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on the Street

Downtown L.A.'s 'mural mayor' Daniel Lahoda draws praise, controversy

Daniel Lahoda of LALA Gallery works with graffiti artists and business owners to create murals. There have been complaints about his businesses.

July 05, 2013|By Deborah Vankin

Even Lahoda's own description of his job, which defies categorization, speaks to the growing mainstreaming and commercialization of public art.

"I'm part curator, part location scout, part producer, part art dealer," Lahoda says. "You can call me a lot of different things. You can call me a complete scoundrel — some do."

One might add agent or power broker to that list. Lahoda is a gatekeeper, not only working with established artists, but getting exposure and walls as canvases for new talent.

Murals have the power to elevate artists' profiles, which, in turn, can raise the price tag on their print sales online and in galleries. The murals Lahoda initiates don't carry his name or gallery logo, lest they be considered advertising, not art. But Lahoda's LALA Gallery represents many of the artists who paint the walls he acquires, so their exposure translates into gallery sales for him — money that at least partly goes back into creating more murals, he says.

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"He's a mystery, like a noir art curator," says mural expert and blogger Ed Fuentes. "He rolled into town, a man with a past."

Lahoda grew up in Vestal, N.Y., where his mother was a nurse and his father worked for IBM. He's been interested in art since college at Goddard, where he majored in art history and anthropology.

After college, Lahoda worked as curator at a Boston gallery and at two Las Vegas-based print publishing companies. Then, in early 2008, he launched his own print publishing company, Lahoda Fine Arts, which licenses the work of street artists and sells limited print runs online. He moved to L.A. later that year, settling in the Arts District.

In December 2009, he started LA Freewalls, in part to fight the citywide ban on new murals that had been in place since 2003. He felt the more rogue "mural bombing" that was going on in the Arts District at the time — where artists painted on the run and many business owners operated in fear of their property being defaced — wasn't sustainable.

Instead, he sought to produce murals in a more organized fashion, with support from the community, though still operating outside city regulations.

"LA Freewalls stands against that code almost in a protest fashion" says Lahoda, who regularly attends City Council and city planning commission meetings to advocate for an ordinance that would lift the mural ban. "We're able to pull it off because we have widespread community support. But we're keeping it in the Arts District where people are tolerant. I wouldn't do this in Beverly Hills."

Warren Brand, of Culver City's Branded Arts, finds walls for Westside artists and says of Lahoda, "I have a lot of respect for Daniel — he's been doing it a lot longer than I have. I'm kinda the Westside street art curator, but I haven't done any in Downtown L.A. That's all Daniel."

One way Lahoda acquires walls is by going door to door, educating business owners about the merits of murals. They deter graffiti, he says, because taggers aren't likely to deface the work of artists they respect. He also points out that murals make buildings more visible and draw tenants.

Artists appreciate the public canvases; residents like the aesthetics.

Many of the walls come free and so do the artists. Lahoda handles logistics, such as contracts and equipment rentals, which most artists don't want to bother with. He also typically pays for paint and other supplies, a cost mitigated by his sponsor, the German company Montana Spray Paint, which aims to get its cans into the hands of well-known artists.

Fairey painted the first LA Freewalls mural; works by Ron English, RETNA, identical twins How and Nosm (Raoul and Davide Perre), and the Cyrcle collective followed. Lahoda opened LALA Gallery in mid-2012 to give the project a brick-and-mortar home.

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Increasingly, corporations are using street art murals to brand their aesthetic, and some turn to Lahoda to find walls or artists. He organized two murals for Red Bull earlier this year on the side of San Francisco's Ian Ross Gallery, as part of its Ride + Style event.

In L.A., corporate murals most often appear on walls permitted for advertising. Lahoda comes up with a production budget so that the company can cover supplies, a location fee for the building owner (anywhere from $1,000 to $25,000 and higher) and something for himself. The artists are paid separate commissions, sometimes $5,000 or even $50,000, depending on the artists' experience and popularity.

Who owns the rights to public art and murals is an ongoing issue. One of How and Nosm's LA Freewalls murals, a collaboration with the married Dabs Myla team, was featured in a Chevrolet commercial that aired during this year's Grammys. The production company approached Lahoda for the rights to use the image on TV.

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