L.A. Graffiti Writers vs. Art Police Censors

Revolutionary Worker #925, September 28, 1997

In the spirit of the old apartheid regime of South Africa, the Los Angeles Parks and Recreation Department recently announced that they were banning the anti-police-brutality graffiti piece that was part of the "City of Angels" mural in the Venice Graffiti Pit. The City has decided to get rid of the piece but, according to First Amendment laws, they have to give the artist 90 days notice before they get rid of his art. In the meantime, city officials have covered up the painting with a heavy brown tarp.

The graffiti piece, by a writer called Xpress, captured the imaginations and praise of people from all over the world. Every day people arrived to take photos of it and spread the word. The police freaked. They mobilized a woman long known in Venice as a police groupie and a rabid Neighborhood Watch vigilante to take up their cause. They demonstrated and unleashed all kinds of conservative TV and talk radio windbags. And covering up the piece has done nothing to quiet the storm as fans of the piece constantly lift the cover to view it. Police supporters recently slashed the heavy brown tarp in order to vandalize the piece by putting their tags over it--a major dis in the graffiti world.

The City has tried to explain away this outrageous censorship by saying that this particular piece, created during a day-long graffiti writing party organized by the Social Public Art Resource Center (SPARC), wasn't "authorized." SPARC very quickly exposed this lie. For real, the problem with this art is that it wasn't police-approved and it hit a very raw nerve. This isn't the first time in Los Angeles, as well as many other cities around the country, that the police have tried to determine what art gets produced and displayed. In fact, it's getting more and more common every day. These beasts are now the "special censors." Armed with paint rollers dipped in white-out, scissors and big clubs, they are going after all forms of progressive art, especially the art produced by and speaking to the rebellious young heads working and living in the cracks in the concrete walls of Amerikkka.

Just a month earlier and about 10 miles east of Venice, an art gallery on La Brea Avenue--a street with dozens of art galleries, coffeehouses and theaters not to mention strip joints, bars and discount bargain stores--was raided by riot-geared cops. The gallery displays, promotes and develops graffiti art. It's run by ICU Art (In Creative Unity), a group of artists, curators and designers who put on art exhibitions of politically important and relevant art work. Since graffiti has its roots deep among the people, police brutality and the fight against it are often a big part of any graffiti exhibition. One of the very first shows ICU did was to mark the first anniversary of the 1992 L.A. Rebellion by having graffiti artists express their views on it in their art. ICU supports the Coalition Against Police Abuse (CAPA)--often making donations to CAPA from the exhibitions--and also contributes art work to various progressive causes and events. Since the middle of July the ICU gallery has been raided not once but twice and the people that run the gallery have been told by the police that maybe they should pack up and get out of town. One of the founders of ICU explained what happened:

"There's all kinds of censorship in this form of art. We're fighting one kind of censorship by trying to have these shows no matter what. We provide the paint, the canvas and a nice opening party. We do this to try to make this opening legitimate in every way. We want to make this an opening where the artists and the guests don't get shot by gang members, another tagger, citizen vigilantes or the police. Nonetheless, we were censored at our opening when the police shut it down. On July 26 we had the opening of our brand new art gallery here on La Brea. It was our inaugural exhibition, a spray-can art show called the "Wild, Wild West." There were over 35 spray-can graffiti street artists doing work on canvas in the gallery. We had all original work done for the show and we prepared for this show for two and a half months. The show is about life on the West Coast of the United States in the experience of those artists who have lived and worked here and grown up here. And it was all done in a frontier style, an aggressive style--a life-or-death, do-or-die situation which is every day in L.A. It's the wild west.

"We had our opening, a wonderful, typical gallery opening. We had very tight security. And we had all kinds of people. We had graffiti crews from all over L.A. We had people from museums, corporations and institutions here. We had people from the music and film industry. We had people from CAPA here and we were donating money to CAPA. And we also had kids from all over L.A. Well, the police came to our opening. They put on riot gear and said that there were kids who looked like they were gang members at the opening. They threatened to shut the opening down. There were a lot of people here with video cameras and they were telling people to stop filming what was happening.

