Early on in my career I was given a small piece of advice that dictated how I presented myself professionally:
“Dress for the job you want.”
In the intersecting space between gentrification and street art, developers have applied that age old career advice to the neighborhoods they invest in. When it comes to street art, they’re dressing buildings for the returns they seek; in other words, they want to maximize their investment. Good street art is an indicator of investment’s appreciation potential. This not so subtle distinction is an important one when you think about the historic role murals and street art have played in the cultural growth of Los Angeles.
On April 16th a popular mural on a building in DTLA’s Arts District was whitewashed for its new tenants. The mural was originally created in 2011 by 4 artists (Dabs & Myla on the left panel and How & Nosm on the right) and was located in the parking lot on the east side of the Neptune building. For residents and frequent visitors to the Arts District, the mural’s buffing was another stark reminder of the negative impact of rapid change taking place there in the last 5 years. The small neighborhood, flanked by Little Tokyo and Skid Row, contains historic vacant warehouses and manufacturing facilities. In the late 80’s and early 90’s these abandoned buildings were popular among artists, musicians and creatives who converted many of these spaces into un-permitted live/work lofts. It was far from an artistic utopia; the deserted area was riddled with crime, drugs and homelessness that spilled over from Skid Row’s 1970’s “containment strategy”.
As street art gained cultural cachet in the late ’00s, the neighborhood encouraged murals and building owners quickly commissioned wheatpastes, stencils and other graffiti art by popular street artists. The popularity reached its peak with Jeffrey Deitch’s “Art in the Streets” show at MOCA in 2011. The show and the resulting murals that were imported into area brought the Arts District and other L.A. neighborhoods into focus eventually bringing attention to the residents of this small, connected artistic community.
When the Dabs/Myla and How/Nosm mural was buffed last week, it created an uproar among the current residents and patrons of the Arts District who were not only angered by the lack of notice of the mural’s demise but also by the seemingly clandestine decision making that led to its destruction. In the court of public opinion (social media) it appears as though few discussions took place among community/arts advocacy groups, the building owner and its new tenants (the Los Angeles Fire and Police Pensions). This mural was viewed as a symbol of the dynamic creativity that transformed the Arts District into a thriving, desirable neighborhood. While the mural was a favorite of many who considered it representative of the present day Arts District, it was not immediately embraced by everyone living there when it was originally painted.
In April 2011 the 4 artists who created the mural were commissioned by the LA Freewalls project to paint the Neptune Building’s east wall. The mural was a gift to the community that at the time was accepted with some trepidation. L.A. has a history of mural creation that spans decades including works that represented the cultural richness and diversity of the communities where the murals reside. When it was painted some questioned if the mural accurately represented the community and the residents within the Arts District at that time. Even more problematic, leaders within the LA Freewalls project were viewed as polarizing figures in the street art community. They were characterized in the press as cultural opportunists who profited from brokering deals between street artists and building owners to create the murals that pepper the neighborhood.
Flash forward 5 years. The neighborhood is “on trend”. In addition to the legendary murals, the neighborhood is now peppered with coffee shops, artisanal toast, blue chip galleries and haute (yet eco-friendly) designs. The beloved 3rd Street mural now accurately represents the history of the community yet in an ironically cruel twist of fate that brief history was erased; perhaps to make room for bigger pockets and newer, “trendier” artists…
In an attempt at some damage control, the LAFPP claimed that they legitimately pursued due diligence in notifying the artists and the community prior to buffing the mural (those claims are still being challenged by arts activist groups). They also maintain that plans are underway to create a new mural on the blank white wall that sits on the property today. Sadly, street artists have been forced into an odd game of musical chairs where the winner gets to dress the new building… undoubtedly for the job the owner wants– to maximize their investment.