I took my son Ricky, age 10, to MOCA's 'Art In The Streets' show, which I'd assumed he'd enjoy. Ricky loves to draw, and is known as one of the best artists in his fifth-grade class. He's also no stranger to art museums, and he's savvy enough to comprehend the difference between street art and graffiti, thanks to his Unky Rico, who about five years ago took us on a walking tour of Melrose Avenue street art sites, including fresh works from a recent Banksy visit.
Since he'd loved that tour, I presumed my son would have fun at 'Art In The Streets' too, but I was wrong. Ricky gave MOCA's current show a thumbs down, averting his eyes and staring at the floor through large sections of it. He'd started off cheerful, but once we went downstairs and started winding through the narrow, claustrophobic, chain link-lined corridor designed to conjure a confining cityscape, his mood changed — which was probably the exact effect that exhibit's creators had been reaching for.
As an urban museumgoer, you can generally come off with more street cred if you refrain from admitting to feeling disturbed by any of the work you're presented with. It's a lot more hipster-worldly to be inured, a lot more artsy to behave as if in on the joke rather than the butt of it. As a suburban kid, however, you haven't yet built up your defenses against the grit and drama of the often pungent imagery artists devise to evoke an emotional response in viewers.
Here's the conversation I had with Ricky after the show:
What did you think of the street art show at MOCA?
I really didn't like it. It was pretty disturbing.
Tell me what was disturbing about it.
Well, there was this part where there's like a city kind of exhibit that you could walk through, and there was this little like arcade game thing, and there was… in it there was… well, a TV thing playing and it had some disturbing images on it.
I don't want to say 'cause I don't really want to remember it. I know but I don't want to tell.
Okay. That's fine. Are there any other parts that you thought were disturbing?
Well, it was basically graffiti on all of the walls and a lot of it was weird images. There was a picture of this party, and everybody was doing weird things at it. It was drawings.
Does graffiti make you nervous?
Yeah, I kinda don't like it, plus I don't like mannequins, and there was four of them there.
What is it about graffiti that makes you uncomfortable?
It's destructive, and plus where does all that paint go when they clean it off?
Do you think there's a difference between graffiti and street art?
Street art is like murals and stuff. Graffiti is just like some person writing their name in weird letters.
You said graffiti is destructive. Is street art destructive?
Sometimes it's murals, and usually they're of good things. Like that one at Little Tokyo that says “Little Tokyo Is Home.” They're all like good pictures.
Do you remember the street art tour that Unky Rico took us on?
Did you like that, or was it disturbing?
No, I liked that.
What did you like about it?
All of the pictures were of things. The street art letters were cool that they made when they wrote their name. And some people only painted a picture instead.
What are graffiti letters like when people write their name?
Big and curved. I can barely understand what they are, and it's mostly just initials. For graffiti, they put these little lines next to the word, but it's not quotation marks cause it's only one side. It's kinda weird.
At the street art show, did you see the ice cream van with the clowns?
I heard somebody say, “Look at that clown truck,” and I don't like clowns, so I looked away. I don't want to see a picture of it or anything.
Was there anything that you did like?
There was those face thingys, those little multicolored face things at the beginning when you walk in. And it's all fun and they're multi colored and they have big noses. And they're just heads, it looks kinda like a ghost, but they're all like two colors, white and one other color.
If we subtracted all the stuff that was disturbing, and left more of what you liked at the beginning, do you think that would inspire kids to do their own art?
Probably not, because the only thing I liked was the face thingy. And it was all basically the same thing, and they were really easy to draw, so I don't think it would really inspire anybody to draw. 'Cause usually when you get inspired to draw it's a really good art, and you wanna be that good, so you start drawing so you can get that good at drawing. But those face drawings were really simple.
Do you think that seeing all that stuff that was painted on the walls of buildings would inspire people to do graffiti?
Maybe, I don't know. There was one other funny thing, but it wasn't really an exhibit. There was all the graffiti everywhere, and then when I walked in the bathroom, in the bathroom there was real graffiti. Somebody had scratched their initials into a mirror. Like how I said, they always just do weird letters, usually there's a backwards N.
You like drawing a lot. Do you ever imagine doing a big mural on the side of a building?
No, I don't, because usually I don't use colors when I draw.