Mr. Cartoon on the cover of L.A. Times

April 05 2009 . 12:21am

The underground artist has found his scrawl space in the mainstream, with his work emblazoned on movie billboards, custom cars and video games. He gives products ’street cred’ and counterculture cool.
By Chris Lee
April 4, 2009
Mister Cartoon eyeballed a blank spot on the giant graffiti mural and rattled his can of spray paint. An aerosol hiss filled the air. With a few fluid swipes of his beefy arm, an image began to take shape: a cluster of storm clouds massing above a Windex blue hot rod.

“If I knew the cops were coming to bust me, I could probably finish this whole thing in an hour,” the street artist joked.

Cartoon is standing atop a ladder in front of a 14-by-48 canvas in his cavernous warehouse studio in an industrial cul-de-sac just past L.A.’s skid row. His work in progress would hardly qualify as vandalism. The billboard was commissioned by Universal Studios to publicize the latest entry in its street-racing movie franchise, “Fast & Furious.”

The burly Cartoon, with a shaved head and gang-inspired tattoos creeping down his forearms and up his neck, has become one of corporate America’s hottest image makers. He’s in demand to imbue products — even celebrities — with “street cred” and counterculture cool.

Cartoon (born Mark Machado, but call him that at your risk), 39, readily admits he perfected his craft practicing public defacement as an outlaw tagger. He’s a big shot in lowrider circles — the artist has 11 prize-worthy customized show cars. His ability to create visuals encompassing Chicano gang and lowrider culture, ’70s New York graffiti and Japanimation has made Cartoon a sought-after tattoo artist, car customizer, illustrator and fashion designer.

“It’s definitely a rush seeing your art on a billboard,” Cartoon said. “Working with design agencies, designing concept cars — it’s a long way from my dad telling me to get a real job.”

Cartoon’s graphic designs, illustrations and artwork have also been used to add visual punch to a crazy quilt of pop cultural offerings:

He rendered the gang scrawl seen throughout the bestselling video game “Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas.” He designed clothing for companies including Levi Strauss, Stussy, Vans and Supreme. He designed a customized T-Mobile Sidekick. He did detail work for a concept car for Scion. In 2005, Nike hired Cartoon to create limited editions of its Air Force 1 and Cortez shoes.

“The mainstream is coming around to his aesthetic, not the other way around,” said movie producer Brian Grazer, who is planning a film based on Cartoon’s life. “He doesn’t change. He’s still hard-core. He’s a gatekeeper to that world.”

Aaron Rose, an authority on underground art and co-director of the street art documentary “Beautiful Losers,” has showcased Cartoon’s creations in three exhibitions. He said the artist’s identification with the corporate establishment has helped distinguish him from the scrum of street artists trying to go legit.

“The corporate apparel brands embracing him and promoting his work was a big step in rising out of the underground,” Rose said. “Nike is a big stage. Suddenly he’s got 5 million more fans. It gave Cartoon cult celebrity status.”

Mister Cartoon grew up in San Pedro, the son of working-class parents who operated a printing shop. As a youngster, he fell in with a crowd he describes as “knuckleheads and sickos,” but he stops just short of admitting gang membership.

“I have been affected by gang culture up close and personally from a young age,” Cartoon said. “My parents would go to work and I’d run the streets. I could have been locked up or killed.”

When he was a teen, his style was heavily influenced by the abstract, brightly colored graffiti — usually letters — found on New York subways. When he was 17, authorities charged him with $30,000 worth of vandalism. The artist — who augmented his tagger alias Cartoon with “Mister” in a bid to be seen as grown up — was prosecuted as a minor. He avoided going to juvenile hall by pleading guilty.

He says he was put on probation and fined $3,000 — in that era, juvenile graffiti vandals were responsible for repaying one-tenth of the damages they caused. Cartoon said he paid the sum almost immediately by accepting one of his earliest commissions: a mural for a boxing gym.

“I used graffiti to pay my graffiti debt,” Cartoon said, chuckling.

But within months, the tagging lifestyle had lost its allure for the artist.

