With the sticky, sweet aroma of corn tortillas bubbling in the deep fryer, the entrancing hip-rocking rhythms of cumbia wafted through the air. The sounds, seemingly in sync with the flashing neon wash sign that illuminated the 7th Street Laundromat, guided the influx of the interior shadows crowding the area. It was Friday night-10pm, and as families piled in, soon all of the washers were occupied. Wine bottles popping and gourmet cheese sweating from the atmosphere’s perspiration, a young boy, no older than ten, clutched his action figure close and dashed through the space freely dodging wet, hanging pajamas and dry, pinned portraits.
“When we first got there, there were a lot of people actually just doing laundry, which I was amazed at. I’m not sure why I expected anything different,” laughed Echo Park based artist Georgia Koch. Matt Jones, a painter from Leimert Park chimed in, “…for me, it had a rave mentality to it, where you find out about it- a random spot- and have to know where to go.” “It reminds me of pioneers in the art game, like Basquiat. He’d do stuff like this- turn on the lights in the hall and just have people come in and look at his art pieces,” says South L.A. sketch artist Logan Anderson.
For 29 year-old non-profit executive, Hassan Nicholas, the creation of L.A.undry, a quarterly guerilla styled takeover event that involves transforming a downtown laundromat into an exhibit space during their peak business hours, was organic. Moonlighting as a self-taught multimedia artist, he says that L.A.undry was born after years of struggle. “I’d submit my work [to museums] and get no response. There are reasons why you don’t see art galleries in low-income areas. This is why I have a profound appreciation for graffiti and other displays of “street art”. It is a response to an environment that hasn’t formally set up outlets for creative expression. You work with what you have; whether that be someone’s wall, a trash dumpster, or laundromat.”
Investing under $100 for posters and stickers for his first event, and harvesting the talents of his friends, Nicholas sought the kindness of local business owners willing to waive location fees in exchange for a staged 3-hour peaceful ‘disturbance.’ “The pop-ups definitely disrupt the neighborhood, but I believe in a positive way.” Still in it’s infant stages, the West L.A. native has developed strict criteria when selecting his pre-existing, temporarily repurposed, gallery spaces. “The laundromat has to be in a lower income neighborhood. It needs to be facing the main street.” Community accessibility to art in a social hub like a public laundromat, Nicholas contests, helps shift the dynamics of the downtown neighborhood, which is wedged between latte sipping hipsters and longtime rooted immigrants, still vying for a cohesive identity. While the artists were proud to hang their paintings from dryer racks during the second installment of L.A.undry, they admit that this pop-up is not the saving grace of the entire arts genre. They agree that it casts a net towards awareness. “It sends a message to the residents, small business owners and visitors that this particular neighborhood is worth something. Seeing an art event at your local laundromat helps you change your perspective on things…Why here? Is the neighborhood changing?” Nicholas says.
From the positioning of their work- whether framed, presented on butcher paper, taped to a dryer or clipped on clotheslines, the artists admit that engagement is key. Henderson Blumer, a recent Studio Arts graduate of UCSD who answered Nicholas’ call for artists on Craigslist, thrives from the rush of one night pop-ups which he says fit into his transient lifestyle. “Gallery spaces mostly focus on the walls, but when you have a laundromat, you can’t prevent them from using the utilities.” Blumer also acknowledges the benefit of showing in Downtown L.A., a region rumbling behind unclear division lines. The 7th Street Laundromat sits between a gentrified community and an adjacent neighborhood, still in economic flux, that boasts strong historical roots. “You’re not sure what the audience is going to be” he says. “When you go to art galleries, you’re pretty sure of the types of people that will be there and what the conversations might be about, because they probably found out about it through the same channels. But to have a pop- up, you have this chance for people to come through who don’t expect it, but will participate in some sort of experience and give a conversation about art that you wouldn’t have had.”
While Nicholas contends that the term “pop up” gives liberty to the notion of creative recklessness, structure and purpose are essential to curating an event that involves re-purposing a space. All seven of the featured artists created custom made paintings and sketches specifically for the L.A.undry exhibit, likening their preparation process to a theatre performance. “I spent the whole day and night before preparing and printing things. I loved watching people’s faces. A guy came up and said, ‘…oh, I really love this stuff. I draw too!’ Then he showed me a card that he’d made for his daughter.” Koch says. While adult onlookers were more passive, inquisitive children boldly questioned the art invasion. The ultimate goal with L.A.undry Nicholas describes, not only encompasses showcasing art, but also stimulating community engagement by way of space sharing. Neighborhood growth in the downtown area will likely help to facilitate that blend.
Downtown’s revitalization paired with the mainstream embrace of street art has squashed pretension amongst this local generation of artists who are redefining preset boundaries established to showcase their work. “We’re coming into our 30s and have money and time to invest in art. It’s beneficial to work with the existing community and have all parts of the people that are there have a role in organizing and activating those creative spaces,” explains Jones. Creative spaces play a viable role in both community building and nurturing artistic communities, offering a non-competitive, democratic work environment. Straying from the old adage of allowing one’s work to speak for itself, L.A.undry banks on electrifying their consumer base by providing an unforgettable experience for all parties involved. Between all of the showcasing, sharing and toasting, Nicholas encourages the artists and their guests toss in a load. Since the event’s inception, laundromat customers have purchased the artists’ work. He suggests that they, in turn, patronize the space.
Although the micro-entrepreneur never envisioned L.A.undry as an income generator, he hopes to collaborate with social enterprises that align with his philosophical beliefs in the future. For now, Nicholas is content with popping up in fringe communities, supported by a crew of passionate and emerging artists, seeking to serve.