It's art from the streets that's been moved into the museum, and critics are going gaga over it.
Words like stunning and near-overwhelming have been used to describe the colorful, esoteric works of Futura, Smear, Chaz Bojorquez and dozens of other seminal street scribblers covering the walls of the Museum of Contemporary Art's Little Tokyo campus.
But take the art back to the streets, as some over-enthusiastic artists, or perhaps just wannabe Banksys, have been doing since the exhibition opened at MOCA's Geffen Contemporary campus earlier this month, and the reception hasn't been quite as enthusiastic.
Since the show began people in the neighborhood have complained of ugly graffiti appearing on their walls, and police suspect at least one of the artists represented in the museum is responsible for some of it. The artists themselves have squabbled over who got in and who didn't and why one prominent artist's commissioned work was painted over before the show even opened.
The Phantom Street Artist, whose well known Rage Against the Machine album cover isn't represented, said the museum practiced the equivalent of post-Colonial hegemony in going with more mainstream artists like Shepherd Fairey, whose Obama Hope poster is in the show.
The brouhaha only illustrates, says one of the artists in the show, that whether you put it in the museum or on the side of a building, art turns everybody into a critic.
"Art really is all about taste," says Mr. Cartoon. "Beauty truly is in the eye of the beholder."
That was perhaps best demonstrated when MOCA Director Jeffrey Deitch commissioned the prominent Italian street artist Blu to paint a huge mural on the side of the Geffen ahead of the show's opening, then ordered it whitewashed almost immediately. It was feared the mural's anti-war sentiments (it showed coffins draped in dollar bills) might be offensive to people visiting a nearby memorial honoring Japanese-Americans who fought in World War II.
Most offensive to residents has been the graffiti, said Brian Kito, president of the Little Tokyo Public Safety Association, as he pointed out etchings left in the windows of the historic neighborhood's visitors center. But Kito added that MOCA, anticipating stuff like that might happen, has been quick to come out and clean things up.
Police, meanwhile, are attempting to track down the French artist Space Invader, whose ceramic tiles are among the works of some 50 artists featured in the show. Authorities suspect he and a sidekick have been putting similar works on buildings around the neighborhood.
"I'm going to resolve the incidents with these individuals one way or another," said Officer Jack Richter. "Either they are going to come to me and clean it up or I'm going to catch them."
Space Invader couldn't be located for comment. Calls placed to a phone number listed for a relative rang unanswered.
Not that Richter isn't an art aficionado himself. He has been to the MOCA exhibition more than once since it opened.
"I really respect the art form and the quality of some of the work," he said. "But when you take it out of the museum and put it on somebody's building or public property, then it becomes vandalism."
Evidence of that was demonstrated Monday when one of the show's artists, Revok, was sentenced to six months in jail for failing to pay restitution in a 2009 vandalism case.
Cartoon, famous for his colorful murals on lowrider cars and the elaborate tattoos he's inscribed on numerous celebrities, says he can see both sides of the issue. He's a graffiti artist whose first break was an $800 commission to paint a mural on a gymnasium wall. He used the money to pay a vandalism fine.
"When I was a kid I didn't really care about anybody else's business or their wall," he said. "Now that I'm older and own my own business, I've had kids write on my building and carve their names on my store. So I kind of get both sides."
He also adamantly believes the show, billed by MOCA as the first major museum exhibition of street art, will have a positive influence on young taggers, showing them that if they work at their craft they can become as successful as a Banksy.
The exhibition, which runs through Aug. 8, will move to New York's Brooklyn Museum next year. It attracted more than 20,000 people during its first 10 days, says MOCA spokeswoman Jessica Youn.
'"It's a stunning show. I was prepared to hate it," said Selma Holo, director of Los Angeles' Fisher Museum of Art, which is noted for its collection of Old Masters.
With photos, film clips, black-and-white drawings, etchings and works of swirling color sprayed right onto the museum's walls, the display is all but overwhelming.
Chris Pape recreated two of the 64 "Freedom" murals he has placed on a New York City Amtrak tunnel over the years, and they take up a good part of one wall. Not far from them is a towering, 23-foot stained-glass window covered in colorful graffiti that Banksy built for the exhibition.
Elsewhere, historical photos show the humorous drawings by Herby that once graced hundreds of railroad freight cars.
Bojorquez's stark, black-and-white "Senor Suerte" drawings, once a fixture on the concrete-lined waterways of Los Angeles, are also represented, as are the colorful "Howard the Duck" murals that Lee Quinones covered New York City with in the 1970s.
By bringing them into the museum, Holo said, the exhibition takes away the danger associated with graffiti and puts it in a setting where it can be appreciated as fine art.
"The thing that's interesting is this stuff was shocking when it was on the street," said Holo. "But the shock now is that it's so beautiful."
© 2011 The Associated Press.