Through a fluke, a photographer for Car and Driver magazine asked him to make a gang-graffiti backdrop for a photo shoot, resulting in Cartoon’s first portfolio-worthy tear sheet.

“Some guy pulled up to San Pedro High School and said, ‘Hey, who’s the best graffiti artist in school? I’ve got a job for him doing a magazine cover,’ ” Cartoon recalled.

Obsessed with car culture, he began airbrushing T-shirts at custom car shows and gradually picked up pointers on painting murals on car doors and hoods. At age 20, he landed a job as an illustrator at Hustler magazine and soon parlayed his work doing ribald cartoons there into a sideline designing album covers for Southland hip-hop artists.

At a record release party in 1992, he met Estevan Oriol, manager of the stoner rap trio Cypress Hill. They became friends around the time Cartoon was getting a lot of tattoos. Oriol convinced Cartoon that tattoo art would be a natural progression from the kind of art he already was doing. The manager hired Cartoon to create an album cover for Cypress Hill and brought him on tour with the hard-partying group.

“I let him sketch on me,” Oriol said. “I showed the guys from Cypress Hill and made them get tattoos. When we’d go on tour with Goodie Mob or OutKast, I’d say, ‘Get tattooed by my boy.’ ”

Photos: Mister Cartoon
The tattoo that finally earned him a reputation, though, was created for Eminem. In 1999, less than five years after his maiden efforts with a homemade tattoo gun, Cartoon rendered a city scene on the rap superstar’s upper left arm. Thanks to Eminem’s towering cultural presence at that time, Cartoon’s business achieved a critical mass. He hit the mainstream.

Cartoon has since etched his stark black designs (working in the style of prison tattoo artists, he never uses colored ink) onto a Who’s Who of pop stars and pro basketball players, including Utah Jazz forward Carlos Boozer. His minimum fee is $1,000 per session. (”If you have to ask the price, you can’t afford it,” Cartoon likes to say.) Although he refuses to be pinned down on the dollar amount, a large-scale tattoo like the “50″ that he inked over most of rapper 50 Cent’s back and shoulders reportedly costs about $20,000.

It was in 2002 while shooting the movie “8 Mile,” recalled Grazer, Imagine Entertainment co-chief, that he heard about Cartoon from Eminem. He traveled to the artist’s studio and, on the basis of a strong first impression, Grazer signed a deal to produce the artist’s biopic, tentatively titled “Ink.” He also hired Cartoon to executive-produce another Imagine feature, “Lowrider.”

“He had this giant underground following,” Grazer said. “I like his tattoo stuff, the car stuff, his detailing. He’s original and smart. His story is interesting.”

Nike, however, balked when Cartoon proposed designing collections for the company in 2004. “It took a year to convince Nike. Proposals. Meeting after meeting. ‘Cartoon? He’s a tattoo guy. What does he know about fashion?’ ” he recalled hearing from Nike representatives. “I didn’t take it as an insult. I was just working. Multitasking. I thought: ‘Don’t put all your eggs in one basket.’ ”

The artist persisted, and now his limited-edition sneakers — a model he designed in collaboration with Lance Armstrong is due out in July — regularly sell for hundreds of dollars above suggested retail.

Nike says it now counts Cartoon’s limited-edition redesigns of its Air Force 1 sneakers (such as the model he emblazoned with a skeleton, spider webs and “L.A.”) among “the most coveted releases in our history.”

In keeping with his image as a hero to the lowrider set, Cartoon drove his heavily customized ‘64 Chevy Impala from skid row to the Sunset Strip for the unveiling of the “Fast & Furious” billboard late last month.

Once there, the artist hit switches to make the car’s front end bounce up and down on hydraulic springs before photographers, reporters and cameramen assembled for the event.

Michael Moses, executive vice president of Universal Pictures’ marketing and publicity, said the studio hired Cartoon — whom he described as “the foremost graffiti artist of our city” — to create the billboard in an effort to reconnect the “Fast & Furious” franchise with its street culture origins.

