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Street art: Some second thoughts

Yes, street art has a right to exist. Just not everywhere.

March 25, 2011|Hector Tobar
  • Artist Alexander Garcia talks about the Valley Village fence he helped repaint after it upset neighbors and caused the city to fine the owner.
Artist Alexander Garcia talks about the Valley Village fence he helped… (Bob Chamberlin, Los Angeles…)

I went to Valley Village last week as an act of penance.

I'd written a column about street art in L.A., celebrating the creativity of some of those who illegally cover our walls with wheat-paste posters and portraits in spray paint. In so doing, I think, I'd neglected to think enough about the people who actually own or live near the walls being decorated.

"I wonder… does Mr. Tobar offer his home up to these vandals?" one reader wrote in a letter to the editor. "Would he allow their 'creativity' to remain on his property?"

My honest answer? If Banksy, Shepard Fairey or any of the other artists who've become world famous for furtively splashing their work on other people's walls left a sample of their genius on my property, I'm pretty sure I wouldn't remove it.

Given that such pieces can be worth thousands of dollars, I'd probably host a wine-and-cheese reception.

But obviously such work is an infinitesimal fraction of the stuff cluttering our public spaces. As one observer of the street-art scene pointed out to me, much of what's out there is amateurish "arts and crafts." And a lot of people really hate it.

"It may be art, but it's illegally applied," Henry Kline, an artist and homeowner wrote to me from Valley Village.

Kline had a very specific complaint — about a work of art that recently appeared in his neighborhood. I went out to see it and to get a fresh perspective on the phenomenon.

Valley Village is one of those L.A. neighborhoods that seems frozen in a simpler time, with white picket fences, ranch-style homes and trees with billowing canopies.

The art in question is about a block or so from Kline's home. It's a series of spray-painted murals on a wall in an alley, but it's also clearly visible from the street.

In a neighborhood dominated by earth tones, the murals stand in sharp contrast. They're a burst of swirling, bright color — the kind of ultra-urban creation you might see painted on an abandoned factory downtown.

To Kline, who has lived in the neighborhood for 17 years, it's like some bubble of L.A. dystopia suddenly plopped down on his tranquil neighborhood. "I hate it," he said matter-of-factly.

I think I would too if it suddenly appeared close to my house.

Kline told me that when he and his wife, Laura, first saw the young artists spray-painting these murals last month, they called the police.

"They came immediately and told us it was the third time that week they'd been called," Henry said. But the artists, it turned out, had been invited to paint on the wall by its owner, as my colleague Bob Pool reported earlier this week.

"I looked at this wall and I saw a canvas," said the homeowner, Barbara Black, a retired costume illustrator and longtime Valley Village resident. A few weeks ago, she contacted young artists at nearby North Hollywood High and some other street artists and "donated" her wall to them, she said.

The artists weren't vandals, in other words. They'd been given permission — though Black said the city fined her because the art used lettering, which qualified it as advertising, prohibited in residential areas.

But those finer points aren't what was bothering the Klines.

"We have no problem with Ms. Black painting art on her fence," Henry told me. "It's just that she chose a style that looks like graffiti."

"The artistry is obvious," Laura Kline said as we looked at it. "It's colorful. There's a lot of talent and skill.... But this represents something and we all know what it is.... It looks like art that's connected with gangs."

At that moment, a teenager in a baseball cap came pedaling past on his bike.

Phillip Cambel, 15, said he was one of the artists, and that the art had nothing to do with gangs.

"It says someone's name, and it's creating character on it," he said, pointing to a couple of panels, where the words "Prods" and "Realm" were visible. "You see it through his eyes. He's trying to prove his point and make something that people will appreciate."

The Klines seemed moved by Cambel's defense of the work. But they were still worried.

Gang graffiti, tagging and spray-can art are not one and the same, even though they can look similar to the outside observer. So I asked Cambel the question I knew the Klines wanted to ask. Might this art bring conflict to their neighborhood? Perhaps by some outsider determined to deface the work?

It could happen, he said. "Some do it for the love of art," he said. "And some are destructive."

But he said he thought the art in the alley was good enough to earn others' respect.

We were all still standing there when Barbara Black opened her gate on the alley and joined us. Henry Kline quickly told her how much he hated the murals.

Her response? "There is a street language to this that we don't know about. It's the new conceptual art."

The Klines and Black went back and forth.

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