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Why Muzeo Canceled Its Graffiti Show, and What It Means for the Art World

Galo "Make" Canote
Galo "Make" Canote
PHOTO BY NANETTE GONZALES

On Wednesday, Jan. 22, artist and curator Galo "Make" Canote stood outside Muzeo, downtown Anaheim's art museum. Inside sat pieces of bold graphic art, waiting to be hung. Also waiting inside were the museum's executive director and a detective from the Anaheim Police Department's gang division.

Canote took a deep breath. A successful, street-savvy artist and muralist who worked with at-risk groups and taught the art of lettering and graffiti in Los Angeles' public schools, he had been approached by museum officials in October 2013 about a show on graffiti.

The Koreatown-raised Canote, who now lives in East Hollywood, had suggested a fresher idea — an in-depth look at cholo lettering that also would celebrate the evolving history of Chicano culture in Southern California. The week before Thanksgiving, Muzeo's board agreed to a show that would run for six weeks, beginning Jan. 31. Muzeo's then–executive director John Scola explains, "Galo's very well-connected, so we didn't put any guidelines at all."

With this show, Muzeo would join SoCal's recent movement to mainstream street art and graffiti. MOCA's 2011 "Art in the Streets" was the first major museum retrospective on the topic. The 2012 Kustom Kulture II show at the Huntington Beach Arts Center featured graffiti art as well as art influenced by hot rod and surf cultures. The 2014 L.A. Art Show, at the end of January, highlighted the Mural Conservancy of Los Angeles and the city's mural artists. A new, less restrictive Los Angeles City Mural Ordinance, passed in August 2013, gives artists legal walls to paint. And street art is making gains among collectors.

But Canote didn't anticipate the last-minute obstacles that would be created by Muzeo's board of directors, who wanted to monitor the art, for fear that the images were associated with gangs. The controversy eventually would lead to a Muzeo board member resigning in disgust, and the exhibit's cancelation, all demonstrating that graffiti art still struggles for wider acceptance.

Canote pulled the show together quickly, between Thanksgiving and mid-January. He named the exhibition "Con Safos (With Respect): The Art and Culture of Urban Chirography."

"I wasn't going to curate questionable material, but wanted to humanize the subject and remove stereotypes," he says.

"Con safos" means "with respect" in Caló, a language that developed in Mexico from medieval Spanish, Andalusian Gypsy vernacular and native Nahuatl. Brought to the United States by immigrants in the late 1930s, Caló evolved into cholo street slang. Artists add "con safos" — often abbreviated "C/S" — to murals to show, according to historian Frank Sifuentes, that the work is to be "highly regarded and respected. ... It can't be disrespected" by defacement. Both the phrase and "C/S" are tattooed on shoulders and arms throughout Southern California.

For the Muzeo show, Canote curated art based in graffiti culture, car clubs, Chicano history and daily life. Among the 25 artists involved were several with large, international followings. Chaz Bojórquez's lettering and images are shaped by his growing up in East L.A. and furthered by his worldwide travels. His paintings and prints, combining traditional Chicano elements with Asian-influenced calligraphy, often give the impression of three-dimensionality. His work has been shown at LACMA and in MOCA's "Art in the Streets," and is part of the permanent collection at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Bojórquez's "Señor Suerte," a fedora-wearing skull smoking a cigarette, which he created as his personal logo, has become popular tattoo flash.

Boyle Heights–born Alex "Defer" Kizu layers blocky, street-influenced lettering to create his paintings. Kizu was featured in "Will Los Angeles Reclaim Its Title of Mural Capital of the World" at the 2014 L.A. Art Show, and has shown at the Pasadena Museum of California Art. Big Sleeps, another L.A. native, travels around the world creating murals, skate decks and tattoos in flowing, cholo freehand cursive. Also on the roster: L.A.-based Siner and artists from Portugal, Mexico, Japan and the Netherlands. The exhibit's focal points were site-specific murals on Muzeo's walls by Kizu, Big Sleeps and artist Sergio Robleto.

Canote's plans included site-specific installations, lowrider cars and historic photographs and displays. He scheduled lectures, workshops and a car show, plus a 35th-anniversary screening of Boulevard Nights, the 1979 L.A. lowrider melodrama. He also organized a sponsored launch party with swag bags, food and drinks.

He kept in mind Muzeo's mission statement, which says it strives "to engage the community by exploring and celebrating our diverse heritage, culture and arts through creative programming ... [and] to expand our reach to new audiences and break down barriers to access of culture and the arts."