The studio gave Cartoon an unusual degree of independence to depict key scenes and vehicles from the movie, personalized with his signature visuals: There were mucho macho muscle cars, an idealized femme fatale, a Mexican Dia de Los Muertos skeleton and the movie’s name emblazoned in gothic gangster font.

Neither the artist nor the studio would comment on the price tag for the mural. Local graffiti artists Revok and Toomer assisted Cartoon in painting it.

The billboard is Cartoon’s second movie assignment. He established his film publicity bona fides last year with a poster featuring Al Pacino and Robert De Niro in the crime drama “Righteous Kill” — an image reminiscent of faded newsprint, a wanted poster and a graffiti stencil.

“He’s real. His whole group is,” said Peter Adee, president of marketing and distribution for Overture Films, who picked Cartoon to design the “Righteous Kill” poster and Oriol to photograph it. “They’re into trying to get to an idea that’s as commercial as possible without selling out. They do mass production of images, but at the same time it’s not homogenization. They stay true to their art and roots.”

Mister Cartoon, a married father of four, traces most of his personal and professional success to the awakening he experienced in 1997 when he made the decision to give up drinking and other “mind-altering substances” he favored after years of touring with Cypress Hill. A friend from the tattoo world, Baby Ray, helped Cartoon improve his tattooing technique but also provided a dose of tough love and spiritual guidance.

“I don’t expect a trophy or a cookie or a pat on the back,” Cartoon said. “I made a decision to change my life and help my family.”

That decision resulted in the clarity to pursue his ambitions. But to hear the artist tell it, making good on those plans is also a matter of following the rules.

“Am I gifted or especially talented?” Cartoon said. “No. I got all this through hard work. Through respecting my old man. From taking direction from people. From painting when everyone else was asleep. I just found something I really love and practiced at it my whole life.”


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LA TIMES | Sheriffs Arrest Alleged Members of MTA Crew

January 28 2009 . 06:47pm

Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputies today arrested at least eight alleged members of the notorious Metro Transit Assassins tagging crew, some of whom are believed to be responsible for a several-blocks-long “MTA” tag in the concrete Los Angeles River bed that authorities say will cost millions of dollars to remove.

The arrests occurred during a series of early-morning raids centered in the Hollywood area. Among those detained for a parole violations is a famous tagger whose work “SMEAR” has has won acclaim in the art community.

Those arrested were booked on suspicion of vandalism, drug possession, narcotics for sales, weapons possession and other parole violations, officials said

"These individuals are responsible for tags not only in Los Angeles but Las Vegas and San Francisco,” said Sheriff’s Cmdr. Dan Finkelstein, who is chief of the Metropolitan Transit Authority police. “The Army Corps of Engineers estimates that removing the "MTA" tag from the riverbed alone will cost $3.7 million.

Cleaning graffiti from the river is far more expensive than cleaning other areas. Officials use high-pressure water spray to remove the toxic paint.

But hazardous-materials crews must then dam and capture all the paint and water runoff to prevent it from getting into the river. The crew did an additional $20,000 worth of damage to transit vehicles and facilities. Finkelstein said the Los Angeles River "MTA" tag, in a vast industrial district east of downtown between two rail yards, took about 400 gallons of paint — 300 gallons white and 100 gallons black. “It took them four nights to do it,” he said.

The three block letters cover a three-story-high wall and run the length of several blocks between the 4th Street and 1st Street bridges. The tagging crew, which is also known as “Melting Toys Away” and “Must Take All,” began about the time the transportation agency began using the MTA letters. Investigators say they have statements, including some on video, that implicate some of the crew members in the enormous tag.

“Some of this group could face federal charges,” Finkelstein said. During the raids, Finkelstein said, investigators found customized high-pressure fire extinguishers that, when filled with paint, allow the tagger to hang upside down on the underside of a freeway and quickly scrawl massive graffiti. These taggers are not kids, he said.

Most those detained are in their 20s; one of them drives a $60,000 BMW, and another member possesses a diamond-and-ruby-encrusted Metro logo pendant with paperwork suggesting it’s worth $29,000, Finkelstein said.

