By Victoria Moore
SOUTH LOS ANGELES — No matter where you drive or walk in South Los Angeles, it seems that you pass a lot of colorful art.
Displayed on large walls and as stand alones the street art of South L.A. is unique thanks to its diversity. Whether it be a luxurious mural, elegant graffiti script or random tagging, the community is represented in its art.
Richly colorful and often whimsical or profound street art can also help one see the world in different ways. But street art is much more than a picturesque rendition from an artist’s imagination. It’s also a creative dialogue between the artist and the public.
The art form known today as graffiti was invented in the 1960s by an African American tagger named “Cornbread.” Gradually it gained popularity in the 1970s and 1980s, after gang “crews” formed in New York and artists like Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring rose from the streets to the top of the art world.
“Since graffiti is still illegal in Los Angeles, we provide a safe place for artists to do it legally at The Graffiti Lab,” said the lab’s social and art director Ricardo Guerrero.
Located at 1038 Venice Blvd, the facility includes a graffiti yard where artists can transform its walls with their own art that changes weekly. The lab also features an outdoor performance stage, a dance studio, a recording studio and a silk-screening space.
Open to all ages, its main goal is to provide a safe place for self-expression within the community.
When asked whether or not South L.A. graffiti artists add their own regional voice to their art, Guerrero said, “They represent from their own neighborhoods, with their own language and artistic vocabulary.”
Influenced by COVID-19, the recent protests, Black Lives Matter, politics, peace and love, some artists are also driven to commemorate rappers who have died.
“Unfortunately, they’re getting slain left and right,” said an artist named Andrew who was working on a new piece, about a young rapper in Atlanta who was killed.
Despite the differences between murals, graffiti, tagging and other street art the opportunity for the community to enjoy and learn from talented local artists who communicate with passion and dedication continues to bring hope to all who encounter them.
Divided into various categories that also include stickers and stencil paintings on sidewalks, street art is defined as “artwork that is displayed outside of a traditional gallery or museum.” Instead of being exclusive and high brow, it’s accessible to everyone, regardless of race, lifestyle or background.
When Patrick Henry Johnson painted the 40-by-40-foot mural “The Elixir” on the wall of The Liquor Bank at the corner of Crenshaw Boulevard and Stocker Street, his main purpose was connecting with people spiritually. Inspired by an ex-girlfriend, the artwork was even featured in John Singleton’s 2003 movie “Baby Boy.” Today it’s considered an historical landmark and an important part of Crenshaw’s legacy.
Historically, murals can be traced back to Leonardo da Vinci’s “The Last Supper.” Mexican muralists Diego Rivera, David Alfaro Siqueiros and Jose Clemente expanded the art form, but in South L.A. murals have come to represent the political, social and intellectual issues of African Americans and Hispanics.
Derived from the Latin word muros (wall), most murals are created to influence and beautify, but in South L.A. they are also designed to educate.
In 1976, the Social and Public Art Resource Center (SPARC) was formed following the civil rights movement in the 1960s and the Chicano movement, which came later. Confronting the lingering issue of police bias and brutality against African Americans and Hispanics by creating murals that demanded justice and dignity, Noni Olabisi, Carla Carr and Ian White were among African-American artists who represented the unique ethnic symbolism of South L.A. in stunning detail.
“To Protect and Serve,” a mural Olabisi created for the SPARC program, definitely exemplifies this practice with its pro-Black Panther Party depiction.
After the deaths of Nipsey Hussle and Kobe Bryant, commemorative street art took on a new meaning. Among the notable work is graffiti artist Jayo-V’s “Legends Never Die” piece at 5791 Obama Blvd. Stark and poignant, the blue and purple portrayal of the two African-American icons mirrors the sense of loss and grief many felt when they died tragically.
It’s just another example of the street art that can be observed throughout South Los Angeles.