I erroneously thought that the Museum of Contemporary Art’s Saturday-night opening of “Art in the Streets,” the nation's first major exhibition of street and graffiti art, wouldn’t be packed, with hundreds of people waiting to get inside, at 7 p.m.
I had experienced empty streets and restaurants since Friday, when a large chunk of the city fled to the desert for Coachella.
If MOCA members are coming tonight, I thought, they would arrive fashionably late to Little Tokyo at 8 or 9, maybe. Not 7. Even on a weekend night, it’s hard to draw Angelenos to an event earlier than 8. Yet when I drove by First Street at 6:50 p.m., I couldn’t even make out a distinct line. Just a mass of well-dressed people who looked like they were late to an opera.
I’ve thought a lot about street art since my visit to a in North Hollywood last month. The opening night for that exhibit felt like a hip party that I'd accidentally stumbled into. There was no line, though the warehouse inside was packed with artists. It was made to spark conversations between fine artists and street artists, to persuade the community’s acceptance of graffiti art as a form of art, and to feature female artists.
Cella Gallery’s exhibit didn’t look in the past; it displayed current street art by local artists. No one was internationally famous, but they were well-known in the San Fernando Valley, a sprawl of suburbia and divided neighborhoods that often serves as a canvas for emerging street artists. There, at the opening night, I was an outsider in a sea of friends and artists who humbly talked to me about their work.
And here I was, at MOCA on Saturday, experiencing the completely opposite sensation: a local who has carefully observed the street art movement, in a sea of highbrow museum members. I wasn’t at Coachella, but I wasn’t too removed from crowds and live music: a DJ set and bar were entertaining a crowd outside the entrance. I lingered by it for a few moments before slipping inside.
There was a sign that said no pens were allowed inside the exhibit. No bags were checked, but it meant that I couldn’t write down notes and observations in my notebook, so I started a blank memo on my iPhone. The reason for the no-pens rule was obvious, and a symbol of the movement itself. If street art is allowed, other people will feel the need to add their own symbol, their own mark that they were there. It is the reason that murals and street art are often plagued with unwanted graffiti. The door can’t be only partly open; it has to be shut closed or wide open. And, in a hyped exhibition, they chose to enforce the same rules as other museums (even if some of the artists featured in “Art in the Streets” performed tomfoolery at other respected museums).
Like trying to read a 1,000-page novel in a few hours, the site was overwhelming. What area to go to first? Where to start? How to finish it all in one night? It made me dizzy thinking about it, but I moved forward, and decided to go straight to the lion’s den first.
The Banksy room was packed, as expected. There were photos leaked earlier in the week that showed the graffiti stained-glass window that he worked on with students from the City of Angels School in Los Angeles, and like an addict, I was hungry for more. A construction sign (Single Lane Ahead) was converted into a warning with the help of an hourglass graphic that showed a heart slowly disintegrating. In another piece, a child worker wore a shirt that said “I Hate Mondays!” Everything the British artist creates is a tongue-in-cheek social commentary that causes anger or applause. After I had my fill of his wit, I moved into the center of the exhibition.
Freight train graffiti started in the mid-1980s, and the exhibition dedicated a small portion to this early phenomenon. Photographs and oil paintings by Dondi White and Martha Cooper are in this section, documenting the art form. There is a section that is designed like a city, complete with animated mannequins that are dressed like street artists in the middle of spray-painting. There is a sign hanging from the ceiling that resembles one you might see on a freeway. Across some floors are garbage and scattered magazines. The exhibition is like a maze, and just when some parts of it feel like a museum, you stumble into a drum set, a wall of lost animal signs, or a “haunted house” with actors pretending to be homeless people.
Just like the skyscrapers downtown, you can only take everything in by looking up. Above a couple of walls, I spotted pieces by French artist Invader, carefully constructed tile mosaics of space creatures. The exhibition feels like it has no end. Even though there are doors, walls and ceilings that keep everything together, the museum is hardly big enough to contain everything. The building is swelled to capacity; two hours after my arrival, I can barely walk through the crowd of photographers, strollers and gallery-goers.
The exhibition is open through August, and I wonder if it will change anyone’s view of street art and graffiti as vandalism. Transporting art from a location that has no rules to a location surrounded by crisp, white walls and security guards does change the viewing process. More than once, when I lingered by a wall taking notes, or studied a piece, I was told that I was too close to the art and needed to step back.
Trash, spray-painted mirrors, ice cream trucks: Everything here was under strict surveillance. When I exited the exhibition at half past 9, I passed by the line to enter the gift shop, which was also closely monitored by museum employees.
I walked down the street to my car, which I'd left in the Arts District. Here, there were murals all around, constantly changed, or added to, like an artists’ playground. The street was empty.