— Richard Winton

Photo: Police car shows scale of the giant "MTA" tag in the Los Angeles River in May 2008. Credit: Al Seib / Los Angeles Times


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January 17 2008 . 03:03pm


Please cover these walls with graffiti

By — Lea.Lion
January 17, 2008

THE elite graffiti crew Angels Will Rise has made a name for itself byspray-painting full-color, wall-sized murals — of both the illegal and commissioned variety — around L.A. over the last 20 years. But when 11 of its members met up in a mid-city warehouse in November, it was not to plan their next bombing mission, but to create murals bound for gallery walls.

The resulting pieces are part of "Will Rise," which opens at Robert Berman Gallery on Saturday and pays homage to the aesthetic that brought fame to this subgroup of the merchandising collective Seventh Letter Crew. Namely, its West Coast-flavored "wild style" script.

"Basically, the exhibit consists of 70 panels that fit together in a modular installation to mock up what an outdoor mural would look like," says show curator Brett Aronson. "A lot of gallery shows take the aesthetic of graffiti and try to put it on a canvas, but that disrupts what graffiti is by taking it off the wall. Obviously, the gallery is not a concrete outdoor wall, but the concept was to try to represent that."

For the show, each artist created a mural on six 4-by-4-foot panels. Their pieces will be displayed from floor to ceiling on three walls to create the effect of "a subway tunnel covered in graffiti," says gallery owner Robert Berman.

During a recent visit, the tunnel wasn’t yet installed, but a mural by Marquis Lewis, known in the graffiti world as Retna, adorned one wall. The work depicts what Lewis refers to as a "family crest" in copper-toned brushwork.

On an adjacent wall, a mural by Saber, known for creating the world’s largest graffiti piece in the L.A. River channel, features swirling letters in shades of silver, purple and white. On a far wall, a mural by Revok, who is widely considered to be the godfather of modern-day graffiti, combines fanciful script with a tech-inspired font to spell out his name.

"I came from the school of thought that graffiti was supposed to be on the street; it wasn’t supposed to be in a gallery," says Lewis. "But the gallery setting allows graffiti artists to explore avenues they normally wouldn’t because they are rushed or they fear getting arrested."

Of course, it helps that after years of outlaw status, graffiti artists are getting respect in the gallery world. "People are starting to look at this as the new tough art, the same way that in New York in the ’60s they were looking at Pop Art," Berman says. "The world is their canvas."

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January 18 2007 . 03:50pm

Our good friend Shepard Fairey gave LA Times a tour of Los Angeles and gave the crew mad love like always! 2 page centerfold of Retna and the Mac production. I can honestly say Shepard is a real team player! Big shouts Shepard, Roger, Amanda and the Obey posse..


Los Angeles Times, January 18, 2007
By Cynthia Dea, Times Staff Writer

Street artist Shepard Fairey is at the wheel on a tour of ad hoc artworks you can judge from the avenues of L.A.

YOU’VE probably never met Shepard Fairey, but chances are you’ve seen his face on the street more than once. Not his own visage, of course, but that of pro wrestler turned Hollywood actor Andre the Giant, with the word "obey" emblazoned underneath, on posters and stickers Fairey has rendered in red, black and white.

When Fairey first took his "Obey" campaign to the streets of East Coast cities in the early 1990s, he was a student at the Rhode Island School of Design, using the printing equipment on campus and at a Kinko’s to make his mark. He gained a following among skate punks, who gladly obliged to deface public property with the image wherever they went.

More than a decade later, Fairey is the co-founder of a budding L.A.-based design studio and a magazine. Galleries and museums have shown his works. The ominous "Icon Face," as he calls his Andre the Giant piece, can still be seen throughout Los Angeles, San Francisco, Philadelphia, New York, London and Tokyo, as well as on a clothing line.

