street art is a commentary on the nature of ownership, and the push-pull between public and private property. Using the city as a stolen canvas is in and of itself an artistic statement that art hemmed into the confines of a gallery or museum could never make.
The questions that street art raises -- "who does this city belong to?" and "who gets to decide what it looks like?" will always be a source of tension -- the sort of tension inherent in city life.
Pop star Chris Brown, of "F.A.M.E." fame, has placed himself at the center of that sort of tension in his Hollywood Dell neighborhood by painting a tableau of monster faces on his otherwise elegant home. The ensuing conflict with neighbors, which made front page news and which Brown plainly courted, can be framed a number of ways, but primarily it's an argument between "a man's home is his castle" versus community standards.
Like great architecture, great art installations seek harmony with the surrounding environment -- or if not harmony, then a pointed juxtaposition. Driving up Rinconia Drive in the lushly overgrown Hollywood Dell, when one happens upon the Brown home, the effect is neither. The curbside paintings stick out, to be sure, but in an opportunistic, rather than a deeply considered way. Round the corner and there they are, but the images aren't as glaring on the the approach as one would suspect from newspaper photos -- because of their orientation on the street, passersby view them from the side rather than head-on. In fact, most of Brown's paintings are tucked away into the recessed portions of the house's façade, seeming downright discreet.
There's a Halloweenish glee to the blobby, pointy-toothed faces, and the faces grin-grimace in a faux-menacing caricature that would probably make most passing kids hold out excited fantasies of knocking on the door on October 31 and scoring a thrilling treat. To adult eyes, however, given the setting -- and Brown's Lamborghini with a Hot-Wheels paint job is inevitably part of the scene -- they come off as somewhat childish -- simply executed monsters who can't think of anything else to say after they've shouted "Boo!" They also kind of look like sharper-fanged versions of 1970s breakfast cereal mascots the Freakies.
Brown's technique is simplistic. Shading is basic, gradations of color minimal. There's a sharpness of line to the creatures on the curbside wall, but the upper images on the body of the house have the more feathery, less precise feel common to paintings done in spraypaint. Some artists use that airbrush quality to great and subtle effect, but Brown doesn't. In short, it's competent, but not stunning.
There are far flashier neighborhoods in Los Angeles to drive through, with more ostentatious and manicured houses than these ones. Joggers, kids, and dogs wander the sidewalkless streets, and waterfowl glide overhead toward the nearby Hollywood Reservoir. In this setting, Brown's paintings seem more an effort to stand apart from the sylvan hillsides than to enjoy the place he spent all that money to buy a house in, telegraphing his enjoyment of being despised as much as most pop stars enjoy being loved.
The City of Los Angeles has decided to fine Brown under "excessive signage" code, which comes off as farfetched: the images are clearly not what anyone would describe as "signs." And it seems plain that had Brown decided to paint a symbol more palatable to Hollywood Hills types -- a Tibetan mandala, perhaps -- the tempest would have remained in the teapot.
If street art is about raising questions of civic ownership, and bucking the view that only those wealthy enough to build buildings or buy billboards get to call the aesthetic shots, instead of a community's residents as a whole, then Brown, a wealthy landowner himself, seems to be asking the question from the wrong side of the fence. By appropriating street art style to what is undisputedly his own private property -- graffiti without the challenge to authority -- that art is gutted.
The only authority Brown -- who lives only about a dozen houses from the end of a dead-end street -- is truly challenging is that of his immediate neighbors. Anyone else would have to drive well out of their way to be offended by his art. And naturally, when you say "screw you" to your neighbors, they don't take it kindly. Why should they?
Those offended neighbors, however, have gullibly swallowed Brown's low-hanging bait, reacting more like sheltered Santa Clarita suburbanites than the Hollywood city slickers they are. Timorous complainant's flimsy arguments as to why Brown's art should be illegal run along the lines of "It frightens my kids." Really? Apart from the three large and cartoony figures at the curb (which were largely obscured by garbage cans on the day we visited), most of the faces peek discreetly over balconies, and are no more horrifying than the stuff any kid could see at a Party City in October.
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Another reading of Brown's scary-monster artistic statement -- which says "go away!" but more loudly screams "look at me!" -- might be that it's a counterintuitive approach to reforming his bad-boy image. Badass-style discontent expressed through art, rather than through, say, beating your girlfriend, or maybe wrecking your Good Morning America dressing room, would be a laudable improvement in Brown's case.
Brown's lawyer has promised to fight the city on First Amendment grounds, but his neighbors have promised to keep fighting too -- on top of the paintings, they have complaints about Brown's Lamborghini parking violations and his noisy parties.
That's life in the big city.