Ocean Park is a relatively quiet, staid and beautiful neighborhood on the south side of Santa Monica, the iconic beach city and Los Angeles suburb.
It’s an affluent part of town that lacks pretension. Showy displays of wealth or heavy glamour are rare. It’s clean and neat and has streets of handsome condos and houses, including a large number of well-kept vintage Craftsmen bungalows sitting cheek-by-jowl next to smart, minimalist, contemporary jewel boxes in neutral colors surrounded by Malibu-style fencing.
There are lot of beautiful murals in this part of town. Some are large — epic, even — and some are small. Most of what could be called “street art” here fits neatly into the category of commissioned artwork, planned, vetted, approved. The artwork is organized and in its “proper place.”
So seeing the wild-posted wheatpaste street art (pictured above) by the graffiti artist who goes by the moniker “T-Smoke TCF” on a utility box was a bit of a surprise. It was like seeing a turd on a perfectly groomed and verdant lawn, a terrifying ugliness that hints at something awful waiting around the corner. Or, from another point of view, it was a welcome bit of absurd, comic relief writ upon the urban landscape.
There’s not a lot of this type of street art — illicit wheatpaste posters (“wheaties”), stencils, spray-painted art, or graffiti art — in this part of town. At least not anymore. T-Smoke’s artwork at the corner of Lincoln and Ocean Park boulevards is symbolic of a transitional in-between space in L.A.’s shifting beachfront cultural geography, between Santa Monica on the north and Venice on the south. It’s a middle area that is ever changing as the tidy, final creep of gentrification’s brings erasure to the vestiges of areas seedier past.
Not far away in Venice, there’s tons of street art. Ocean Park was once a gritty part of town. The poorer, perpetually stoned cousin to the really wealthy north side of SaMo. OP was Dogtown, after all, the celebrated birthplace of modern skateboarding and the legendary “Z-Boys” and the their sub-culture, and once among the most dangerous and violent surf spots in California. All these places now make up a troika of extraordinarily expensive seaside real estate. The value of a single condo along Abbot Kinney Blvd in Venice could alone feed an entire village in rural Central Africa for a lifetime.
Venice and Santa Monica live together in a curious ying-and-yang symbiosis. Venice retains the patina of a much edgier, sketchier era in spite of its high property values and new wave of rich, stylish residents. Technically it’s a part of the city of L.A. It was way grittier a few decades ago, but has dramatically changed with the arrival of the industrial-corporate-tech-start-up-entertainment-production complex otherwise known as “Silicon Beach.”
Santa Monica on the other hand is also affluent and for much of the past century its north side (the neighborhoods beyond Wilshire Blvd.) was a vastly richer part town. It’s a proper small city with a huge pop-cultural imprint, in part due to its presence in so much film and television, and due to its intertwining with greater L.A., though it is legally an independent city in its own right. SaMo is a beautiful, urbane coastal utopia for well-educated, wealthy, politically progressive liberal elites that manages to live the breezy, sun-kissed good life while simultaneously exercising a benign tolerance for one of the highest and most visible homeless populations in the U.S. It’s been mockingly dubbed “The Republic of Santa Monica.”
But beautiful living can all be a little disturbingly anodyne. T-Smoke is a sight for sore eyes and a fly in the champagne. You can tell where culture’s edge lives and breathes in a city by where its street art begins and ends, and where that street art is commissioned and permitted versus illegal, from the underground up. Terrifying for some. Energizing for others.