But on a sunny afternoon last week, the 36-year-old South Carolina native was taking us on a tour of street art in L.A. The goal: to find examples that are legal or, at the very least, tolerated enough by the locals so that the works won’t be disappearing any time soon. Planning such an itinerary is not particularly easy, considering that lots of street art goes up illegally. The images, in the form of spray paint, stencils, posters and stickers, can either enhance or tarnish city life, depending on whom you ask.

"People channel their energy in different ways, and I think that street art is not all positive, but there definitely have been positive things that come out of it," Fairey says. "A lot of it comes down to people want something to show for their existence."

Making a statement

Graphic artist, guerrilla artist or vandal — whatever you want to call him — Fairey is probably the best-known American street artist around. On this day, he is zooming from his Wiltern Building offices in Koreatown to East Hollywood in his black Honda SUV, cutting through yellow lights, occasionally interrupting himself mid-sentence to point out a cool piece of aerosol work that catches his eye or to sarcastically scold inattentive motorists. He seems to constantly scan his surroundings.

Guerrilla art has its roots in traditional graffiti art and the hyper-aware Pop sensibility of Andy Warhol. As opposed to tagging or gang-related graffiti, the work done by Fairey and other artists like Banksy, the British artist who made headlines last year by placing a life-size effigy of a Guantanamo Bay detainee in Disneyland, attempts to comment on social issues — antiwar and anti-consumerism being two favorites — by hijacking the public space with startling visuals and pithy phrases.

"First of all I want people to be intrigued. And to question what it is and therefore question everything and hopefully excite them to have a new sensitivity to their environment," says Fairey, whose aesthetic is influenced by Soviet and Chinese propaganda. "I think even if you don’t know what the specific message is, there’s still a power — that’s the concept where ‘the medium is the message,’ " he says, quoting philosopher Marshall McLuhan.

And for the message to get across, artists constantly compete for locales with dense traffic. That can lead to illegal activity; in the city of L.A., a person caught defacing public or private property can be charged with a felony if there’s more than $400 in damage. By state law, one’s driver’s license can also be confiscated.

According to Paul Racs, from the city’s Office of Community Beautification, it responds to 55,000 requests a year to remove graffiti of all kind from public and private property. "If there’s graffiti art, even if they come and put up a beautiful piece, if that person didn’t get permission, we will come and abate it," he says.

But that’s not really what we’re after this afternoon. We head to Western Avenue, just south of Hollywood Boulevard, where a building wall facing a weed-infested lot is covered with red and white Old English script that reads "Seventh Letter Crew." Though it looks as if it could be illegal, it’s not. Fairey explains that its creator, the artist collective Seventh Letter Crew, was asked to do the wall. The crew has traveled to Japan, France and elsewhere on the dime of corporate sponsors. Like Fairey, it has a merchandising line. Its T-shirt designs can be seen in Us Weekly being worn by young Hollywood celebrities.

"To me, it says that style of art is resonating with people," Fairey says. "A lot of people have complained that it’s going to defang graffiti, but if you look at every countercultural movement, eventually it gets co-opted in some way."

Driving along Sunset Boulevard and into Echo Park, we stop by Benton Way at a pastel illustration of bubbly chickens in a pasture by the artist Caché. Fairey notes that the mural is constantly maintained and kept clean. And there’s another mural work by the same artist just up the block east of Coronado Street: the ethereal characters on bikes along the wall, with the phrase "Ride forever" on the side.

"This guy always changes this wall but always has these characters," Fairey says. "It’s really cool."

Wider acceptance

Some street artists keep a low profile, at least in the public eye. But that doesn’t stop the works from gaining a growing following. On websites and blogs such as, and, people share photos of the colorful graphics and monochrome stencils. Big businesses such as Boost Mobile, Scion and Pepsi have hired street artists for marketing campaigns in an effort to tap into the popularity of urban youth culture to sell their products.

The work is shown in galleries and museums as well, enhanced by the respect given such artists as Jean-Michel Basquiat, who spray-painted his "SAMO" moniker on the streets of New York in the late ’70s.

