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Taking graffiti 'Beyond the Streets'




Stephen Powers working on 'On Forward' and 'The Feels'
Stephen Powers working on 'On Forward' and 'The Feels'
Matthew Kuborn/ ESPO's Art World 2

When you live in a city as big as Los Angeles, you probably experience graffiti or street art on a regular basis, but you might not take a lot of time to consider the creators or the culture behind it. L.A. has a long history with street art, and it's all explored in the new art exhibit in downtown L.A. called "Beyond the Streets."

One of the most locally focused pieces in the show is the last thing visitors see before they exit through the gift shop (or at least exit adjacent to it). It's a re-creation of the Venice Pavilion skate park that gives people a chance to step back in time and see the graffiti-covered walls and tables that were once a hub for street artists to show their work.

"A lot of the original graffiti artists that painted the Venice pits came down and painted," said Roger Gastman, show curator.

A Martinez contemplates a wall of spray pain cans, one of the first pieces visitors see at the Beyond the Streets exhibit.
A Martinez contemplates a wall of spray pain cans, one of the first pieces visitors see at the Beyond the Streets exhibit.
Emily Henderson/ KPCC

In addition to installations like the Venice Pavilion, the show features paintings, sculptures and photos from local L.A. creators and well-known street artists, and it's not all the sort of tagging and graffiti writing people think of as street art. Gastman said he was hoping to create an exhibit that could give people a greater appreciation for the history of the medium.

But while some, like Gastman, see street art as a creative culture, others see it as vandalism. Gastman said he wasn't trying to hide from the fact that street art and graffiti, when it's not a sanctioned mural, are illegal. 

"There's definitely a huge gray line with this culture. It's on the fringe. Some people accept it. Some people don't," Gastman said.

But he also pointed out that street art is growing in popularity, and whether or not people deem it to be art, it's not going away. Some galleries are taking chances on street art and putting it in a fine art setting, creating exhibits like Beyond the Streets.

"Some would call that the Shepard Fairey and Banksy effect" Gastman said.

Shepard Fairey with one of his paintings that will be on display in the Beyond the Streets exhibit
Shepard Fairey with one of his paintings that will be on display in the Beyond the Streets exhibit
Emily Henderson/ KPCC

 

Shepard Fairey is now known for creating the Obama 'Hope' poster. But he's also a prolific figure in the street art world. He sees the rise of street art differently.

"Impressionism was seen as heresy at first, pop art was seen as heresy. New ideas are slowly embraced by younger people who then shape culture and it happens," Fairey said.

Several pieces by Fairey will be a part of the Beyond the Streets exhibit, and Fairey hopes his art and the exhibit as a whole will inspire Angelenos to look more closely at the art they drive past every day.

"L.A. is a driving city, so I always put my posters at signal boxes at the corners so when someone's a captive audience stuck at a traffic light, they're looking at my work, but I think a lot of it's worth actually getting out of the car for," he said.

Beyond the Streets is set up in a massive, warehouse-like space, with more than 35,000 square feet, Gastman said. One of his favorite pieces is the fake record store he's lovingly dubbed "Trash Records."

You can see how street art actually has permeated popular culture through things like t-shirts and album covers that help legitimize the art, Gastman said, but that doesn't mean the work loses its street soul.

"If the artist did true work on the street and had a legitimate career on the street, you can always sense that energy on their art," he said.

Paul Insect's 'Now We Are Far Away'
Paul Insect's 'Now We Are Far Away'
Paul Insect/ Beyond the Streets

Commodifying street art may have benefits for the overall medium, but it doesn't always help individual artists. Estevan Oriol took the now famous 'L.A. Hands' or 'L.A. Fingers' photo, a close-up of fingers making and L and A sign. The image is featured on everything from hats to coffee cups, but Oriol said he hasn't seen the profits.

"It's like the most ripped-off photo," Oriol said, standing in front of a print of the iconic photo that is his contribution to the Beyond the Streets show.

A Martinez and artist Estevan Oriol.
A Martinez and artist Estevan Oriol.
Emily Henderson/ KPCC

It's not a new story in Oriol's mind.

"Like the Artist's District now was part of Skid Row... But now the artists made it look cool, developers came and bought everything up and now their putting their spin on it with some money and yeah it's nice, but the artists start it, developers finish it and cash in on it," he said.