Art in the Streets | MOCA Los Angeles

July 26 2011 . 05:24pm


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Retna Talks MOCA, Graffiti & Fashion with Fabiola Beracasa for ELLE

May 04 2011 . 11:59pm

While in LA for ELLE’s Women in Music party, I took a minute to catch up with Retna, the breakout LA street artist who’s among the lucky few chosen by Jeffrey Deitch for MOCA’s Art in the Streets show.  Retna, aka Marquis Lewis, has a heart warming smile to offset his devilish glances, and happily told us how he grew from a “graffiti artist” and landed in one of the most important street art shows to date.

ELLE: When did you know this was your calling ?
R: I liked graffiti when I was about eight-years-old, but it wasn’t really called street art at that time, it was just graffiti.  When I first saw it I knew that was what I wanted to do I just never really thought that it would turn into a career, you know? I just did it because it made me feel good, or it made me happy when I looked at it, but I never would’ve thought of where it would go…

ELLE: When did it turn from something that you loved, and did passionately, to something you could actually live off of?
I think that was maybe the past seven years.  [I] got into design, my first forays into actually making money off this or being able to make somewhat of a living off this was designing graphics for clothing companies.  So I was designing for this Japanese brand doing some cut and sew stuff; I think at that point I saw, “Hey I can do these graphics, and you know I can pay for other stuff that I want to do,” and then little jobs just started carrying on and it kind of kept leading to other things.  I did a lot of stuff just from the heart for free for the longest time and, well, you do things because you want to do them and you don’t want to sit around and wait for people to pay you.  You think, “Well fuck, I’ll just go make it happen.”

ELLE: What does it feel like to be part of Jeffrey Deitch’s Street Art Exhibition?
R: It feels great.  I’m really excited to be a part of it, it’s definitely a little overwhelming [as] it’s my first museum showing.  It seems like it came a lot earlier than I expected.  As a kid you want those institutions to recognize you and make you feel like you’re important.  I acknowledge [Jeffrey’s] commitment to what we do and I’m really honored to be a part of it.  It’s exciting to be in a show with all of these people that you grew up looking up to and it’s kind of mind blowing.  I would’ve never thought that they’d come visit me at my studio when I was eight-years-old, looking at these books that they were in.  They’re the greatest people and then to be around them and to actually exhibit with them, it’s kind of something unreal.

ELLE: There’s always that argument that when you move the graffiti, the street art indoors, into a museum into a gallery, it loses something.  How do you feel about that?
R: That’s all on the person viewing it. I think what’s great about that movement is that some guys still do both… so I think the idea early on with graffiti or street artists was you always want things that you can’t have, you always want to be in that spots that you can’t be in or you know people don’t want you to be in—so when we wanted to climb and paint this building we needed to figure out a way to go do it—so I think with the museum it’s just another aspect of that same mentality.  We wanted to be in there, so we figured out how to get in the door and put our stuff all over it.  Or, a couple [of] people crack the door and then the flood gates [open].   I feel that if it wasn’t for all of those, my predecessors doing all of the early work from the 70s and 80s and 90s and what have you, I wouldn’t be able to be there.

ELLE: You’ve worked with fashion companies before, how does fashion influence your art? Or do you feel that there is a correlation for you?
R: I’ve been heavily influenced by fashion, and a lot of that work was influenced by like Art Nouveau and stuff like that.  It still relates to some of my other work where I do matadors and bishops and these pieces where the clothing is just a little bit older, but I’m still kind of following along those same lines.  I obviously love and enjoy looking at fashion magazines, mostly women’s fashion, not really interested in men’s fashion so much.  I just think it looks great and it’s art.

ELLE: Did you ever get in trouble for doing graffiti?
R: Yeah, I’ve been arrested a good amount of times. My mother was just devastated.  She came here from El Salvador, worked two jobs and tried to send me to some of the best schools and I gravitated toward graffiti early on.  So for her it just hurt, it was really a disappointment.  She loves it now.  She’s more protective of the work.  She used to throw away a lot of my work early on, but that’s also what made me better.  She was my biggest critic at the time.

ELLE: Where do you see Retna going from here?
In my mind’s eye? To the end I guess… yeah, till the end of time…

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LA Times interview Risk, Chaz Bojórquez and Craig Stecyk

April 11 2011 . 12:35am

WILD STYLE: Risk had a hand in bringing New York-subway-style graffiti to L.A.’s freeways. (Liz O. Baylen / Los Angeles Times)

Ahead of MOCA’s sweeping "Art in the Streets" exhibition, opening April 17 at the Geffen Contemporary, The Times interviewed three street art pioneers from the show: Chaz Bojórquez, Craig Stecyk and Risk.

Risk helped to import Wild Style graffiti, with hard-to-decipher, interlocking letters, from the New York subways to the L.A. freeways. At the Geffen, the artist takes over part of a wall inside and has parked a salvaged bus, painted in fiery colors, outside.

First tag

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.