Fairey, who had an exhibition last fall at Merry Karnowsky Gallery in L.A., is represented by several galleries worldwide, is preparing for a show in Italy and is part of a group exhibition opening Friday in Park City, Utah, to coincide with the Sundance Film Festival.

Apart from Fairey’s fine art, which sells for thousands of dollars, he juggles a variety of responsibilities: He designs a merchandise line that includes clothing and skateboard decks; makes artistic decisions as the creative director for Swindle, the lifestyle magazine he co-founded with artist Roger Gastman; and runs Studio Number One, a graphics design company, with his wife, Amanda. The firm has completed work for the music group Black Eyed Peas, the movie "Walk the Line" and Toyota.

Despite all the work that he does as a commercial graphics artist, he still gets the calling to do his work out on the streets.

"The street thing is an outlet for me," he says. "It’s the freedom of it that’s really exciting." And yet he adds: "I don’t have this obsessive need to do street art all the time because it’s already opened doors for me. I’m now able to do things that won’t be cleaned in a day, that won’t get me arrested."

Just up Sunset Boulevard near Alvarado Street, the skate shop Brooklyn Projects gave Fairey permission to use the wall alongside the building several months ago for a mural — a massive, almost grid-like work that integrates his personal cultural references with political messages.

"As far as Echo Park is concerned, there’s always been a conscious awareness regarding music and art," says Daniel Clements, one of the co-owners of Brooklyn Projects. "There’s more of an artistic vibe and awareness out here, like what you would see in a colorful community in Mexico or South America."

When we arrive, Fairey starts explaining the work from left to right, first describing the musical influences he included. There’s an image of a pile of old 45s of some of the music that’s influenced him — the Misfits, Stevie Wonder, the Ramones.

"That symbolizes my counterculture roots," says Fairey, who is wearing a T-shirt for the band the Clash underneath a maroon Adidas jacket and brown cords. "And then I’ve got the political stuff. I’ve got this Uncle Scam — the death of privacy, civil liberties, justice, peace, democracy, human rights." Next to the mock Uncle Sam is the Orwellian phrase "Big Brother is watching you" in bold black letters, printed in the middle of the mural.

The art flows into the gloomy faces of two Tiananmen Square soldiers bearing rifles with a flower stuck in them — a symbol of peace. Though Fairey usually never signs his work, the "Icon Face" can be seen throughout the wall in various incarnations — within a star symbol, on a flower.

"This is just to let people know this is my wall, when I’ve got the obvious ‘Obey’ iconography," he says. "The colors are partially influenced by propaganda, but they’re colors that work really well. Something about seeing red makes people think that something intense is trying to be communicated."

Graffiti art

As we trek back west on Sunset on our way to Melrose Avenue, Fairey immediately focuses on the dilapidated building of the old Sunset Pacific Motel on Sunset near Fountain Avenue — right before dissing a driver for taking too long to switch lanes. On the top of the building, L.A.-based artist Kalen Ockerman, known as Mear One, has painted a giant image of a youth in a brown hoodie with several arms spread out like Shiva, with a can of spray paint in one hand, sitting in the lotus position.

Onward to Santa Monica Boulevard in East Hollywood, Fairey points out something that looks as if it’s straight from a 1980s video arcade. The artist: Space Invader, whose works are from the namesake game. "He’s from Paris, he’s a good friend of mine, and I think he’s awesome because his pieces stay up," Fairey says. "This wall had a bunch of graffiti on it, and he put the mosaic up, and people don’t look at it as graffiti, but it is," he adds, barely containing his excitement. "He’s got a lot of versions, but they’re always mosaics. He had tons of them, but someone went around and stole them all, pried them off the wall."

Next, Fairey parks on the eastern section of the youth shopping mecca Melrose Avenue. Here, graffiti and commercial mural art become blurred. "Obey" stickers can be spotted on the back of almost every street sign.

Fairey gestures toward an even larger Space Invader work, perhaps the largest one in the city, but banners for the men’s clothing store below obscure the view.

