The Hotel Figueroa is located across the street from the monstrous L.A. Live complex, a place where tourists and local sports and music fans come in droves to be entertained, and for better or worse, huddle into humanity. This part of downtown is a circus of flashy Jumbotrons and corporate restaurants, but outside of these confines, the Figueroa stands in contrast, and it always has. Even after the substantial remodel that took place just a few months ago, it retains an old-world character and ambiance, a palpable vibe that references exotic locales but feels very “L.A.” This is quite intentional.
Now more than ever, it seems the Fig is aiming to be a cultural hub, cementing its legacy as a City of Angels landmark and art-minded space of sanctuary. The hotel’s new artist-in-residence program encapsulates these ideas and seeks to provide a nurturing place for artists to work and find inspiration. But it’s more than that. It’s a reciprocal relationship in which the artist serves as inspiration for the space as well — via their work adorning the walls but also via their very presence.
When it comes to presence, few possess the laid-back preeminence exuded by L.A. street photographer Estevan Oriol, the hotel's inaugural artist in residence. From gang and lowrider culture to the music and entertainment worlds, Oriol's work reveals the raw and real beauty of Los Angeles, and it has done so for more than two decades. With an immersive, uncompromising style and a powerful cross-section of subjects, Oriol focuses on the people and places of Los Angeles as no one else has.
We spoke with the legendary Angeleno lensman at the hotel recently, sitting in the bar area. We also strolled through his exhibit (which takes up the entirety of the hotel's walkway out to its famed pool area) and took a peek inside his room and workspace at the hotel, where he and an assistant are working on several projects, including three new books. The suite, which is one of only two with a balcony overlooking the city, is currently covered in photographs, its walls swathed with images placed in order of how they will appear in the new project (although Oriol says the order may change). A computer and printer sit on a desk in the room and there are boxes everywhere, including clothing samples from his Joker Clothing streetwear line with famed tattoo artist Mister Cartoon.
Whether in digital print form wallpapering his room or beautifully framed and thoughtfully aligned along the hotel's bright, white rear corridor, the potency of Oriol's imagery is the same. He has a uniquely unflinching eye, capturing the violent, dirty, dangerous, sexy and both ordinary and extraordinary essence of street life in L.A. “When I asked them what kind of pictures they wanted … I thought, 'It's an upper-scale hotel, they're not going to want gang members or criminals or anything like that',” he says. “But they were like, 'Bring everything in.' They said, 'Whatever we don't like we'll pull out,' but they didn't take out anything.”
According to Seulgi Oh, director of experience at the hotel, “There was no hard and fast criteria for choosing an artist” for the residency program. “Since it is a new project, I just had to go with my gut and open it up to people I can trust. But the first one was tough, as I knew it would set a precedent for all others to follow,” she explains.
“When I think of downtown L.A. and artists, I think of Estevan Oriol,” Oh says. “No one has done more to document and show love for the real Los Angeles than him, in my opinion. Plus, he's such a wealth of knowledge on so many subjects, and possibly one of the best storytellers I know, and I know a lot. His sense of humor is the driest, and highly evolved. He is also incredibly kind and humble, and hustles the hardest. This is the kind of artist I wanted the hotel to support and, in turn, this is the kind of artist whom I want to represent the hotel.”
Indeed, Oriol's work is iconic, so much so that even those who don't know of him know of his work. His classic L.A. Fingers photo, for example, is practically an L.A. institution in itself, used for various projects over the years and most recently as the lead promo image for “Beyond the Streets,” the street-art show in DTLA featuring the biggest names in the graffiti community. From the diverse beauties of his (currently sold-out) book L.A. Woman to the all-encompassing reflections of Chicano life, car culture and more in L.A. Portraits, Oriol's work is a reminder of L.A.'s past and a celebration of the true O.G. lifestyle, which has been appropriated, copied and reinterpreted for mass consumption. It's not always pretty and it may even highlight parts of Latin culture that are stereotypical in some ways, but his work never feels exploitative and it's always thought-provoking in its realism.
Oriol has been copied a lot but few have his gift for capturing and connecting with his subjects, mostly because he is part of the communities he shoots. And though it's said imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, the photog does not agree. “I'm not flattered. I come from the old school and the hip-hop game, where like if you copied someone you were considered wack. Not cool. If you were doing art back then, it was like, you had to do your own thing and be your own person,” he says. “Everything's been done. There's nothing that hasn't been photographed in the world. Every rock has been overturned. So what can you photograph that hasn't been been photographed? Nothing. You have to do it with your own flavor and style.”
Asked if he has any inspirations, he mentions one when it comes to work ethic. He points to Japanese shutterbug Nobuyoshi Araki who put out more than 250 books, according to Oriol (Wikipedia has his output at 500). “There are similarities in some of our work. He's about 80 years old now,” Oriol says. “If I could do 10 percent of what he did, I'd be happy. So 25 books.”
Oriol's next book is called This Is Los Angeles, and Hotel Figueroa's international guests and local visitors to its new eateries, Breva (front of hotel) and Veranda (overlooking its famed coffin-shaped pool), get a sneak peek at some of the images it will highlight via the exhibit, which is open for viewing pretty much 24 hours.
The 14-story, 268-room hotel, which first opened in 1926 as a women’s hostelry, might be more upscale, fresh off a fancy two-year renovation, but it still feels homey, relaxed and decidedly unpretentious. Fans of the Fig's former guise, best described as Moroccan retro chic, will be happy to know that it retains some of the same exotic charm. It's just a little sleeker with shades of Spanish Colonial and Mediterranean decor swirled in, reflected in its food and drink menus as well.
Oriol's presence as the current artist in residence both contrasts and complements the new vibe at the hotel, which embraces opulence and newness in its interior while celebrating the history and gritty realness of the city just outside its doors. The hotel couldn't have picked a better representative of the latter, either. “The street is my studio,” says Oriol, who'll be based at the Fig through the end of July. “You never know what you're going to get out there.”
Check out this exclusive Estevan Oriol slideshow featuring many of the works from his Hotel Figueroa exhibit.