Fresh paint on the cement wall of an industrial warehouse space across from Handsome Coffee Roasters reveals two sides of Los Angeles' downtown Arts District. Graffiti tags cover one half of the wall; the other has just been coated with glossy red paint and towering gold letters: RISKR … with more letters to come.
On a rickety green ladder, wearing his sponsor's blue Osiris sneakers, the artist RISK dispenses another elaborate swoosh of gold paint with his spray can. Once a street tagger, RISK, born Kelly Graval, was one of five L.A. graffiti artists featured in MOCA's 2011 "Art in the Streets" show and has fans all over the world. The braid in his bib-length beard flips in the wind as he works.
Across the street, leaning against a steel-gray wall, as if it were a stoop in Brooklyn, a group of heavily tattooed men smoke cigarettes and watch the action. But it's the man standing in the shadows of the wall who has their attention.
MAP: L.A. Freewalls mural project
"Hey, it's the Mayor" says one of them, pointing to a slight, fresh-faced figure in rolled-up jeans and tousled brown hair. "Seriously, the wall Mayor!"
Shying away from the attention, Daniel Lahoda walks past the men. "I don't know what I am," he says quietly. "People call me a lot of things."
Looking younger than his 35 years, Lahoda could easily be one of the neighborhood's art students. He's actually the owner of the nearby LALA Gallery, which showcases prints and original paintings by street artists.
He's also known to many as "the guy who gets the walls" for artists. Through his LA Freewalls project, Lahoda brokers deals between businesses and street artists, offering building owners new murals to cover up unwanted graffiti and securing wall canvases for artists.
The project has resulted in more than 120 new murals, mostly in downtown L.A.'s Arts District, by some of the world's leading street artists, among them Shepard Fairey, French artist JR and SEEN.
But in the tightly knit street art world, Lahoda is a deeply controversial figure. Just the mention of his name may prompt spontaneous outpourings of praise or abrupt phone disconnects.
This duality has created something of a mystique around Lahoda, who is not an artist himself, but who has carved out a niche as a renegade art entrepreneur helping to proliferate — and profit from — the uninstitutionalized, territorial and often chaotic world of street art.
Some view Lahoda as a passionate art activist helping street artists spread their messages while also supporting the business community.
PHOTOS: Freewalls mural project
"He's turned the neighborhood into a museum without walls that draws tourists from all over the world," says Estela Lopez, executive director of Central City East Assn., an advocacy group for downtown business owners. "Murals have always been here, but not of this scope. Daniel created an infrastructure to put the Arts District on the map."
Others, however, point to an LAPD crime alert seeking information about Lahoda. Easily found on the LAPD's website, the alert cites complaints about "allegations of art ordered and paid for but never delivered" and "taking art on consignment and diverting the art and money obtained for his own use."
LAPD Det. Don Hrycyk, who posted the alert, says he's received complaints from as far away as Japan, Sweden, Brazil and England regarding Lahoda's online businesses — JetSet Graffiti and Lahoda Fine Arts.
The Better Business Bureau of Los Angeles has one Lahoda-related complaint on file from the last three years; no complaints have been made about LALA Gallery, JetSet Graffiti or Lahoda Fine Arts over the last year.
"Lahoda wants to project the image of being a champion for the underdog and graffiti artists and freedom for certain kinds of art," Hrycyk says. "But we've had complaint after complaint about his business practices — and by some of the same artists that he claims to champion."
Lahoda insists the allegations against him are false. He adds that comments about him online — including a letter on a graffiti forum from L.A. artist SABER, who painted an L.A. Freewalls mural in 2010 — are from competing businesses and artists with whom he has had personal conflicts. "Graffiti politics," he says.
"It's hurt my business and been really painful," Lahoda says of the crime alert, which has been online since 2009. "I haven't been arrested or charged with any of these things. Where's my day in court? I don't want to sue the city [over the alert] — I'd rather put my money into beautifying it."
Struggling for legitimacy and ensconced in contention, Lahoda mirrors multiple aspects of the street art subculture. His is a new business model in which deals are made on the fly and visibility is a currency. But it's a pliable model and often misunderstood, not unlike the nuances of street art itself, where the lines between criminal behavior, political activism and fine art often blur.