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Fuck New York: Street Art Began Here in L.A.

L.A.'s Mister Cartoon works on his exhibit at MOCA's landmark street art exhibit in 2011

ART IN THE STREETS, THE GEFFEN CONTEMPORARY AT MOCA, PHOTOS BY GREGORY BOJORQUEZ, COURTESY OF MOCAL.A.'s Mister Cartoon works on his exhibit at MOCA's landmark street art exhibit in 2011

This piece is part of our package on L.A.'s war on street art, including:

*Los Angeles' War on Street Artists

*The Secrets of L.A. Street Art: Bumblebee, Sharktoof and Linelinedot Discuss Their Work

More stories on street art from L.A. Weekly:

*Our cover story on MOCA's "Art in the Streets" exhibit

*Harry Gamboa on Asco, the Legendary L.A. Performance Group

*Photos of lowriders at a Mister Cartoon signing

Some were amused when Los Angeles filmmaker Jon Reiss' timely, 2007 documentary about the reignition of hipster interest in global street art, Bomb It, identified New York in the 1960s and '70s as the genre's ground zero.

Sure, the likes of Taki 183, Cornbread and, later, Futura 2000 helped pioneer and popularize street art via their subway tags and bulbous spray-can trips. All hail that, indeed.

But Mexican-American youths were glorifying their names and neighborhoods decades before that, in letters just as large and fantastic -- and they were doing it in Los Angeles.

It's no coincidence that L.A. is the art form's new capital. It was the old one, too. Here, Eastside street gangs dating at least to the 1930s, including White Fence and Maravilla, marked their turf with corresponding graffiti.

"Even shoeshine boys used to tag their names to protect their corners," says L.A.'s original street artist, Chaz Bojórquez, who started plying his trade on the street in the late 1960s and ended up with work in the Smithsonian American Art Museum. "That was in the '30s. This all started before New York."

Sure, most of it was chicken scratch used to claim a street corner. But artist John Valadez, who saw gang graffiti in his Eastside L.A. youth in the '60s, says some of it had an artistic twist to rival subway pieces in New York.

"Some of the pachucos and cholos really knew how to write," he says. "Their job was to write in this linear, box style. In the old days people would put a whole paragraph on a particular area where they all hung out. It was a roll call. It had a sense of hieroglyphics. You had to know how to really read it."

The performance Instant Mural, by the performance group Asco, which included Harry Gamboa, Jr., in 1974

Courtesy of LACMA and Harry Gamboa Jr.The performance Instant Mural, by the performance group Asco, which included Harry Gamboa, Jr., in 1974

Murals had a parallel history, too, with the blocky, iconic style of Depression-era Works Progress Administration murals influencing Mexican-American kids almost as much as the great Mexican muralist of the era, David Alfaro Siqueiros, whose work appeared downtown and who is one of the first artists to use an air compressor.

Eastside store owners let youths paint their walls to keep the tags away in the '60s. But then the taggers and artists seemed to come together as Chicano art exploded with the help of Self-Help Graphics, San Diego's Chicano Park and the provocative work of Harry Gamboa Jr. and his clan of merry pranksters at the dawn of the '70s. The City of Los Angeles even had a Citywide Murals Program during that decade to keep youths from banging and draw them into something more "artistic." How times change (see our cover story, "Los Angeles' War on Graffiti Artists").

"The mural thing started as an answer to the neighborhood graffiti," Valadez says. "When the muralism started, it was trying to express this whole Chicano resurgence, even before the [public school] walkouts [of 1968]. ... Rivals from some other city blocks, they would 'bomb' the murals."

Chaz Bojórquez signs an autograph at Robert Berman Gallery in 2008

Shelley LeopoldChaz Bojórquez signs an autograph at Robert Berman Gallery in 2008

Bojórquez, Gamboa and others began to use freeway bridges, barriers and sound walls as canvases. New York had subways. L.A. had the 101, the 110 and a concrete-lined river.

L.A. pioneered an aesthetic emphasis on letters long before trains to Big Apple boroughs were used to showcase kinetic fonts, which were often quixotic attempts at infamy.

"L.A. [was] about Gothic, Old English, pointy letters, always in black," Bojórquez says. "It's not emotionally based. Its intent is purpose-based."

He says, "My colors are black and silver. I started in '69 with this West Coast cholo style. I would only write in my own neighborhood, the Avenues. I would only tag the boundaries of my neighborhood."

Yet he feels L.A. also broke ground with the bubbly, cartoony style associated with New York. "Walt Disney was a huge influence on the Chicano murals," he says, and "we're really influenced by Hollywood."

Mister Cartoon's ice cream truck, in 2008

Lina LecaroMister Cartoon's ice cream truck, in 2008

It's worth noting that one of the most influential Mexican-American street artists today is Mr. Cartoon, who's based in L.A. and best known for tattooing celebrities.

"The whole graffiti movement has changed into the street-art movement," Bojórquez says. To him, "Street art is just a nice name for graffiti."

This piece is part of our package on L.A.'s war on street art, including:

*Los Angeles' War on Street Artists

*The Secrets of L.A. Street Art: Bumblebee, Sharktoof and Linelinedot Discuss Their Work

More stories on street art from L.A. Weekly:

*Our cover story on MOCA's "Art in the Streets" exhibit

*Harry Gamboa on Asco, the Legendary L.A. Performance Group

*Photos of lowriders at a Mister Cartoon signing

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