Street art has traditionally been hyperlocal – a space for homegrown artists to (sometimes illegally) express themselves within the urban fabric of their city. Street art has always been a moving target with multiple meanings. A mural thrown up on a wall one day may have disappeared the next. It has been used for political protest, as a commercial vehicle for the latest Nike sneaker, as territorial demarcation between rival gangs, or simply as art for art’s sake. But is Los Angeles’ street art less global than the increasingly international institutions of LA’s gallery scene? What happens when the walls of the city are used as a canvas for a global community of artists?
For decades Los Angeles’ art scene has been somewhat insular, looking mostly inward with a side eye towards New York’s market. If there is an upside to the sequestering, it’s that both the high and low ends of the arts spectrum were able to create their own vernacular.
Eventually Los Angeles artists launched movements that began to dominate both in museums and galleries as well as in the street. Much like the film industry, Los Angeles spread its art far beyond its borders. From Finish Fetish to Light and Space to vibrant street murals and graffiti, influential art movements emerged from the city. At the same time, LA galleries began to increasingly show the work of foreign artists, primarily from Europe and Asia.
As LA gained dominance within the institutional boundaries of the museum and gallery world, the scene became more and more global. Local schools such as Cal Arts and Art Center, with significant international student populations still acted as feeder to the galleries, a way to discover untapped talent. Yet street art in Los Angeles remained distinctly regional. Street art in LA was always outsider art, with a strong Chicano heritage dating as far back as the 1930s, and ties to LA’s surf and skateboard culture in the 1970s and 80s.
Today’s street art scene in downtown LA, a hotbed of oversized murals, repeating wheatpastes, and quick-and-dirty tags hidden in the fissures of buildings and bridges, looks very different today than it looked just a few years ago. The eye candy in the streets has gone global, attracting artists from all over the world. Arts District gallery Jet Set Graffiti began commissioning outdoor installations in 2009, creating a semi-safe haven for street artists, and attracting the attention of prominent international artists such as Melbourne, Australia- based duo, Dabs Myla.
Spurred by MOCA’s nearby 2011 show, “Art in the Streets,” which asked if graffiti has a place in the annals of art history (the answer was “yes”), the streets of the Arts District have begun to fulfill its name. What is probably less obvious is how global this outlaw art has become, and how it compares with the more obviously institutional art scene in LA. To answer this question, Engine30 mapped approximately 50 works of street art in downtown LA, as well as about 25 Culver City gallery solo shows that took place in November 2012. Additionally, birthplaces and current city of residence for the artists were also mapped to examine the global linkages.
Of the 53 pieces of street art included in the analysis, one quarter of the works were done by artists born in LA. Another 11 percent were done by US-born artists from outside of Los Angeles. Yet Europe was the best-represented continent, with nearly a third of the work included in the analysis created by an artist born there. The range of countries represented was also impressive, and included not just artists from London and Paris (though street art stars like Banksy and JR make an appearance) but also less expected locations such as ROA’s birthplace of Ghent, Belgium and M-City’s hometown of Gdynia, Poland.
Looking at where street artists live today, about two in five currently live in LA. Another 16 percent of the pieces are by artists based in the US outside of LA and 28 percent are in Europe, echoing the pattern established in the analysis of artists’ birthplaces.
Not unlike LA’s street art scene near downtown Los Angeles, Culver City’s galleries represent artists that span the global. Of the 23 solo shows used in this analysis, 17 percent of the artists were born in Los Angeles. Another quarter were born in the US outside of LA and almost 9 percent hail from Europe. However, the Culver City galleries better represent Asia-born artists, including artists from Japan and South Korea, as well as Indonesia.
While less than one in five of the galleries artists in the analysis were born in Los Angeles, nearly half (47 percent) make the city their home today. More than a third make the US their home (outside of LA) in cities such as New York, San Francisco and Houston. In fact, more than 80 percent of the artists included in this analysis are currently living in the US, a much higher percentage than the street art group. Within the street art pieces, about 36 percent of the work was done by artists currently based in this country.
There are limitations inherent in this approach. As mentioned previously, street art is a moving target, and often anonymous. Much of the art is created by crews or collectives, making it more difficult to trace the individual members. It can be highly temporary, subject to the arbitrary enforcement of mural laws by property owners, police and the public. The Culver City galleries are a snapshot of a moment in time and fairly comprehensive, while the street art included in this analysis is cobbled together from a variety of sources, such as the Mural Conservancy, graffiti web sites, and visits to the site. In the future, a crowdsourced tool that allows people to enter their own appended photos may be a solution towards providing a more wide-ranging view. Another tool that would be helpful towards providing a more comprehensive look at the Culver City gallery scene would be an open API for a calendar of exhibitions and events so developers can more easily pull data.
This is just the beginning. Diving into street art in Los Angeles can be a hornet’s nest. The police tend to demonize most street art. City laws have created a complicated picture of what’s legal and illegal. Galleries and museums have legitimized it as an acceptable form of expression, and auction houses have found there is money to be made. And the visual culture of street art is chaotic and malleable – it draws from influences as wide ranging as comic books, Russian constructivism, and advertising.
Los Angeles isn’t the only major metropolis with a global street art scene. London, Sao Paolo, Melbourne, Berlin and even Bethlehem prominently showcase the work of an international cadre of street artists. Social media such as Twitter, Tumblr and Instagram have accelerated the diffusion of street art and shifted its locus from the real to the virtual, making what is temporary more permanent and what was once local, global. The past decade has seen the rise of the nomadic street artist, moving from city to city and documenting his or her work for a global audience on the Web.
Street art has always been a dialogue with a city, regardless of whether it was a protest, or a critique, or subversion, or simply an act of beauty. At its core, it is a way of re-imagining a city. So if street art is becoming increasingly global, both in Los Angeles and elsewhere, the question emerges of what is lost and what is gained? If street art is a physical act in a specific location with specific materials, a way for local artists to map their movement and relationship with their city, does we lose something when artists arrive from all over the world? Are local voices lost in the shuffle? Or is that question rendered moot in a city like Los Angeles, where everyone comes from somewhere else?