Moving Street Art Mainstream: MOCA's "Art in the Streets"

Moving Street Art Mainstream: MOCA's "Art in the Streets"

Los Angeles’ Museum of Contemporary Art recently announced a massive street art show opening later this month that will cover the 1970’s through the present. “Art in the Streets” covers the history of street art flooding mainstream culture and entering the museum sphere, despite doubts from some of the international art elite. "Just five years ago, street art was an underground thing, very renegade," says one of the show's curators, Aaron Rose. But now, he says, "it's an established art movement."

And, speaking like an established art historian, Rose divides the movement into three phases starting with tagging in New York and L.A during the '70s and culminating with the auction of a Banksy panting for more than $1.8 million, a record in 2007. The show will span all four decades of the movement and include more than 100 artists.

However, museum director Jeffrey Deitch notes, "This is not just a big street-art free-for-all.  We are trying to see its history through a critical framework and identify where the innovations occur: the invention of Wild Style [graffiti] in New York, its adaptation in L.A. and the innovations in cholo graffiti and skateboard culture in L.A."
The show will include international street-art stars like Banksy from London and Space Invader from Paris. There will also be substantial focus on LA’s role in the evolution of graffiti and street art, including influential local artists such as Craig R. Stecyk III, Chaz Bojórquez, and RISK.

The LA Times talked with Stecyk, Bojórquez, and RISK about their background and the future of Street Art.


Craig Stecyk / Liz O. BaylenCraig Stecyk is an internationally respected fine artist working in sculpture, painting, surfboards and hot-rod cars. His photographs of Dogtown and Z-Town helped define the surf-skate-punk-graffiti aesthetic of Venice and Santa Monica in the 1970s.

On Documenting Dogtown

I was always around cameras. My dad was an early documenter of Hiroshima during World War II, though he would never talk about the nature of that assignment. I started shooting surfers in 1962 or '63 — I was interested in documenting what I was seeing, and magazines weren't doing it yet. The skate shots came later — just like there was demand for Miki Dora in surfing magazines, there was soon demand for Tony Alva. But I shot everything for no particular reason, which is what I still do today.

On Street Art and Graffiti
Street art is the original form of art, if you go back to Lascaux [cave paintings] or look around this town. I think the first great painting in L.A. is by [David Alfaro] Siqueiros on Olvera Street: "Tropical America" [now under restoration.] It's a piece that rivals "Guernica," an incredibly significant piece that was censored almost immediately.

In this country we spend over $5 billion a year on graffiti abatement and prevention. It's strange to me. What's the difference between the Sistine Chapel and the side of an underpass? Not much. So why do we criminalize beauty?

Where to see his work on the streets today

I still make these posters — some are etchings, some are hand-painted. I mount them on telephone poles, wherever I am. I've done them in Indonesia, Japan, Brazil, Africa, all over. I like to make incidental images — things that you don't even realize you've seen.

[On the street] there might be a couple posters in Ludlow, Calif., outside Route 66. Though I don't know if they are still there. Put them up and they disappear in 60 minutes, even in places where you don't see a single person all day. Now with all the gallery work and other stuff I’m doing, it would be impossible for me to paint illegally in L.A.  I’ve talked to the City Council, I was on KABC with City Atty. Trutanich.  My goal is to educate people about graffiti.  I want them to know the difference between gang graffiti and graffiti art. 

Read the full profile here.


Chaz Bojórquez / Liz O. BaylenInfluencing a whole generations of street artists, writers and tattooists, Chaz Bojórquez was the first emerging street artist to move historically Latino cholo graffiti into a recognizable “graffiti art.”  He was also one of the first to pass successfully from street art to galleries. The Smithsonian acquired one of his earliest paintings on canvas and his works are also in several permanent museum collections.

On his beginnings
I was raised during the civil rights movement, so it was important to me to find my American identity in being Chicano, in being Mexican American, and graffiti did that for me. So I took the cholo graffiti that had been in the streets since the 1940s. Everybody hated it, and I found strength and beauty in it. I was also inspired by Asian calligraphy. I took the strength of cholo and the spirit of the brush. When I started in the 1970s, there was only one can and only one tip — Krylon. It had low pressure, bad pigment and the paint would run down my elbows. So I went back to the old tradition of graffiti writers from the '40s who used a brush. I use a brush and acrylic today.

Commercial work he's turned down
I've turned down Adidas, Pony and Nike shoes because they're not my style. I wear Vans. I used to design logos for movies — "The Warriors," "Turk 182." And I did master inking for "The Empire Strikes Back," the Muppet movies, James Bond. It taught me a lot about doing billboards and signs: The logos have to be read within three seconds.

Where to see his work on the streets today
Señor Suerte was my tag early on, in 1969. Twenty years later I started seeing this image [of a skull wearing a fedora] on tattoos and now thousands of men in prison have it. Gangs picked it up as a warrior shield, something to protect them if they got shot. If you go to jail and they find it on you, you go to separate cells.

Read the full profile here.


RISK Liz O. Baylen At 43, artist RISK has impacted the evolution of graffiti as an art form both in Los Angeles and worldwide. RISK gained major notoriety for his unique Wild Style graffiti, with hard-to-decipher, interlocking letters. His graffiti moved into the art establishment with first the Third Rail series in galleries, and later a line of graffiti-inspired clothing.

The beginnings

I used to surf a lot, so I was always drawing waves or writing "surf" or "wipe-out" on my desk and books. There was a kid in my school [University High School in West L.A.] who was from New York and said, What's your tag? I had never heard of tags, but that day I went to a hardware store after school and got a can of red and white [spray paint] and came back to school. I did a piece that said 'Surf.' Later, because the high school caught me, I had to change my name from Surf to Risk.

One summer in high school, I wound up hooking up with a guy named Reas. [Also in the MOCA show.] He let me stay with him in New York, and we went bombing every night for a month or two. So I got to meet all the [graffiti] writers, like Henry Chalfant and Lee Quinones. I caught the last of the era; after that, the trains were all clean.

On working commercially
I did the set design for the Michael Jackson video "The Way You Make Me Feel." He had me do three streets: one with pure graffiti art, one with a mixture of everything and one with gang graffiti. They built this set so he could walk through these different streets. He came up to me and said he loved it, but we didn't have a real conversation.

Where to see his work on the streets today

I did a mural on Cloverfield [and Broadway in Santa Monica] — with lots of "RISK" tags — for a TV production company, covering every wall of the building. That was 1991. They say it's the oldest running graffiti mural here.

Read the full profile here.


Like Stecyk and Bojórquez, RISK has seen his rebellious, adolescent gestures become a popular activity — and big business. They've all seen their own art and their colleagues' art migrate into both galleries and into mainstream clothing, advertising and entertainment.

Stecyk asks why we criminalize the “beauty” of street art.  It is true that, like the Sistine Chapel, street art exhibits the visual marks of history and culture.  But while street art has had an undeniable impact on culture over the last 20 years, its criminal-outlaw vibe makes it difficult to command the same respect as art coming out of academia does.  In a way, MOCA’s show is a huge step towards recognition of the contributions of this outsider art. #street art

But we have to wonder, does putting street art into galleries and museums betray the integrity of the movement itself?  Is street art “Street Art” once it moves first to canvas and then to commercial media?  Once you loose the illegality and covertness of execution does street art loose its allure? 

MOCA’s comprehensive exhibition will not only legitimize and tell the story of the Street Art Movement, but might just mark the end of it.



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