At the corner of Manchester Avenue and St. Andrews Place in South Los Angeles, against a backdrop of box-shaped stores and gray concrete, Pasacio "the King" DaVinci parks a late-model pickup that's been transformed into one of the more colorful vehicles on the streets of L.A. The truck's bed has been walled in so it resembles something more like a homemade U-Haul. From the wheel wells up to the roof, it's plastered in portraits of famous people and hand-painted signs that advertise the various products and services DaVinci offers: haircuts, painted clothing, sunglasses, acting and singing lessons, CDs, DVDs and, of course, hand-painted signs with options including sequins, so they sparkle in the sun.
Inside the makeshift RV's paint-spattered confines, shelves and mirrors surround a barber's chair, and flashlights are suspended from the ceiling to provide lighting. It's DaVinci's studio and store, but it's also where the artist, self-made entrepreneur and aspiring mogul has created a space in which to plot his mission: to get young people off the streets and on the right track. DaVinci — which he swears is his real name — calls the vehicle, with all its multifarious functions, the King Show.
In a blue button-up shirt emblazoned with the Jo-Ann Fabric and Crafts logo and a baseball cap bedazzled with a sparkly cross, DaVinci looks an oddly appropriate candidate to minister to kids about art, music, religion and the perils of drug addiction. To help spread his good word, he recorded a CD, on which one song has a lyrical message with about the same amount of subtlety as Nancy Reagan's "Just Say No" anti-drug campaign: "If you're ever thinking of leaving Jesus — don't do it." In conversation, he makes repeated mention of "the kids," and though he speaks inclusively, he indicates a particular interest in those who've grown up in areas with heavy crime and drug abuse.
"I talk to these kids who are acting up and give them direction that can help them," DaVinci says, "Don't want you dead. Can't go around hurting people, smoking dope." He brings the conversation around to two figures who are emblematic of living hard and dying young: "Look at Tupac. All that fame and what good did he and Biggie do? [They] had all this lavish[ness] and everything and all of a sudden they're gone."
As an artist, DaVinci has a special affinity for the deceased. One of the signs on the King Show's body advertises portraits of "your dead loved ones in color." He explains: "I'm creating and preserving the image of them forever 'cause they're gone ... it's a creative miracle to me." Even the Christmas album he recorded deals with death. One of the tracks, his altered version of "Silent Night," is about, as he explains it, "When you leave this earth, it's really a silent night. It's a silent night when you die." It's not exactly dripping with holiday cheer, but DaVinci is a realist. "I don't turn around and live on fantasy island," he says.
Several dead celebrities, including Michael Jackson and Whitney Houston, are represented in portraits affixed to the truck's exterior, but DaVinci paints living famous people, too — even if he doesn't know who they are. "I don't actually know who Lady Gaga is," he admits. "I don't know what she looks like. I just seen the picture and I drew it."
Raised in Delaware, DaVinci trained as a painter in Florida under the mentorship of the Highwaymen, a collection of self-taught African-American artists whose languid paintings of Southern landscapes and sunsets have have seen a surge in interest in recent years. He came to L.A. in 1977. As a plane flies overhead, he explains his personal artistic technique: "I mix oils and water. I do both of them. I mix them together. They say you don't. I say you do. I'm the king at what I do. I do what I want and I believe in what I do."
He says repeatedly that he only wants to be himself, not a copycat, but points out if you do something different, people talk. DaVinci does indeed have his detractors. Carlos Pedro of nearby WSS Shoes says, "[To] be honest with you, I don't think he plays a role in this neighborhood or any neighborhood. ... He just thinks he's the king for no reason." Ray Gonzales, an employee at the pizza place situated across the street from where the King Show is parked — Pizza King, coincidentally — is less vexed: "I didn't know who he was till now ... [I've] seen some of his art work; pretty nice."
DaVinci's onetime mentor, the Rev. Albert Swift, often stops by the truck. Swift has known DaVinci since the latter was 21 and says that his friend of 35 years "is controversial, very much so, in his working out of the truck." Swift adds that DaVinci is "immune to criticism" because he "believes in what he's doing."
The King Show tag also refers to a series of filmed performances DaVinci has worked on for nearly two decades. He says he taught himself to act by studying tapes at the library and by watching As the World Turns. He's been known to stage his "shows" at St. Andrews Recreation Center, where he's put his chops to work as Batman, Superman, Spiderman and Blacula.
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Efrem Demery, a longtime friend who says he's acted in some of the King Show's pieces, says they're representative of who DaVinci wants to be — a hero. DaVinci says he wants to produce a series in which he has created a role that allows him to play a sort of modern-day street messiah, a counselor to all races, who can convert prostitutes and reform gangbangers. At the end of the series, he says, the King character dies.
DaVinci has a slew of other lofty plans for the future, among them opening a chain of barber shops where he'll employ at-risk youth, encouraging taggers to abandon gang art in favor of portraits he would sell on their behalf, and launching a website, the King Show World Shopping Mall. It all sounds pretty ambitious — but then you step back, look at what he's made out of an old pickup truck and figure, why the hell not.