L.A. Street Artists Get Instant Feedback — and That Can Be Dangerous
Street artist WRD SMTH at work
Photo by Heather Hixon
The time between 4 and 5 in the morning is street art's golden hour.
"People drinking late will go home at 2:30 or 3. People who go to work early leave at 5 or 5:30. So in the middle there is perfect," says Plastic Jesus. "You learn a lot about the streets of L.A. around then."
WRD SMTH calls it "walking dead time," for the sleeping bodies splayed out against the walls he targets, and the lumbering shadows that watch him paint.
Street artists' work is designed to communicate, and its creation thus requires a certain level of exposure. The artist speaks to the streets, and the streets speak back. The response isn't always friendly.
The legal mural ordinance passed in 2013 intended to allow L.A. street artists to work during daylight hours, but its complex permitting procedures have shooed many controversial muralists away from that route. In any case, daytime painting is no guarantee against hostility.
Kim West painted the fittingly titled Ode to Bohemia on the border between the Arts District and Skid Row, "literally the intersection between the haves and the have-nots." Over the two-week painting process, she was approached consistently by haves and have-nots alike.
West was layering paint with a utility knife when a man, reeking of liquor, approached brandishing an identical knife. "I got one, too," he said, "but a lady like you might be more interested in thisssss." He pulled an Altoids case from his pocket. "You look like you like gold and it's real pretty. Religious, too. Give me 10 bucks and it's yours." West, trying to remain composed, smiled and declined the offer. "You fucking bitch," he said, and walked away.
Besides antagonistic homeless people, there are the expected run-ins with police and hired security. Veteran political street artist ABCNT, whose most recent work depicts a police officer committing hara-kiri, says he had a private guard pull a gun on him in a railyard near the L.A. River. Another time he was harassed and cuffed by a policeman for wearing a shirt with an anarchist logo. "I had just put some shit up on the freeway, but the shirt was what pissed him off. He said, 'Are you an anarchist?' and told me to put my hands behind my back. After searching me, he let me go, but I sort of wished I'd have been arrested for wearing a shirt."
There are the thieves and the vigilantes. Plastic Jesus is famous for his life-sized, heroin-shooting Oscar statue erected after the death of Philip Seymour Hoffman, before last year's Academy Awards.
A former investigative photojournalist, Plastic Jesus executes his projects with militaristic precision. He placed the Oscar statue on the traffic island on La Brea and Hollywood and watched it from a concealed location. A middle-aged woman in a white Range Rover pulled up and tried to carry it away. He confronted her. "I'm from the city," she said. "We don't want this here." He said he represented the artist and asked for ID. She refused, saying, "I don't have to show it to you. Do you want me to call them?" He told her to go right ahead. She drove away but not before he took her picture. He put the photo on Twitter and learned that it wasn't the city she worked for but the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences.
Prolific WRD SMTH, who has posted more than 450 works across L.A. in two years, was repeatedly hitting an electrical box in Hollywood, only to find his pieces consistently destroyed. One morning he watched as a neighborhood man walked his rounds, keying and ripping down every piece of street art in sight. "I snapped a photo of him and printed it with 'Scratch This' below, and put it on his route," the artist says. "After that he kind of calmed down."
It's not surprising that the street speaks in angry tones. More compelling are the gentle observers.
"I was out one night on La Brea in the middle of the night doing a piece on a wall in an alleyway, and this person came around the corner," Plastic Jesus says. "He was in his early teens and hung around and asked what I was doing. After I cleared out, I realized he wasn't just hanging out. He was sleeping there, in the doorway."
Afterward, Plastic Jesus began posting a stencil of a sleeping homeless child. It's an eerie complement to his other, more well-known works, such as the ubiquitous textual stencil Stop Making Stupid People Famous.
While in Poland painting one of his violent murals of men at war, Cleon Peterson was surprised at how many people approached and congratulated him on his work, as if they understood exactly the meaning. "I think they saw some truth in the imagery," says the usually L.A.-based Peterson. Neighborhood children asked to help him paint, and he let them.
"I saw a lot of work there based around the Polish rebellion in World War II, and I think my images were similar," he says. "They represented a symbol of national pride."
Thankfulness is one of the most common responses, and it's shown in odd, beautiful ways.
When Wyatt Mills was painting a mural in Culver City, he kept catching a homeless woman staring at him, disappearing like a skittish ghost every time he made eye contact with her. On his last day, she finally revealed herself. He watched from the ladder as she placed a plastic bag full of peanuts and rotten bananas on the hood of his car. "She didn't speak a word," Mills says. "It was, like, her way of saying thank you."
Such reactions show that while street art has been appropriated by galleries, collectors and brands in recent years, its connection to the disenfranchised will endure.
West tells a story of a man she got to know while painting Ode to Bohemia, an abstracted forest of neon pinks and greens that wraps around the corner of a building: "William was quiet. First thing in the mornings he'd come around the corner, sometimes happy, sometimes disturbed, usually wrapped in a puffy bed blanket." On the last day, he helped her strap her ladder to the top of the car. And then she noticed that this big, broad-shouldered middle-aged man, an athlete in another life, was crying.
"I've lived here for so long, and I can't remember anything so beautiful," he said to her. "I can't believe you would do this, here, for us. It's very hard here. No one comes to make happy things for us. I look at this and I am happy. Thank you."
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