Let's just agree that Ash Chan has the most enviable hipster job in Los Angeles, as owner of the Container Yard, the kinetic cultural space he ha s been creating and shaping for about 18 months. His domain stretches for more than an acre in the downtown Arts District, is not yet open to the public and has quietly become one of the hottest venues in Southern California for splashy events (Google Art Project, most recently) and, most important, for artists to create massive murals that range from street art to fine art. (Full disclosure: L.A. Weekly is having its Artopia event there later this month, which is one of the only times you can get in.)
The former home of Mikawaya, a Japanese-American confectionary whose founder invented mochi ice cream, the 1970s-era Container Yard is about half-covered in big warehouses — and a giant standalone mochi freezer building. The Yard presents these buildings as canvases — soaring interior and exterior walls on which artists are invited to create some of the most gigantic curated art in California.
The biggest wall consists of an entire front of one of the warehouses, Chan explains, where Desire Obtain Cherish, the multi-media pop sculptor and street artist, created a huge mural. Chan, who praised the work as "really cool, totally," estimates its size at 30 feet high by 50 or 60 feet wide.
Last year, Wyatt Mills, the widely shown School of Visual Arts alum based in Los Angeles, leaned out from a ladder to complete his airy, disturbing image that fills an interior wall at the Yard. Chan saw in Mills "a different kind of artist, bringing something here that is not street art," because of Mills' fine arts background. His work depicts a reclining Prometheus with Wi-Fi signals emerging from his torso, and the painting has survived on the wall for months. (See video, above.) But impermanence is a key element at the Yard. Some artists' work has already vanished — or is destined to be covered by another muralists' vision.
The Yard's reputation as a rare space for large-scale artistic expression has spread by word of mouth, and nationwide. Now, Chan says, “When artists come to town, they call and know we have space for big murals, and ask if they can create something. That puts us in the sort of curation category. Whoever shows up, if their attitude is right and their art is dynamic and a good example of creativity, we like that.”
Chan has no formula for choosing what stays on the walls the longest and what disappears. His curating is laid back. Says Chan, “It kind of works like, one day a guy comes and you look at his art and see that his idea is a certain shape, maybe it's rectangular. And you say 'OK, this art goes over here.'”
But even if an artist keenly interests the loosely defined curators at the Yard, there's one crucial question Chan asks before offering them a wall: "Are they a slow worker, or fast?” Chan says. “Because we want to see the work up and completed, we definitely do not want a long-term work in progress.”
Chan says the underlying goal for both the public and interior walls at the Yard is “to promote the intelligence behind your art. If you take a graffiti piece and put it in a design setting, it has a completely different value. A lot of that is due to context, and that's what we're striving for.”
But he's not yet ready to decide exactly what the Container Yard is meant to be. “The best thing is that when I was younger I was always trying to fit in and trying to define things. Now that I am a little older, I am more comfortable telling people I don't know and I don't really give a shit. I am hesitant to commit — that is why.”
Chan is the “West Coast arm” of his Boston-area family's investment projects. His billionaire father, Gerald, made his fortune in real estate in Hong Kong, and the younger Chan has been a restaurateur, opening California Shabu-Shabu and Boston eateries. He bought the Container Yard thanks to kismet. His brother had also moved here from Boston, and Chan was in the midst of buying an Arts District loft apartment in which his brother lived.
One day, Chan noticed a "For Sale" sign across the street on a property filled with hulking old warehouses. He decided his family should snap it up.
Now, about two years after he and his family bought the place, the outer warehouse walls, which front both East 4th and Seaton Streets, are no longer looking out upon little-used industrial streets but streets alive with residents and visitors, making these outer walls prime muralist real estate.
Artists vying for the outer warehouse walls “know that you have to be pretty good to get on the street frontage.” The Container Yard has displayed the works of noted artists including muralist and art toys designer Tristan Eaton and letter-form master and street artist Alex “Defer” Kizu as well as a mural collaboration among Christina Angelina, Ease One TX, Mar and Sek. A video, below, shows that team at work.
The Container Yard will eventually include some businesses and restaurants. Chan has been approached by large restaurant interests but said no. “We got a lot of people with money who wanted restaurants to go in here, and some of the concepts were just gigantic,” he explains, “but I didn't think that was the ethos of the space. I would rather see small- to medium-sized businesses — and everything here is evolutionary.”
When asked to reveal the artistic and economic role the Container Yard will have in the Arts District, Chan laughs good-naturedly, pauses, and then laughs again.
“Making money on this” — both for the artists and for the Chan family — “would be the dream,” he says. That's not the immediate goal, however, because, “The feeling really was not to commit to something too early, because the neighborhood was still evolving.”
That's why, technically, the Container Yard never opened, and is not yet open to the public. But that time is coming very soon. “We are against the wall about needing to make decisions,” he says.
Then, Ash Chan chuckles happily. Because he has the most enviable job in Los Angeles, and being against the wall “is a good place to be.”
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