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OUT THERE

'Graff Girls' Paint Up a Storm

Long Beach event features a dozen women artists and their spray cans. But their mural provokes an outcry.

January 18, 2003|Nancy Wride | Times Staff Writer

Across the back of a Long Beach community center, the aerosol colors were sprayed in vivid swirls of fat, puffy letters. There were stylized bubbles, flames and hearts. The painters were all female and under 25, with names like Femm and Meow and Perl.

From morning well into a twilight artists' reception last Saturday, the dozen women worked on a mural covering several outside walls of the Homeland Cultural Center on Anaheim Street. Children, husbands and boyfriends looked on as a disc jockey played funk and hip-hop and several journalists documented the event, "Wonder Women: The Girls of Graff."

Organizers said they sought to present the community with a progressive mural and first-ever exhibit of all-female "graff art," which they envisioned would encourage such painting at sanctioned walls and deter it elsewhere.

If graff and graffiti look the same, and they do, the primary distinction, said Mario Ybarra Jr., director of the center's Urban Gallery, is in the artist's intent. But it is a distinction often lost on the public.

The mural has evoked not pride but outcry, primarily from residents outside the neighborhood near Orange Avenue. Opponents think it's a terrible idea to celebrate that which costs this and other American cities millions of dollars to remove.

Aware of the indignation, most of the artists didn't want to talk to reporters or give out much more than their painting names. But tensions dissolved as day wore into evening.

A cheerful artist named Pia, 25, from North Hollywood, chatted with other painters as she worked on her piece of the mural. She works full time as a graphic artist for a firm that creates advertising copy. She does not fit the picture of guerrilla street artist.

"When I first saw graff art, I was 15 or 16 and at Glendale High, and I was just blown away," she said. "I just loved the look of it."

As "Fight the Power," a 1970s black power anthem pounded out from the stereo and her husband watched from a folding chair, Pia sprayed in outlines of flames and other images in purple, orange and yellow. She paints under the name Sherm.

A common assumption, perhaps because of L.A.'s gang culture, is that graff art is Latino art, said Ybarra, who is also a graff artist.

"It's not at all about race," he said, pointing to Chery, a white artist from the San Fernando Valley.

More than the art has disturbed some residents. A promotional postcard features a toddler gazing into the camera, her right hand gripping a can of spray paint.

Accompanying the mural is an ongoing exhibit in the center's gallery -- a windowless room with linoleum floor beneath fluorescent lights. Hung on yellowing walls are graff paintings by Southern California women. It is billed as the first all-female exhibition of graff.

Looking at a piece featuring the cartoon Power Puff Girls, an ex-Marine from Compton admired the work. "Fifteen years ago, when I was out doing graff," said the man, 30, whose paint name is Chee, "you saw only one or two girls. And they were usually carrying the paint for the guys."

The sundown reception featured break dancing by 10 or so elementary school kids. The food was a donated plate of deli meat and cheese. A traditional gallery opening this was not.

To some opponents, graff amounts to city-sanctioned blight. "I am appalled," Long Beach resident Robert E. Fox wrote in a letter published in the Press Telegram newspaper, "that the city of Long Beach is sponsoring a display of graffiti ... as if to glorify the very thing which has earmarked the destruction of our urban neighborhoods."

Graff art has certainly been recognized; it has been exhibited at Los Angeles' Museum of Contemporary Art and elsewhere in the United States.

It is finding its way into the backdrops of corporate advertising like that for Coca-Cola and Nike, Homeland's Ybarra pointed out.

Some of the women artists have painted illegally, he conceded, and "do have arrest records and have been on probation. But part of the purpose of an exhibit like this is to encourage responsibility for their work."

Graff art shares graffiti's outlaw roots. Modern graffiti was born out of the 1970s New York hip-hop culture in which gangs vandalized subway cars and marked their turf, Ybarra said. Perhaps the most famous street artist who gained mainstream attention was the late Jean-Michel Basquiat, whose life and discovery by Andy Warhol were chronicled in a Julian Schnabel documentary.

Despite graff's artistic pedigree, the civic debate continues over the definition of public art and where it belongs.

In Long Beach, the city's Department of Parks, Recreation and Marine -- as well as the Homeland Center's director -- won a national award for a graffiti deterrence project. Local kids were taught to make ceramic tiles for public restrooms. It has discouraged tagging and made it easier to remove.

Many of the women painters were scheduled to take part in a panel discussion from 5 to 7 p.m. today at the Homeland Center, but the controversy might lead to a last-minute cancellation.

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