Brentwood is a verdant, upscale neighborhood on westside of Los Angeles. It’s filled with mansions and luxury condos and shopping to match. It’s style can be summed up I. Three words: Understated, fashionable, and expensive. There is little — if any — street art in the usual sense of term, or public art for that matter. But the burb is home to one of L.A.’s most visually striking and singular murals, a massive painting of a giant tree on the side of a condo building on a slopey, fashionable but quiet stretch of Barrington Avenue. The mural shows a tree in reverse silhouette, a white stylized shape of a trees from roots to emty, wiry branches on a dark gray background. It’s simple and elegant and unmissable as you drive past it. The irony is if an area that is among the leafiest and greenest in Los Angeles — Brentwood is filled with trees — there is a mural of tree without leaves.
Hey, the retro-future is calling. We’re guessing from sometime between 1973 and ‘79. It wants its junk back including this car that’s kind of a cross between a Lamborghini and a golf cart. But seriously, this obscure, tangerine-colored, three-wheel vehicle is called the Bond Bug, a “microcar” produced in the early 1970s by Reliant, a U.K. company that had purchased the firm Bond Cars, Ltd. Only about 2,300 Bond Bugs were ever built. We found this one parked next to an art gallery in Solana Beach, near San Diego, California.
We were in Silver Lake, in Los Angeles, stopping by a popular espresso bar for a quick coffee, driving around and around looking for a spot to park when there it was staring at us: A poster by artist Shepard Fairey. A little later, on a recent visit to the Arts District in L.A. to grab a quick lunch, again while driving around the block over and over again seeking an open parking space, there we found another Fairey artwork, its gaze bearing down on us. This past weekend, we drove into the Sawtelle area (a.k.a., “Little Osaka”) of Los Angeles on a mission to pick up some boba teas, and there, yet again, was another of Shepard’s iconic red-black-and-white portraits, a wheat-paste poster on a utility box, staring at us. Shepard Fairey, you’re everywhere. Why can’t we quit you, godammit!
It’s time again to randomly browse our bookshelves at HQ and re-discover a forgotten coffee-table tome. Today we’ve pulled out a book on Japanese graffiti art. Its title is “RackGaki,” a modified phonetic spelling in the Roman alphabet of the Japanese word for graffiti usually written as rakugaki. Indeed this book from the 2000’s is a document of the works by dozens upon dozens of Japanese graffiti writers and artists throwing up spray-painted tags and images throughout Japan, though mostly in Tokyo and to lesser degree Osaka. The book reveals the heavy influence of early American hip-hop culture in Japan and is a testament to its global reach over the decades. One of the graffiti writers featured in the book goes by the moniker “VERY,” who we met and interviewed for a zine we were editing while living in Osaka way back in the year 2000.
Capitalism and art. They’re not the best of friends. Sometimes they look at each other with roiling contempt. The fact is they need each other, albeit, to a point, and — deep down — they’re in love with one another, because each has something the other desperately wants: Money and cultural cachet. They help each other out in a symbiotic relationship that brings funding and artists together and makes culture happen on a grand scale.
Go into any major art institution and there are the plaques and signs on the walls and in the beautifully printed exhibition programs with the names of billionaire industrialists and entrepreneurs who have become art-world philanthropists, and see those names next the corporate sponsors and logos of the various companies — often Wall Street powerhouses and global Fortune 500 corporations — and the words “made possible by” or “with the generous support of.” At the major museums, at art fairs and events, that sponsorship and acknowledgement of support is par for the course.
Indeed, money makes the art world go around, though not necessarily art itself. The streets are a different matter. The very fact that street art is often illicit and seen “in the streets” is because there is no financial support or patronage or sanctioned art space for that work. Street art largely bypasses the gatekeepers, the curators, collectors, gallerists, and financial patrons. Granted, that the work of many street artists does not have a home in the galleries and museums is often because most street art is not great. Really, it’s mostly kind of lazy and sucky. From an art world perspective, it doesn’t warrant being on a gallery wall unless it is really great or there is at least the potential to co-opt it for financial gain or cultural profit in doing so. And if it is really great, it often only works in the context of the street. Once it’s on a gallery wall, most street art loses part of what made it special in the first place. It loses that context and its inherent subversiveness, aside from whatever its content or message may be. In any event, capitalism is not in a direct agreement or relationship with street art.
But sometimes artwork that is on the street is in a direct relationship with commercial patronage, for example, when it’s commissioned and given a dedicated commercial space well-suited for exhibiting the artwork. An advertising billboard is such a space, and it’s the location of the wondrous and evocative images of Taiwanese artist James Jean, whose painting “Schrodinger’s Kitten Rescue” has been rendered on a large billboard above in the Sawtelle neighborhood (a.k.a., Little Osaka) of Los Angeles. Here capitalism and art have come together to make a cultural baby, a creator’s commercial-free vision imposed on the urban landscape in what is otherwise a commercial-filled space.