"There’s a greater tolerance for graffiti because it’s supply and demand," says Fairey. "I think there’s a lot of subjectivity and subjective enforcement when it’s in a place where the shop owners probably dig it."

On Melrose, we soon pass a Banksy piece, one of his signature black rats. This one’s holding a paintbrush and says, "I’m out of bed and dressed — what more do you want?"

"I see graffiti as rats or roaches; it finds a place to survive. Even if no one likes it, it’s going to figure out a way to exist," says Fairey, who’s a friend of Banksy and has helped him find spaces to put up his work.

In September, Banksy’s three-day exhibition in an L.A. warehouse was said to have drawn about 30,000 people — as well as the ire of the city’s Department of Animal Services, which ordered that a painted elephant in the show be scrubbed clean of the paint.

The largest Banksy piece that Fairey shows us is just a few blocks down. Along the top of a two-story optometry office is a large black-and-white graphic of Batman’s sidekick Robin, holding a can of paint and a long red paint roller. "No more heroes" is scrawled in red script on Melrose facing Stanley Avenue.

And on Beverly Boulevard near La Brea Avenue, there’s yet another Banksy piece depicting an old woman wearing a scarf, with the words, "You looked better on myspace." Above her lurks a piece by artist Thierry Guetta, of a man with a camera.

Our last stop is to see an elaborate portrait of a blue woman with long, flowing black hair by aerosol artists Retna and El Mac, on La Brea near 3rd Street. It looks as if it was quite an undertaking, yet it’s on a temporary plywood wall between the sidewalk and an empty lot. "Do you see how amazing this portrait is? That’s a really great piece," Fairey says. "That’s two different guys, but that kind of use of spray paint, that’s ridiculous skills."

Street artist Shepard Fairey stands infront of one of his creations on the side of Brooklyn Projects skateboarding shop in Echo Park, Los Angeles. Fairey is the creator of the OBEY posters featuring Andre the Giant’s face and has his own design firm, "Studio Number One," based in Los Angeles.(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times) January 9, 2007

A portrait of a blue woman with long flowing black hair was painted on a temporary plywood wall on La Brea Avenue near 3rd Street by aerosol artists Retna adn El Mac. (Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times) January 9, 2007

A mural by the Seventh Letter Crew rests on a building next to a vacant lot near 1600 N. Western Avenue in Los Angeles. (Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times) January 9, 2007

Along Beverly Boulevard, Banksy’s portrait of an elder woman with a cryptic message sits below Thierry Guetta’s work of a man with a camera. (Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times) January 9, 2007

A figure created by The Street Phantom stands on the bottom of a set of stairs at the Sunset Pacific Motel along Sunset Blvd. in Silver Lake. (Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times) January 9, 2007

A pedestrian approaches a piece by street artist Thierry Guetta on a side street near 7600 Melrose Avenue in Los Angeles.(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times) January 9, 2007

Street artist Shepard Fairey painted Echo Park skate shop Brooklyn Projects. (Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times) January 9, 2007
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Iron Eye Gallery on LA Times

September 20 2006 . 09:41pm

Los Angeles Times, Thursday, April 14, 2005

Scruffy? Yes. Stuffy? No.

Diverse galleries and an edgy vibe give Downtown Art Walk a growing appeal.

By Liane Bonin, Special to The Times

It’s 8 o’clock on a Thursday night, and the Bert Green Fine Art gallery is quietly bustling as art aficionados soberly inspect the first L.A. showing of Valerie Jacobs’ politically charged paintings. A block away, a crowd of creative types nibbles on cheese and crackers at the 626 Gallery, where the vibrant work of African American artists Synthia St. James and Charles Bibb is on view. A little farther down the street, the Iron Eye Gallery has amped up the volume. The owners are holding a party, complete with a DJ and a cluster of twentysomething revelers. "I heard Drew Barrymore came last month," one guest yells over the music.

It could be any city’s art walk, with the same hipster crowd and hipper artwork, but this one has a little extra, shall we say, ambience. Situated in downtown L.A. and running since September, this monthly trek from gallery to gallery involves negotiating one’s way around some gritty streets. But with 19 galleries confirmed for today’s walk and the promise of viewing some interesting works, art lovers are willing to overlook some big city blight.

