It starts with pennies — about 100,000 of them, to be precise.
Downtown Los Angeles–based artist S.C. Mero has an infatuation with the lowest form of American currency. In the streets surrounding her Skid Row studio, even homeless people decline to pick them up.
The penny pincher may be one of the last people to see intrinsic value in lone cents. She collects the coins and treats them with high heat, various scouring methods and a dying process to create individual tiles in larger mosaics of dark Americana.
With her customary razor-sharp irony, S.C. Mero has affixed thousands of pennies to surfaces to create renderings of the Lincoln assassination and a grim portrait of a suicidal Uncle Sam striking his best Budd Dwyer pose.
Mero is keenly aware of the medium in which she works. A sign over her door reads “Alchemist at Work.” Like her medieval predecessors, she deals in transformation. Materially, she renders unlikely items into things of value. Philosophically, S.C. Mero is intimately involved with the transmutation of the unwanted into vessels for creativity.
“If it’s possible to turn a penny into art,” she says, “it’s possible for anything [to become art].”
S.C. Mero has built a name for herself by translating her penny wisdom into a dialogue with the landscape of downtown Los Angeles itself.
She favors disused public spaces on and around the boundary between downtown’s Skid Row and the Historic Core. Here, inattention and poor civic custodianship create dystopian canvases primed for her brand of visual critique. Under her care, average street scenes lend themselves to scathing wit.
An abandoned signpost at Fifth and Main becomes a Barbie stripper pole, a ghastly Tinder meet-up point or a totem supporting a severed head in thick-framed glasses and a sign that reads, “Hipsters Beware of the Skid Row Dragon: Keep West of Main St.”
The nearby stump of a clumsily felled ficus tree transforms into a Rat Camp complete with miniature vermin roasting marshmallows over a makeshift campfire. Another iteration advertises a Skid Row X-mas, complete with roaches pulling Santa’s sleigh.
In one particularly ambitious collaboration with fellow downtown artist Matt Blackwell, Mero transformed the former fire house on Fifth and Maple into a roaring plywood inferno from which a phoenix emerged as symbolic prophecy for the neighborhood’s renewal.
Her ideas are fresh, but the angle she's taken is an age-old stance in Skid Row. S.C. Mero is but the latest in a long lineage of artists who have fashioned statements out of the neighborhood’s stark contrasts.
Deeply affected by the March 1, 2015, shooting of local homeless man Charly Leundeu Keunang at the hands of LAPD, S.C. Mero used broken bits of mirror to install the outline of a fallen body at the site of his death on San Pedro Street.
From there, she began to work with Wild Life, the anonymous arch-trickster behind some of downtown’s most elaborate and evocative pieces of contextual art.
In 2015, Mero and Wild Life modified a derelict building at Fourth and Broadway with an elaborate array of cartoonish Wile E. Coyote–style explosives to highlight the “beauty in the subtleties of the decomposing façade.” Together they transformed a long-standing construction wall across from Pershing Square into an elaborate DTLA-themed Super Mario level. Their most recent collaboration involves installing phony gallery frames that guide the viewer into pre-existing scenes of urban abandonment and misuse.
More than whimsy, there is a weariness with street art conventions embedded in Mero’s work.
She takes issue with the genre’s overwhelming masculinity where the urge to spray huge, fame-seeking tags over walls takes on a base, canine quality. The rampant self-promotion, glib hyperbole and sudden glut of motivational jibberish to be found on local walls gives Mero inspiration.
In a series of pieces from earlier this year, a male silhouette with dollar signs for eyes, cents for ears and a brain that reads “ego” spews forth candid self-criticisms such as “I’m Not Original So I Quote People Who Were.”
Refreshing as the visual commentary may be, this downtown installation guerrilla is not a regulator hell-bent on changing the face of street art. She uses her alchemy in pursuit of a heightened sense of place. The all-important end game is the creative empowerment of individuals in the neighborhood she calls home.
“When people see my art,” she muses, “they know that they could have done it, too.”
Until others get hip to her methods, there will always be ample walls and sidewalks on which Mero and her collaborators can ply their trade. And there will surely be plenty of pennies.