First foray into New York

One summer in high school, I wound up hooking up with a guy named Reas who is 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.

His style versus Wild Style

I still use a lot of the flow from Wild Style. But I tend to make my letters more readable. I’m more interested in the aesthetics of letters, with their balances and weights.

Last time he was arrested

I haven’t been arrested in years. 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. [Carmen] Trutanich. My goal is to educate people about graffiti. I want them to know the difference between gang graffiti and graffiti art.

Meeting Michael Jackson

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.

The story behind the bus at the Geffen

I tracked down this bus from a bus graveyard in Murietta, then took it to my house to paint. The bus has been a nightmare. We couldn’t get it to my studio behind the house [in Thousand Oaks] so I painted it in my driveway, and my neighbors were freaking out. Then right when I finished painting, it rained and all the paint bubbled off, so I had to paint it again.

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.

Biggest difference between street art scene, then and now

In the ’90s, Barry McGee and I used to mail each other packages of photos — I’d send him photos from here, and he’d send me photos from Frisco. Now a kid could see as much graffiti in an hour on the Internet as it took us five years to see. Now someone who hasn’t put in his dues could be really good, because they have so much to look at. It’s not a secret subculture anymore.


‘STRENGTH AND BEAUTY’: Chaz Bojórquez says his cholo-style graffiti derives from his search for identity as a Chicano. (Liz O. Baylen / Los Angeles Times)

It’s not easy being an aging street artist. It’s physically demanding. Young kids are jockeying to take your place, or your spot to paint, anyway. And a night in jail is rougher when you’re 55 than at 25.

But several artists who were pioneers of graffiti art in L.A. in the 1970s and ’80s are still going strong today, if not exactly risking prison. And they are getting credit for their life’s work in MOCA’s sweeping "Art in the Streets" exhibition, which opens April 17 at the Geffen Contemporary.

In part the show tells the story of street art flooding mainstream culture and, despite doubts from some of the international art elite, entering the museum sphere. "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 New York and L.A. tagging in the ’70s and culminating with Banksy setting an auction record in 2007 of more than $1.8 million for a single painting.

In this way, "Art in the Streets" is also meant to be a historical show, spanning four decades and including more than 100 artists.

"This is not just a big street-art free-for-all," adds the museum’s director, Jeffrey Deitch. "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."

Looking at London, this means putting Banksy in context with Jamie Reid, who designed graphics for the Sex Pistols, as well as the Situationists— a subversive, anti-capitalist philosophical and political movement. (Asked whether Banksy was making new work for the show, Deitch did not give a clear yes: "He works in his own way. But I hope so.")

Looking at Los Angeles, this means seeing emerging street art stars such as Retna in relation to Chaz Bojórquez, who in the late 1960s was the first to treat cholo lettering associated with Latino gangs as an art form. Years later his earliest painting on canvas, in the form of a "roll call" or list of names, was acquired by the Smithsonian. Now Bojórquez, 62, calls himself the "the oldest consistently working graffiti artist in the world."

Bojórquez is one of three street art pioneers, interviewed here, who illustrates the range of the field. Craig Stecyk, 60, helped shape the graffiti-fueled surf-skate aesthetic of Venice and Santa Monica in the 1970s. Risk helped bring Wild Style, with its bubbly forms and interlocking letters, from New York to L.A. in the 1980s.

At 43, Risk represents another generation, but these artists share something in common. They have all witnessed their rebellious, adolescent gestures become a popular activity — and big business. They’ve seen their own art and their colleagues’ migrate into fine art galleries on the one hand and onto clothing, advertising and entertainment on the other.

In short, they all started out at a time when it was pretty much inconceivable that they would ever be interviewed about their careers as street artists.

Chaz Bojórquez found art in the cholo-style graffiti associated with Latino gangs and now sounds a bit like a scholar of gang history. For the Geffen, he has made a new roll-call painting that will hang along with earlier works.

The paint brush versus the spray can

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.

The origins of cholo gang graffiti

The typeface is Old English, some people call it Gothic. It goes back to the first printing press, the Gutenberg, where the Germans used it to represent the government. It’s a prestigious typeface used in birth certificates, the Declaration of Independence and newspaper logos like the L.A. Times. That’s why in the ’40s gang members used it to define their neighborhoods — they’d make a "roll call" or list of names to mark their territory.

His version of cholo graffiti

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.

Commercial work he’s turned down

I’ve turned down Adidas, Pony and Nike shoes because they’re not my style. I wear Vans.

Commercial work he’s done

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.

The difference between New York and Los Angeles graffiti

There they’ll tag all over the city; it’s about getting their name up and not about their culture. Here it’s about being Latino, and you tag your neighborhood because you’re proud of it, to protect it.

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.

The biggest challenge in getting older

Eyesight — when you hit 50, it goes south. But climbing, scaffolding, that’s no problem.


