The History of L.A.'s Graffiti Scene, According to Boyle Heights Native Gajin Fujita
Gajin Fujita in his studio
Courtesy L.A. Louver
Between its upper and lower levels, L.A. Louver gallery’s square footage adds up to approximately 2,800 square feet.
That’s a big space to fill for first-time curator Gajin Fujita, the renowned graffiti artist and Boyle Heights native. “Roll Call,” the seminal group exhibit showing through Jan. 14 at the tony Venice gallery, features 11 artists Fujita knows from interconnected personal journeys through Los Angeles. It’s an art origin story that embodies the spirit of the city and the spirit of artists who've worked closely together in and literally on the city. “Roll Call” includes artwork by Fujita and artists Alex Kizu/DEFER, RETNA, David Cavazos/BIG SLEEPS, Jose Reza/PRIME, SLICK, Jesse Simon, Patrick Martinez, Ricardo Estrada, Fabian Debora and Chaz Bojorquez, one of the elder statesmen of L.A. graffiti culture.
“When I was trying to come up with the title of the show, it finally just hit me like an epiphany. I would commute on the RTD to junior high school from Boyle Heights to South Central, and as well to Fairfax, that’s where I went to high school. I’d be on the bus early in the morning so there would be nobody on it. I’d have time to do roll calls, to get everybody’s name up from the crew. ... Roll call is a lexicon or vernacular that you would use in the graffiti community, and it encompassed everybody,” Fujita said.
L.A. Louver has represented Fujita, a Japanese-American graduate of Otis College of Art & Design and MFA recipient from the University of Nevada Las Vegas, since 2001. His experience as a graffiti artist from the L.A. crews KGB and K2S are a highlight of his painting career, but decades later, graffiti is just one component in his creative arsenal. His talent for blending figurative characters, bold colors and graphic pop elements defines his gallery work, which still looks as if it could be easily translated to a wall. This is the departure for an artist like Fujita, who has long held his own place for original and strong work in the gallery. But no one even needs to know how he started painting anymore. Graffiti culture is fine art and no longer a violation by a vandal; the definition has expanded.
Courtesy L.A. Louver
Fujita is as talented a curator as he is an artist. The exhibit is beautifully hung and feels seamless while giving an intimate journey of an L.A. cultural art lineage. There’s no mistaking the influence of CHAZ on everyone in the show, but to then move from looking at his work to RETNA to DEFER to PRIME to BIG SLEEPS to SLICK in the same space is aesthetically rewarding and educational. There’s history in their hands, in the different ways they look at composition, use color and create characters. Fujita wanted to bring together friends and also their unique Angeleno sensibilities. “There weren't any radical surprises or departures with every artist’s works we selected," Fujita says, "but what excited me the most was they were all evolving and developing in their own way and further creating their own visual languages and visions.”
A large exhibit like this requires foresight and coordination. Laying out the show, he was aware of what needed to be addressed to make it all work. “Color, theme and aesthetics were very important, but also I was very aware that I had to practice some level of diplomacy with every artist so they all had enough attention and shine as well. I had notions of all the bigger pieces being laid out on the first floor of the gallery and the smaller-scale pieces on the second floor. The layout pretty much worked out to what I had in mind, and the sky room on the second floor with SLICK's sculpture installation was a great bonus.”
The Los Angeles experience Fujita explores is stylistically diverse. Simon is inspired by old surfboards and graffiti letter forms in his Fiberglas sculptures. Martinez’s Pee-Chee folder paintings reflect a sociopolitical context for the city, while his larger, neon mixed-media painting, Los Angeles Flower Still Life, is a perfect slice of life on a walk down any street in East L.A. Paintings by Debora and Estrada are just as personal, with confrontational themes of urban city mortality and survival.
At the opening of “Roll Call," choppers playing hip-hop and a taco truck parked outside, while Ed Moses rolled through in his wheelchair to see the show. Fujita said, “I think that the art being made and created now is readily accessible to be seen around the world because of the world we live in now, and this may start changing relationships between artists and gallerists.”
"Roll Call," L.A. Louver, 45 N. Venice Blvd., Venice; through Jan. 14. lalouver.com.
Get the Theater Newsletter
Get a rundown of upcoming theater events and ticket deals in Los Angeles.