For artist Danny "Big Pranks" Morales, who traces his roots to Anaheim, the show had special meaning. "For me, the show would've brought my career as an artist full circle," he says. "I'd told Galo that I took my wife and kids to El Muzeo years ago to see Cheech Marin's private art collection. My kids asked why my art wasn't there on the walls, too. I told them that Cheech and Muzeo just didn't know about me yet and one day I'd have my work in there on the walls, too, with all of those badass artists."

"Con Safos" would have boosted Southern California's reputation as street-art capital and enhanced the reputation of Muzeo, known as a pit stop for traveling shows such as "Chocolate: The Exhibition," "Steampunk: History Beyond Imagination" and "Frogs."

Opened in 2007 in downtown Anaheim, the Muzeo complex incorporates the city's historic Andrew Carnegie Library and the Anaheim Museum's original location when it launched in 1987, as well as residential and retail units. As part of its 2013-14 operating budget of $1.075 million, Muzeo's nonprofit foundation receives $200,000 annually from the city of Anaheim.

The Muzeo Foundation board includes Orange County politicians, real estate developers, business owners and executives, and philanthropists. Before coming to Muzeo in 2011, executive director Scola — an experienced fundraiser who had worked as a director of major gifts at St. Jude Memorial Foundation and as president of the Catholic Community Foundation — had no background working for an arts organization.

In mid-January, the museum's board became nervous about "Con Safos." Muzeo board member Bill Taormina, owner of Clean City, a graffiti-removal service, says that, when he learned the focus of the show, he emailed board members about "THE REALITY OF THE FEAR AND MALICIOUS PROPERTY DAMAGE THAT TAGGING AND GRAFFITI CREATE IN OUR CITY." (He sometimes writes in all caps.)

Taormina then resigned from Muzeo's board. He writes in an email to L.A. Weekly that he took the drastic step "when I learned that this exhibit had made its way through the approval process and was about to be widely advertised to the greater community, and after a conversation with the then executive director [Scola] wherein he tried to justify the importance of such an exhibit to 'educate youth' in various art forms."

Taormina adds, "I have spent decades of my life and tens of thousands of dollars painting out graffiti on my own property and have donated and funded graffiti-removal programs on city property. To see this item come up was very concerning to me."

On Monday, Jan. 20, Canote received an email from Muzeo asking him to attend a meeting with Sgt. Juan Reveles of the Anaheim Police Department's gang division, members of the Muzeo staff and Scola, at 10 a.m. on Jan. 22. Taormina says the meeting was "likely an internal decision by the executive board based on my email."

Scola offers a more nuanced explanation: "We had the gang division come in as part of data we wanted to collect."

On the morning of the meeting, Taormina sent out another email, cc'ing Scola, city council members and Anaheim city manager Marcie Edwards (whom L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti has since tapped to run the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power). The email subject line read: "PLEASE CANCEL THE MUZEO'S 'CON SAFOS' EXHIBIT."

He included a photo of tagging, a video of a graffiti artist painting an elaborate, colorful "C/S" on a backyard shed, and an online commentary about the meaning of "con safos." He wrote of the exhibit, "It is such a bad idea and does nothing to promote the quality of life of our city. Graffiti is NOT art, it is malicious vandalism."

Canote had already been dealing with another hitch: The museum delayed the removal of the previous show, "Worn to Be Wild: The Black Leather Jacket," by three days in order to accommodate the traveling show's owners, stalling his work.

Now, as the museum facilities staff dismantled "Worn to Be Wild" and raced to prep for the installation of "Con Safos," which was to open in eight days, Canote had to justify graffiti art to an Anaheim police detective whose specialty was gangs, not contemporary art history.

That warm Wednesday, Jan. 22, Canote stepped inside Muzeo and collected several pieces slated for the exhibit: a bronze sculptures by Juan Carlos Muñoz Hernandez, paintings by Big Sleeps, a porcelain skull painted by Chaz Bojórquez and a print by Bojórquez. He brought them into the meeting, in a boardroom of the venerable Carnegie building, to show to Sgt. Reveles and the museum staff.

Dressed casually in a collared shirt, the sergeant pointed out a specific piece of artwork: Somos Vatos Locos, Bojórquez's 1989 print. According to Canote and Scola, Reveles felt that the phrase "vatos locos" on the print referenced a local Anaheim street gang. And because the artwork included the letters "L.A.," he said that it could be construed as a territorial challenge to the Orange County–based Vatos Locos gang. Reveles ignored the other works, focusing on Somos Vatos Locos.