PUNK PUSH: Craig Stecyk helped set the tone for the surfer and skater aesthetics of the 1970s. (Liz O. Baylen / Los Angeles Times)

Craig Stecyk helped define the surf-skate-punk-graffiti aesthetic of Venice and Santa Monica in the 1970s by publishing his photographs of Dogtown and Z-Boys skaters in various magazines. (He also co-wrote the 2001 documentary with Stacy Peralta.) The Geffen will have his posters and sculptures, with a monitor showing archival images.

His first skateboard

When I was 12 or 13 I made my own skateboards by finding oak drawer fronts — I’d ride around to forage, very much like I still do. And if you went overboard, you would take the wheels from Union ball-bearing steel roller skates. I stole my cousin’s skates, and she’s still angry about it.

The role of the 10 Freeway

When the Santa Monica Freeway was built, they condemned a bunch of houses with eminent domain. It created a rift down the spine of Los Angeles, suddenly a whole block through the city — gone. But if you were a roving kid, this was free material and no supervision: garages full of paint, houses full of furniture. We’d take parts from cars to make ad-hoc sculptures. I should have been taking pictures then.

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.

Street art that inspires him

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.

Graffiti abatement

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?

Recent work

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.

Where to see his work on the streets today

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.

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Jeffrey Deitch takes Hollywood

October 27 2010 . 04:41pm

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RETNA and friends in Financial Times | Moniker Art Fair

October 17 2010 . 11:38pm

On a cloudy Friday morning in Shoreditch a small crowd has gathered around a long-legged, dark-haired girl in cowboy boots with a spray can in her hand. Standing in front of the high brick wall of a Victorian warehouse, she sprays a graceful scarlet line across the worn brown bricks as the cameras snap around her.

Hera, 30, is one half of the German street art duo Herakut . Watching as she sketches out her figure is her painting partner, Akut. As soon as the outline is completed he will use his photo-realist skills to create a face with the spooky immediacy of a B-movie star.

Inside the building, Herakut’s canvases are among those on display in a new fair, Moniker International, which is dedicated to urban art and comprises six gallery booths and six curated spaces.

Given the acclaim showered upon the likes of Banksy and Shepherd Fairey, one would think that graffiti art was now as mainstream as any other contemporary genre. Not so, according to the fair’s co-director Frankie Shea, who represents a clutch of artists, including Herakut, who prefer public to private space. “I started Moniker because I was sick of not being able to get my gallery, Campbarbossa, into more mainstream fairs,” he explains.

On the morning after the inauguration, he is delighted that he had the courage of his convictions. Not only have all four Herakut canvases sold (from £2,250 to £7,000) but so have dozens of other works. The top seller, inevitably perhaps, was a secondary-market Banksy, “Flower Thrower”, which was sold by east London gallery Black Rat Projects for £95,000.

“Everything is selling really well,” said Marsea Goldberg of Los Angeles gallery New Image art, who was especially pleased with the sale of beautiful silk-screened faces overlaid with calligraphy by LA artist Retna ($6,000 each). “Britain is less familiar with street art than the US, but people are increasingly enthusiastic.”

Retner, who was discovered by Jeffrey Deitch, director of the LA Museum of Contemporary Art, in Goldberg’s gallery, will be on show at MoCA in 2011.

Moniker’s success is a sign that, even in the UK, street art is coming in from the cold. Indeed, the vibrant diversity of paintings on display, from abstract to figurative, collage to calligraphy, bears little relation to traditional notions of graffiti. “Of course street artists also work in studios,” says Shea. Otherwise, how would they sell anything?

Those who wish to see genuine outsider art must travel to Chalk Farm in north London. Here, the unprepossessing façade of the public library conceals the cornucopia of glories that is the Museum of Everything. For the second year running, this rigorously uncommercial temporary space has been dedicated to works by unknown talents, most of whom had no pretensions to making art at all. A riveting journey through vintage memorabilia, from Victorian photographs and 1950s circus banners to merry-go-round horses and stuffed animals, the exhibition has been co-curated by British pop artist Sir Peter Blake, whose collections of dolls, shellboxes and tapestries – handwoven by a second world war veteran as therapy for his injuries – form part of the display. Indeed, as you wander through the scarlet-painted, low-ceilinged rooms, each one more curious, colourful and cluttered than the last, you could be in an installation by Sir Peter.

On one level a voyage through Moniker and the Museum of Everything feels as if one has entered a parallel universe to the gloss and glamour of Frieze. Yet these planets touch more often than one might think. On Thursday at the Museum of Everything, Sir Peter was in conversation with fashionable taxidermy artist Polly Morgan. The latter, who recently enjoyed a solo show at leading Piccadilly space Haunch of Venison, has her hackle-raisingly creepy “Carrion Call” – a wooden coffin with the cracks stuffed with quail chicks – on sale at Moniker.

As for Sir Peter, when I ask him for a comment on the Museum of Everything, he tells me that it is “a trigger for memories.” His own work, meanwhile, is selling excellently this week at Frieze.

See for online and video coverage of Frieze Art Fair

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