Neon Tommy - Annenberg digital news

#ArtShareLA Showcases The Best Of L.A. Street Art

Elizabeth Johnson |
March 27, 2013 | 4:39 p.m. PDT

Senior Entertainment Editor

Saber's 24-carat gold flags are showcased this month at the #ArtShareLA exhibition. (Beth Johnson/Neon Tommy)
Saber's 24-carat gold flags are showcased this month at the #ArtShareLA exhibition. (Beth Johnson/Neon Tommy)
Exhibiting work in the Los Angeles Arts District is a bittersweet homecoming for graffiti artist and painter Saber. When he was starting out in the art world in his teens - “just a kid,” he says - he would go there to paint graffiti on every wall he could find.

“You couldn’t even come near this neighborhood without a group of friends and someone being strapped,” said Saber, now in his mid-thirties. “We would come here and paint these walls at our own risk. And I saw friends go. I saw friends die; I saw friends put away for just expressing themselves.”

During his more than 15-year career, Saber has developed epilepsy from paint fume inhalation and lost friends and fellow artists to street violence and incarceration, some of them sent to maximum-security prisons. 

A piece by SEVER at Art Share L.A. (Beth Johnson/Neon Tommy)
A piece by SEVER at Art Share L.A. (Beth Johnson/Neon Tommy)

His story mirrors those of other street artists in a culture that at once criminalizes their work and celebrates it.

“We risked everything to do it,” Saber said. “It is what it is. If I don’t paint, I don’t exist.”

The L.A.-born artist is currently featured in the Arts District exhibition #ArtShareLA, a street art show curated by Known Gallery and featuring some of Saber’s work. The show runs until April 7th. 

#ArtShareLA isn’t so much an art exhibition as it is an olive branch. Street artists and media companies alike came together in a union that could at best be called unlikely, considering the pair’s competing interest of billboard space.

Largely responsible for the alliance is Rick Robinson, managing director at MacDonald Media and Board Director for Art Share L.A., an artist’s sanctuary and gallery where the exhibition is held.

Risk x Nathan Ota at Art Share L.A. (Beth Johnson/Neon Tommy)
Risk x Nathan Ota at Art Share L.A. (Beth Johnson/Neon Tommy)

“For years, the billboard companies have prosecuted the street artists,” said Robinson, whose company works with media corporations to purchase billboard space. “This is a reflection of the street art movement evolving. Like it or not, things get into main stream eventually.”

Robinson said that just as the media companies have adapted by sharing billboard space with the street artists, the artists themselves have evolved in their craft and helped legitimize the movement.

“Street art is hardly street anymore,” Robinson said. “Street art is now in the galleries as well as the public space.”

Patrick Martinez's piece is also on one of the billboards featured throughout Los Angeles. (Beth Johnson/Neon Tommy)
Patrick Martinez's piece is also on one of the billboards featured throughout Los Angeles. (Beth Johnson/Neon Tommy)
The exhibition features bright, bold paintings by numerous artists relevant to L.A.’s street scene; some works were made with the same aerosol paint used for graffiti pieces. There’s a neon sign reading “BULLETS $15,000 EACH,” by Patrick Martinez, priced at $4,500. 

“Street art is a language like any other iconography,” explained Robinson, an artist himself. “You could say something is art deco, something is modernist. Street art belongs in that same conversation as a definable motif that is now being adopted by advertising and fashion and communication. It’s all over the place. Like any other movement it happened organically. It came from the streets.”

Though Saber began learning his craft on the streets of L.A., he now paints indoors for fear of being prosecuted by the city. After a long ban on most public murals, Los Angeles recently passed an ordinance narrowing their regulations for non-commercial art murals. But the city still requires permits for public murals.

“There’s no point in giving them any ammunition when I’ve already painted 500 pieces in this city,” he explained.

Four of Saber’s works were featured at the exhibition, all gold leaf flags made from the paint that drops to cardboard on the floor when he creates larger, hyper-detailed paintings. The flags are topped with 24-carat gold leaf and represent the artist’s views on America’s current healthcare system.

A piece by Rime (Beth Johnson/Neon Tommy)
A piece by Rime (Beth Johnson/Neon Tommy)
He is also one of 15 street artists who will have their work displayed through March and April on billboard space donated by such media companies as Clear Channel and CBS.

Both the exhibition and the billboards are part of a fundraiser for Art Share L.A., which offers art classes to the community at an affordable cost and hosts to gallery space and affordable artists’ lofts.

Funds raised at an opening reception earlier this month will go towards maintaining Art Share L.A.’s 100-year-old building and help fund the classes that they offer. The organization set a goal of $10,000, which was reached by the end of the March 1st event.

“I find this particular organization very important for the life’s blood of downtown and access to the arts,” said Saber. “And as we all know, access to the arts has been decimated. [My activism] comes from that specifically. My true heart lies in spreading the gospel of art. That’s what graffiti is anyway, it just gets misinterpreted.”

Saber has conducted several activism projects, using skywriting in downtown L.A. and raising signatures in attempts to protest the city’s mural regulations for street artists. 

Photography by Willie T (Beth Johnson/Neon Tommy)
Photography by Willie T (Beth Johnson/Neon Tommy)

Robinson said he, too, sees a discrepancy between prosecuting street artists while denying them adequate access to art education and outlets for creativity.

“For four or five decades we tell these kids, ‘You’re a criminal; you’re a vandal. You’re what you’re supposed to be, you came from the inner city anyway.’ We do that, but now in the last decade we say, ‘But we’re gonna put you in galleries and museums so you can monetize this.’ So which way is it? Is it a crime or is it a career?” asked Robinson.

Laura Maly said she became an Art Share L.A. board member after visiting the sanctuary and thinking there was something “magic about it.”

The exhibition also showcases pieces from street art fixture Shepard Fairey (Beth Johnson/Neon Tommy)
The exhibition also showcases pieces from street art fixture Shepard Fairey (Beth Johnson/Neon Tommy)
“The arts district has been ground zero for a lot of counter culture, and I think that putting this graffiti exhibit together has really been a full circle approach for us,” Maly said. “It’s great to get these guys in here and have L.A. embrace what they do and see it as beauty, which I don’t think everybody does.”

Saber has been a fixture in the L.A. street art world for many years and was featured in MoCA’s 2011 Art in the Streets exhibit as well as his own solo shows in New York. He is known for what some have called the largest graffiti painting ever, a 1997 piece along the L.A. River, which was recently washed away in a clean-up project.

The Washington Post called Saber one of "the best and most respected artists in his field,” and his pieces can cost thousands of dollars. But the artist is quick to say that success is not what drives him.

“I am standing on a precipice of infinite wealth, and I could be fucking homeless,” he said, laughing. “That’s the beauty of it. I’ve already found my god. I found it when I was a kid. When you discover a passion, it drives the rest of your life.”

See some of the billboards here.

Reach Senior Entertainment Editor Elizabeth Johnson here. Follow her on Twitter here.



 

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