"Vatos locos," a common phrase from the Caló language meaning "crazy guys," has been Latino street slang for decades. It's the name of a now-retired, 1940s-era L.A. gang, and the name of a fictional L.A. gang in the 1993 film Bound by Honor (aka Blood In, Blood Out). It has been appropriated by gangs across the country, not to mention other groups: It's also the name of an all-white dodgeball team at Chaparral High School in Temecula.

"A lot of what he shared had validity, but unfortunately he has no art literacy and could not see past his biased views and ideas of gang culture," Canote says of Reveles. "Some of the art might have shown gang art or gang symbols, [but] the art work did not promote gangs or gang philosophy."

Canote explains that while several artists in the show are former gang members, they are now "simply working artists."

(The Anaheim Police Department declined to comment on the meeting, referring questions back to the museum. Reveles did not return phone messages, and Bojórquez did not reply to requests for comment.)

The board then met until 8 p.m. Canote, busy receiving and hanging art, was not at the meeting. After the meeting concluded, Scola called Canote, saying the board wanted a complete inventory of works. Canote replied that it wasn't possible. Art was still being painted and sculpted, and key pieces were to be created on-site. Scola responded that the board wanted to approve every piece of art before it was installed.

"We didn't feel it a sense of censorship, but we wanted to be comfortable with the content, but couldn't be until we saw it," Scola says.

The board also wanted to indefinitely postpone or outright cancel the launch party scheduled for Jan. 30. But tickets had been sold, Canote's sponsors had hired staff to work that night, and he had designers working to create special booklets and T-shirts for the swag bags.

The next day, as Canote received art and arranged for the muralists to begin painting, the board members held a conference call. At 11 a.m., Canote was approached by Scola with a new condition — the murals had to be painted on canvas rather than directly on the walls. Canote opposed the idea because it was "tacky," and not the proper medium. Scola then told him to delay the painting of the murals. Canote reluctantly made the calls to the artists, who had been ready to hit the road, their cars loaded with paints and stencils.

A new demand then came from the board via Scola: Once the show was hung, they wanted to view it, then remove any pieces deemed "objectionable." Canote felt his judgment and skill as a curator were being questioned. The board, which had initially trusted him and given him free rein, had pulled an about-face.

The demands escalated. Two days after Reveles' visit, the board wanted the show renamed and rebranded, with a redesign of all printed materials. After Canote and Scola discussed this idea, Scola, according to Canote, told the beleaguered curator to go ahead with his original plans for the murals and branding but suggested that a group of scholars and community members explain the importance of the art during the board's preview of the show. The board held fast that they would have veto power over any piece of art.

Canote felt that taking down "disapproved" pieces was tantamount to censorship. Plus, he felt that the board was refusing to give the artists the respect they deserved. "The museum and their directors were treating the artists as though they were ... simply emerging artists, which is not the case," he says now, in an email. "Most artists in the exhibit are well established, reputable and highly collected artists. Artists with a very tight schedule who arranged to make time and schedule a day to come to the museum to create art on their walls." Feeling disrespected by the shifting demands, several artists dropped out of the show.

Canote told Scola he would think about the situation. Over the weekend, he got calls from Muzeo staff urging rebranding. Delaying or canceling the launch party was again broached.

On Monday, three days before the scheduled launch party, a frustrated Canote sent an email to the board canceling "Con Safos."

John Scola has since left Muzeo, though he says his departure was unrelated to "Con Safos." He was impressed with the art he had seen, he says. "I was very disappointed."

Former board member Bill Taormina, jubilant at the outcome, says he's "extremely pleased with the decision of the board to cancel the event."

Richard Stein from Arts Orange County has taken over Muzeo's management until a new executive director can be found. In place of "Con Safos," an exhibition of artists from the Warehouse of Contemporary Art went up, running March 22 to April 13.

Canote is negotiating for a new location for "Con Safos," and says that he's still owed money for his work. Stein responds, "He was paid in full for the work that he did."

Muzeo's fear of graffiti art could be an anomaly, the reaction of a small group of stakeholders who had a particularly reactionary interpretation of a form that in the art world now is considered completely acceptable. But it typifies the difficulties still faced by urban, graffiti-based artists — especially Latinos — because their art is perceived as associated with vandalism and gang activity.

And the loss of "Con Safos" has even deeper social repercussions in Anaheim. Confidential sources say that gangs in the area had called a truce for the duration of "Con Safos," negotiated out of respect for the artists, and for the meaning of "C/S" as originally painted on murals — that art deserves to be appreciated without violation.

Canote says, "Instead of Muzeo doing this exhibition, which would have provided enrichment, they took a step backward."

Alex "Defer" Kizu's Ethos was to have been in the canceled show.