Scott Hackwith takes photos of the installation, planned as a traveling… (Al Seib / Los Angeles Times )
For much of the summer, the towering creation stood hidden behind a draping of blue and black tarps, looking like nothing more than a big home construction project.
On Thursday, workers stripped away the shrouds to reveal a startling, four-story-high art installation. Surrounded by homes in a quiet pocket of Santa Monica, the display consists of a series of 150 square panels spray-painted yellow-orange, magenta, purple, sky blue and sea foam green. Each panel also bears a series of unidentifiable, white-painted characters that seem like a message scrawled by extraterrestrials.
The artwork, affixed temporarily to the shell of what will be a 5,000-square-foot residence, is intended to remind viewers of the pollution fouling the world's oceans, creators say.
It quickly made waves among residents, with reactions running the gamut from "It's amazing" to "It's an eyesore."
But the brash display could prove short-lived. Neither the developer nor the artists sought permits for the installation, and by late afternoon the city said it planned to issue an order for immediate removal. "Aside from all thoughts on the intent, message and look of the panels, my approach … is that it is a health and safety concern and a hazard subject to immediate removal," said building official Ron Takiguchi.
After the initial shock, several neighbors appeared to be taking the display in stride.
Many expressed support after learning that the installation was planned as a traveling exhibition to raise money for Santa Monica-based Heal the Bay and the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, an international nonprofit, marine wildlife conservation group.
"It's not here forever, but it's great for Santa Monica," said Tom Hall, who lives nearby. "The message is we all have to start doing something for the planet."
"Our street needs livening up," said Jane Garnett, a resident pushing her daughters Zella, 4 1/2, and Mae, 1, in a double stroller. "It's like a splash of energy."
Rare indeed is the owner who asks a street artist to adorn his property with acrylic enamel spray paint.
With the help of a landscaper, Adam Corlin, a Santa Monica developer who volunteers for Heal the Bay, enlisted two L.A. street-art pioneers — Risk and Retna — to realize his vision. The artists' work earlier this year helped anchor the Museum of Contemporary Art's "Art in the Streets" exhibition at the Geffen Contemporary in downtown Los Angeles.
Risk (real name: Kelly Graval) helped bring Wild Style graffiti, with hard-to-decipher, interlocking letters, from the New York subways to the L.A. freeways. Retna (real name: Marquis Lewis), influenced as a boy by gang graffiti, is known for creating an original script that fuses influences from Egyptian hieroglyphics, Old English, Arabic, Hebrew and Asian calligraphy.
Both artists have left behind years of illegal tagging and police dodging, leaping into the contemporary art mainstream and selling their works for impressive sums through galleries.
Risk was at 825 Berkeley St., north of Wilshire Boulevard, for the "reveal." "If you read the typical negative press, people consider [graffiti to be] taking from society," the bearded artist said. "This is giving back.… The main thing about this mural is to bring people awareness of the whole issue."
Corlin explained that the colors were meant to signify the sun (yellows), layers of pollution (purples) and the Earth (blues and greens). Retna, who had topped Risk's colorful layers with his intricate script, was in Miami working on another project.
Corlin translated the script row by row: Oceans @ Risk, Heal the Bay, Sea Shepherd, Mad Society, Restore and Protect the World's Oceans. (Mad Society refers to the crew of artists who work with Risk.)
When Corlin and his business partner bought the property, it featured an abandoned, partially completed residence where homeless people occasionally squatted. The two are building the replacement house on spec. They received permits for the home construction.
Behind the scenes, Corlin showed that the 4-by-4-foot panels were wired to metal scaffolding. Each panel is separately numbered for easy dismantling, transporting and reassembling. That system should come in handy given the city's reaction.
Garnett said she wouldn't mind if the installation became a permanent fixture in the eclectic neighborhood, where traditional bungalows mingle with massive contemporary houses.
To her, the artwork called to mind "The Big Orange Splot," a 1977 children's book by Daniel Manus Pinkwater. The main character, Mr. Plumbean, lives on a "neat street" where all the houses look the same. A sea gull flies over his house and drops a can of bright orange paint on his roof. Rather than repaint his house to look like all the others, Mr. Plumbean paints it to look like his dreams. Before long, his neighbors are painting their abodes to match their dreams.