"It’s getting better," says Downtown Art Walk originator Bert Green, whose gallery sees upward of 200 people on most Art Walk days. "The businesses downtown like Pete’s Cafe are getting busier, so that’s making a difference. But when people call up and ask if it’s safe to come here, I tell them, look, anything can happen, but anything can happen anywhere. If you don’t feel safe, don’t come. But if you have a sense of adventure, come with an open mind."

If you’re willing to dodge a few panhandlers in your quest, the walk is a quick subway ride to Pershing Square. (Dedicated gas guzzlers can find inexpensive parking lots on the Art Walk map online.) Most of the stops are on Gallery Row: Main and Spring streets, between 2nd and 9th. Until this month, the walk included galleries east of San Pedro Street and south of Olympic Boulevard, but they are choosing to stay off the list until a rough plan kicks in to extend DASH bus hours on walk nights. Alas, even art can’t overcome a fundamental truth about Angelenos: Sure, we’ll walk, but not that far.

The artwork to be found during the March event covered a dizzying array of styles and mediums. At the Los Angeles Center for Digital Art you could soak up the satirical Bush-bashing photography of Chris Anthony, then wander the few blocks to Infusion to view the Mir� esque modernism of Jenik. At Iron Eye there were street-tough tattoo-inspired canvases by Mister Cartoon, and just downstairs at Kristi Engle were snarky video installations by Joel Huschle. Stumbling across the delicate plein-air landscapes of Star Higgins at M.J. Higgins offered relief from the sensory overload.

While much of the art was aggressive and assured, not all of the galleries were quite so sophisticated. Though there are grand Dames like MOCA and the Museum of Neon Art as well as veterans lik Green and 626 owner Tom Pratt, some owners are learning as they go.

Canvases lean against the walls or flop against chair backs. One gallery ties a curtain across a hallway to create an impromptu lobby; they have no choice, having dedicated their single room to a video installation. Another gallery isn’t quite ready for Art Walk, with owners hanging paintings and arguing over placement as people enter to see what the fuss is all about. In another space, the sole observer and her companion are tapped on the shoulder by the owner. "Look, I have got to go out for a bit, but just sign your name on the guest list if you have any questions," he says with a smile. "And don’t steal anything!"

The rough-around-the-edges art school vibe means that there’s none of the stuffiness you might expect when it comes to art. For those with tight budgets, there’s a chance to see scads of art for free, sans the sales pitch.

The good feelings also extend to the gallery owners. "There’s not the usual sense of competition. I feel like I can call any of the people on the Art Walk and say, ‘Hey, I have a question,’ " says Kristi Engle. Like many on the Art Walk, she is a newbie, having opened her doors in November. "There’s absolutely a sense of community here."

The hard part could be making it last. As with every other part of the city, the more appealing downtown becomes, the higher rents will go, potentially sending gallery owners scrambling for a cheaper digs. "We in the art world are good at that kind of thing," Green jokes. "It’s an oversimplification, but we come into an area, fix it up, and then get kicked out."


Downtown Art Walk

Where: Walk is centered on Spring and Main streets, between 2nd and 9th streets, downtown L.A.

When: Noon to 9 p.m., second Thursday of every month

Price: Free




Founded in Downtown Gallery Row Los Angeles 2004, INRI Studios is located in the epicenter of an exploding progressive arts movement. The space supports the Iron Eye gallery as well as the INRI art collective, which is compromised of painters, web/print designers, screen printers, photographers, writers and fashion designers. The collective’s mission is to produce and provide creative services that support all platforms.

Iron Eye Gallery is housed within the expansive 7,500 sq. ft INRI studios, It’s mission is to expose and expand innate talent to both a national and international audiences comprised of designers, collectors, writers, curators and the entertainment industry. Iron Eye is intent on reflecting our multi-cultural experience by concentrating on creative individuals that are working through all mediums.

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