Whether it's perilously clinging to freeway overpasses, twisting around concrete pylons, or blossoming in the burnt-out entrails of abandoned buildings, graffiti murals often infuse flavor to the drab public spaces of Los Angeles. The jagged letters and colorful characters read like urban hieroglyphics- culturally rich coded images only decipherable by insiders and experts. What secrets lie in Old English typography? What is signified by melting psychedelic lettering? Time magazine once equated street art hunting to bird watching, but graffiti appreciation is more about urban linguistics.
Graffiti photographer and Graffiti L.A. author Steve Grody speaks graffiti's language, and at Saturday's closing night of Crewest's The Legendary Belmont Tunnel show he decoded the signs of spray can-armed wall writers. For Grody, the Rosetta Stone for graff writers was the Belmont Tunnel, a subway tunnel abandoned in the mid-20th century, whose gaping concrete mouth served as a canvas for guerrilla muralists.
The tunnel at 2nd and Glendale, in the shadow of downtown, is now a dog park for the luxe Belmont Station Apartments, signifying its conversion from graffiti mecca to epicenter of gentrification. The Legendary Belmont Tunnel show resurrected the tunnel's colorful past as Grody showed his photos of the veritable graffiti gallery from 1990-2004. Accompanied by an exhibit curated by artist Carlos Marquez, the presentation traced graffiti's evolution from gang signs to urban folk art. Since the street is graff writers' art school, for some budding artists, Grody says, Belmont Tunnel was like a final exam.
“In the summer time, the walls would be soft with so much paint,” Grody said. To highlight the artistry of graff artists who once made Belmont Tunnel their exhibition space, the show also featured canvases emblazoned with faux Belkin spray cans upon which the artists scrawled their works. Public murals like the ones at Belmont Tunnel are mostly against the law, but they are indelible parts of Los Angeles' landscape. Murals are intrinsically tied to Angeleno art, and especially Chicano art, so permanent erasure of places of public art essentially obliterate a distinct aspect of Los Angeles' homegrown art form. But these murals aren't lost forever, as L.A. poet Suzanne Lummis writes in her poem, “Graffiti – New York Subway,” a fleeting glimpse of a graff writer's work “leaves an imprint on your / mind's eye that you just can't blink off.” The Legendary Belmont Tunnel show served as a eulogy for this space of urban inspiration and imprinted Belmont's countless murals on the mind's eye as a photographic memorial to the artists who added color to a lifeless landscape.