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Go Straight to Gallery

(Photo by Timothy Norris)

{mosimage}On a hot and smoggy day in downtown Los Angeles, a little girl, no older than 4, strolls down bail-bond row a few steps ahead of her mother. Fresh from visiting day at the Twin Towers prison complex across the street, she passes dozens of shady, fluorescently lit bond houses before finally stopping outside an unassuming storefront with a blood-red façade and no sign. As she pokes her head through the open frosted-glass doors, her eyes suddenly grow large and she begins pointing at something inside. “Pretty,” she says.

Standing out front smoking a cigarette, Lisa Nardoni watches and smiles. The owner of bail-bond row’s newest and only art gallery — Jail — Nardoni opened the gallery last December to elicit just such a reaction.

“I love it,” she says between drags. “Art is supposed to be for everybody.”

Tall, with dark, almond-shaped eyes and an informal exuberance that makes her age nearly impossible to guess, Nardoni is a new face in the gallery world after growing up in the bail-bond business. A native Angeleno and the daughter of bail-bond giant Eddie Nardoni, she was born in Silver Lake and was active in the ’80s and early ’90s indie-rock scene — playing drums in the experimental rock band Black Angel’s Death Song. She later founded the popular jewelry line Maria Mars. Last fall, when the bail-bond company next door to the family business folded, Nardoni saw an opportunity to try something different. To her, a gallery seemed the perfect fit.

“It’s an ugly world out there,” she says. “I wanted to make it a little more beautiful.”

No small task in this part of town. Next door, at the family-run Eddie Nardoni Bail Bonds, Lisa’s sister Laurie just finished fielding a call about posting bail for a 67-year-old landlady who beat up her pregnant tenant. That’s mild compared to what sometimes goes on around here.

“We get women in here all the time with choke marks around their necks from their boyfriends,” says Laurie. “They can barely speak and they’re telling me, ‘I want him out.’ And they do. If we don’t get him out, someone else down the street will. It’s a tough business.”

A business that, Lisa admits, attracts an incredible amount of intrigue.

“I used to hate talking about it and I never used to tell people about the family business if they didn’t already know,” she explains. “It wasn’t that I was embarrassed by it — I was just afraid they wouldn’t take me seriously. But with this gallery I just said fuck it — I’ll put myself out there and call the place Jail. People seem to be curious.”

And not just those in the art world. Though artists like Kim Schoenstadt and Mara Lonner have exhibited at Jail, plenty of ex-cons have already found their way onto the gallery floor as well.

“People show up here all the time, straight from prison, asking to take a shit,” says Nardoni, inviting the inevitable question, “Do you let them?”

“If they’re pregnant,” she says without hesitation. “This is a gallery, not a porta-potty, but I am a human being.”

Only days before, a man just released from a prolonged spell in the Towers enjoyed his first moments of renewed freedom inside the gallery. “He was really curious,” Nardoni recalls. “He spent over an hour looking at the art, really focusing on each piece. But eventually he came over and started talking to me about how he was framed, and about bullets planted in his trunk. Then I was like, okay, it’s time for you to leave. I’m not scared to kick people out when I need to.”

That element is all part of the Jail experience, says photographer Peter Lograsso, who showed at Jail last March. “It’s all about the space. Between the location and the people who come in here and the quality of art on display — it’s just incredibly unique. And on top of that it’s a beautiful gallery.”



Even Nardoni’s bail-bond neighbors agree. While talk of rising rents and pricing out would seem to naturally accompany such an upscale endeavor as a gallery in a gritty part of town, gentrification doesn’t seem to be much of a concern on bail-bond row.

“She’s bringing all sorts of rich people over here,” says Sam Montana, owner of the nearby Montana Bail Bonds. “It’s great.”

For Montana, a no-nonsense guy with Popeye-size forearms and a vise grip, a gallery means one less rival to deal with in the increasingly competitive industry. His only concern is that Nardoni still doesn’t have a sign.

“What’s the place called, anyway?” he asks.

When told the name of the gallery is Jail, Montana pauses for a spell, stone-faced. “Get the fuck outta here,” he says eventually. “That’s genius.”

Nardoni’s father, Eddie, agrees — in so many words. “It’s great — Lisa’s doing what she loves, and it’s one less shop we have to worry about competing with us.”

As for the prospect of bail-bond row being redeveloped, he isn’t concerned. “Downtown has completely changed in the past 20 years,” he says. “Time will tell if that change is for better or for worse. But you’re not going to change bail-bond row — not with the Towers right there.”

Indeed, the most compelling part of Jail is that it appears to be gentrification-proof. With a never-ending supply of reality across the street, the intriguing interaction between fine art and felons doesn’t stand to melt into a sea of upscale condos and coffee shops anytime in the foreseeable future. That promise is compelling.

“I don’t do this because I was born rich, and went to some elite art school,” Nardoni says. “I do this because it’s inside me. Because I love it.”