Jasmin Siddiqui's jet-black hair whips in the wind as a telescopic aerial lift swings around, elevating the artist up to the mural she and partner Falk Lehmann have been working on at Culver City High School. Known collectively as Herakut — their pseudonyms are Hera and Akut, respectively — the German street artists are in Los Angeles for their upcoming exhibit, “Masters of Wrong,” which opens Saturday at Corey Helford Gallery in Boyle Heights. They'll paint a mural on one of the gallery's exterior walls in advance of the opening, but they also wanted to make sure they left their mark on L.A.'s youth.
The striking mural at Culver City High, completed last week, features a multiracial girl modeled after a member of the student body. On each hand, she wears a wolf's head — one black, one white; the text, a Native American proverb, is splashed across the backdrop in Herakut’s signature drippy graffiti style. It reads: “There is a battle of two wolves inside of us. One is good. It is joy, peace, hope, humility, kindness. One is evil. It is anger, jealousy, greed, resentment, lies, inferiority and ego. And the wolf that wins is the one you feed.”
The mural's message is inciting as much reaction as the art itself. Text is as essential to Herakut's creations as the large-eyed, spindly-limbed, big-headed humans and fable animals that are their trademark. These come together to generate layers of meaning and varied interpretations of Herakut’s work.
“Wherever we go, we try to find a connection, otherwise, why travel?” says Siddiqui, who is multiracial herself (half-Pakistani, half-German), and who spent a year as an exchange student at Venice High School. “For a German school, we would have tried to find something with the same content but by an author of an ethnicity that matters there more. If we were doing this image in the Arab world, we would have chosen a boy instead of a girl. They are the decision makers, so you address them. And we wouldn’t have shown wolves or ‘dogs,’ as they are considered filthy.”
The ideas come from Siddiqui, for the most part, with Lehmann as the “reflector and corrector,” to quote him. The former usually starts a mural and the latter finishes it with his expertise in photorealism. Spray cans are a staple, but so is acrylic paint, which for this mural Siddiqui has applied with a pole stick and small roller, giving her a good handle on proportions. The collaborators come from starkly different backgrounds — he's from a small town, she's from a big city; he's from East Germany, she's from West; he's a man, she's a woman — so they engage in numerous conversations before they start a piece. Their two perspectives, when brought together, give the work depth.
“The human brain appreciates everything not being totally detailed,” says Lehmann, who has been working with Siddiqui since 2004 after meeting her at a graffiti event. “If you look at something and you complete it in your head, it’s a chemical reaction. The work appreciates in the eye of the audience.”
“There is something better than perfection,” concurs Siddiqui, who has used this quote as the inspiration behind and the title of one of Herakut’s large-scale murals in Frankfurt. “It’s all trial and error. The reason we don’t sketch too much is because I don’t want it to be me copying myself. I want to find out where my arm is going while I’m doing it. We don’t cover any mistakes. That’s why we have so many drips. We take one shade of blue and try to find the proportions. When that’s not it, then another shade of blue. Leaving things as they are, where it looks like there is a shadow and movement, that’s us trying to find the right thing. It’s part of the process.”
Admitting mistakes is one of the underlying ideas behind “Master of Wrong.” The 18-piece collection of paintings is controversial and political. One of the pieces is of a little girl with a Hello Kitty helmet holding a pink Hello Kitty rifle with the obscured text: “I know how, I just don’t know why.” Another is a weeping image with Kim Kardashian at its center with kids handing her tissues bearing the text: “One should never judge another one’s pain.” Yet another is of a My Little Pony combing the hair of a child who has the same beauty-pageant hairdo, with the text: “Don’t worry, we got your back Jeremy.”
“As artists, we produce a luxury product for rich people,” Lehmann says. “The need to make something positive, not just decoration for big houses, becomes bigger and bigger.”
“It’s a matter of keeping an emotional safe distance,” Siddiqui concurs. “While we were working on the show, I stayed away from the news, otherwise I would have [been] too aggressive, too sad and too emotional to create.”