"The police asked us if we knew there were gang members at the opening. They were a CRASH unit and they said there were gang members there. When they first came by they said everything was fine--we had security, valet parking and the area was well lit. We put a lot of money into things to make sure everything was OK. We got a ton of fire extinguishers, lighted exit signs, fire alarms, uniformed armed security, caterers and servers. Still though, the police came back and told us to disperse, to leave the party. The opening started at 7 p.m. and the police came initially at 10 and started to move in at 10:30 p.m. After they came and told us we had gang members at our party then they sent out for more police to come. They left and then came back with 30 or 40 cops, some people counted at least a dozen cars, and they had riot gear and a helicopter. They came through and said everyone had to get out, that the party was over and they hustled everybody out the back. They were turning away clients who arrived at that time, important show business people who came to support the opening. When these people and other business people saw the police they got scared and left. They were basically trying to end my business. When I asked the police about this they said, `You just can't do this around here. It sounds like you need a new space.'

"We followed all the rules for this reception. We told the police we were having this reception. We got the Fire Marshall in here the week before the reception. We went out into the neighborhood to tell people that we were having the reception and to tell them they were welcome to come by. The police could have worked with us. But they're not gonna work with us. They're trying to shut us down. We were trying to work with them. Our organization is trying to break ground by working with all these government organizations and conforming with all their needs and desires. Nonetheless, they still shut down our opening and suggested that I need to shut the business down. They want to see us shut down. They don't want us to do anything for the kids at all. And if we do any kind of positive event for the kids it is always in danger from the police just because those kids are there."

The raid on the opening night party of the exhibit wasn't the first time the gallery had been hit by the cops. Two weeks earlier the gallery and the artists held a private party to raise some of the money needed to mount the "Wild Wild West" exhibit. The party had been going on for a couple of hours when the LAPD CRASH unit showed up. People were lined up in the back parking lot of the gallery waiting to get inside the party since the gallery owners were being very careful not to violate the fire codes. When the cops showed up they announced that it looked like there were gang members in the parking lot line so they ordered everyone inside. Then the police came inside and started asking for permits and soon declared that the gallery was violating the fire codes and the party would have to be shut down. They called for the Fire Marshal and had him count heads. And, of course, since the cops forced everyone inside at the same time they were able to declare the party in violation of the fire code concerning maximum occupancy. They also ordered the organizers to shut their huge roll-up garage doors and then declared another violation in that there weren't enough fire exits. By this time there were over 40 police and 18 cop cars on the scene. When the police first arrived it was before the 10 p.m. curfew faced by people under 18 in L.A. Many of the people at the party were younger than 18 but as long as they were waiting to get into the party when they were lined up in the parking lot they "had a destination" and therefore couldn't be picked up for curfew violations. The police waited until after 10 p.m. to shut the party down and when they did they forced everyone back out into the parking lot. Since technically the people in the parking lot no longer "had a destination" they were in violation of the curfew and the police went through the crowd checking IDs. Before the night ended they busted between 60 and 80 people for curfew violations.

In the weeks that followed the raids the ICU gallery has continued its work. On August 31 they contributed two huge and beautiful graffiti pieces from the "Wild, Wild West" exhibit to decorate the stage of the Art Speaks benefit concert/gathering for the National Day of Protest Against Police Brutality and the Nickersons 7. One of the founders of the ICU explained what keeps him going in the face of all the harassment. "I've been inspired by all art in general to make that something I want to be my life's career. And when I looked around, the art that was hot and good and interesting and was mind-blowing and captured my interest was the graffiti art. And politically, 1991, 1992, and 1993 there were so many injustices going on in this city and you had the war in the Gulf and the Republicans in office and Daryl Gates in office here and I just got caught up in it. That was when L.A. became more interesting to me--to see people who actually cared and were expressing themselves out in the streets. I was looking for more of the discourse between citizens and artists that you see in the Bay Area down here in L.A. That's what gives people hope to continue on when the struggle gets difficult--to see that there are other people who care about similar issues."

This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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