There’s a giant, decomposing sea lion carcass at 7th & Mateo near downtown Los Angeles. The size of a school bus, its ribs and skull are protruding with inevitable persistence through its deteriorating flesh. According to city regulations it should be removed but it seems to have captured the hearts and imaginations of the locals and, city officials willing, it will remain right where it is.
The sea lion is a wall-sized painting, one component of a three-part installation by Belgian street artist ROA. It was erected under the aegis of the LA Freewalls Project, a public art movement that is altering a neighborhood, reshaping attitudes, and is doing more than any single effort to establish Los Angeles as the street art capital of the world.
The LA Freewalls Project is the brainchild of Daniel Lahoda. As owner of LALA Gallery, Lahoda Fine Arts, and its subsidiary street art project, Jet-Set Graffiti, Lahoda has become as much a fixture of LA’s Arts District as the murals he has curated there. Through LA Freewalls, Lahoda pairs some of the world’s most notable street artists with property owners who willingly offer their urban exteriors as canvasses. The project is exhaustively inclusive, seeking comment from building tenants as well as their landlords, and includes local talent in its execution. The resulting works are rapidly taking their places among the new iconography of Los Angeles.
The LA Freewalls Project represents the maturation of an effort that Lahoda initiated years before in response to what he perceived as a “marginalization of the arts” in Los Angeles. Lahoda had spent the better part of a decade working with Ron English, trailblazing artist and culture jammer, before settling in Los Angeles. He credits English’s influence in shaping his understanding of the interaction between artist and consumer. This interaction became elemental when he began developing collaborative public art projects in the city in 2007. It took some time to cultivate common cause between artists and community representatives, but once Lahoda and the other actors found the right cooperative balance, the undertaking became the LA Freewalls Project.
In describing the project’s mission, Lahoda indicates twin goals: to promote the cause of public art in Los Angeles and “to use art as a catalyst for productive social and political change.” In these regards, the project has been a success. By challenging various perceptions of what street art is and whom it should be for, the Freewalls project has caused a reassessment of the power of public art at the community level, at the political level, and to a certain extent, even among the artists themselves.
The newly christened LA Freewalls Project debuted auspiciously in December 2009, with paintings by London’s D*Face and street art luminary Shepard Fairey. While D*Face’s inaugural work signaled the international range of the project, Fairey’s 24-foot high “Peace Goddess” set the tone of the initiative in both spirit and stature.
Under the benevolent gaze of the two-story goddess, Lahoda’s project exploded, expanding in scope as well as square footage. Situated primarily in and around LA’s Arts District – a previously blighted industrial area occupying the space between Downtown and the LA River – the project serves to more appropriately identify the area as an unquestioned hub of creative industry. Whereas the Arts District of fifteen years ago offered few visual identifiers beyond a preponderance of security fencing and homeless encampments, the dozens of LA Freewalls-inspired murals (Lahoda prefers to avoid quantifying the results of the project, but estimates 120 completed murals) give testament to the existence of one of the world’s most vibrant and productive creative communities. Traction Avenue is now an essential destination on any art tourist’s itinerary.
Interaction between LA Freewalls art and the larger community is not limited to the appreciative eye. Lahoda attributes the program’s success to its emphasis on community involvement. One notable component of this engagement is the Skid Row Freewalls Project, through which Freewalls artists partner with the Skid Row Housing Trust. The Housing Trust provides shelter and support services to many of Skid Row’s homeless. Through this partnership, LA Freewalls actively incorporates the community’s residents in the process of creating the very art that graces the Housing Trust’s residences.
The caliber of the artists that Lahoda has managed to attract to LA Freewalls cannot be overstated. He has recruited from abroad as well as among LA’s own home-grown talents to assemble an incomparable roster of street art notables, including the likes of French fly-poster and self-described “photograffeur,” JR; and muralist and filmmaker Aiko by way of Japan and New York. The UK’s innovative INSA, who bridges graffiti art with digital, wrapped the neighborhood’s ArtShare LA building in a massive, black-backed looping rainbow. Spanish twin masters of the aerosol can, How and Nosm, have contributed their skills to the project and from closer to home Lahoda has tapped the local art collective Cyrcle, and legendary graffiti art pioneer Risk. Ron English has lent his imprimatur to LA Freewalls in the form of the commanding Traction Ave. mural “Big Yang and the Yang-Bangers.” Many of these artists – the ones who most readily latched on to Lahoda’s vision – have produced more than one painting for LA Freewalls. Shepard Fairey is another sympatico artist who has provided an encore offering. By enlisting the rising stars and established masters of their field, Lahoda has set a tone that demands the serious consideration of public art. “I only seek to work with people who live to make a large impact in the world around them.” The result is a project that cannot be dismissed by its detractors as inconsequential.
The scale of the undertaking’s impact is important because of the institutional challenges that the LA Freewalls Project has encountered. While ROA’s Sea Lion doesn’t pose any threat to public health, it, and the hundred or so LA Freewalls murals do pose a challenge to official perceptions of what constitutes art and its place in public. LA Freewalls paintings, while done with the permission of private property owners and the overwhelming approval of the community, are in violation of a Los Angeles moratorium on the installation of new murals. A quirk of pertinent civil codes is that all murals, regardless of purpose or provenance, are officially defined as advertising, leaving even privately commissioned artworks subject to rules meant to limit the proliferation of commercial advertising. This means that the Peace Goddess, Cryptik’s Ganesha, and Dabs & Myla are all technically persona non grata and are subject to immediate removal by graffiti cleanup crews – a fate that many street artists are all too familiar with. While it can be argued that LA Freewalls murals have been erected with a promotional purpose, that purpose is essentially the promotion of public art itself. However, thanks to the project’s popularity the civil code may soon receive a makeover. For now code enforcers are turning a blind eye to the otherwise eye-catching murals. What’s more, billboard companies have begun approaching Lahoda with requests for temporary pieces to fill empty signboards around the city. Again, he credits community support. “When an individual idea becomes a communal idea, it’s unstoppable.”
While the LA Freewalls Project has undeniably reshaped the way street art is received, it has also transformed the way artists approach their own work. For most street artists execution demands stealth, and all the limitations that come with it. Operating beyond the bounds of legal protection on improvised canvasses, they work in poor lighting, with limited space and limited time. The Freewalls Project has brought legitimization to street art, and with it, a degree of liberation to its practitioners who can more fully direct their attention to their artistic vision instead of casting furtive looks over their shoulders as they work. Street artists have a natural affinity for the environment in which they set their work. The LA Freewalls Project has allowed them to recast their art into the massive and unrestrained public display of affection that it is intended to be.
Photos by Steven Ziegler