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Downtown L.A.'s 'mural mayor' Daniel Lahoda draws praise, controversy

Fresh paint on the cement wall of an industrial warehouse space across from Handsome Coffee Roasters reveals two sides of Los Angeles' downtown Arts District. Graffiti tags cover one half of the wall; the other has just been coated with glossy red paint and towering gold letters: RISKR … with more letters to come.

On a rickety green ladder, wearing his sponsor's blue Osiris sneakers, the artist RISK dispenses another elaborate swoosh of gold paint with his spray can. Once a street tagger, RISK, born Kelly Graval, was one of five L.A. graffiti artists featured in MOCA's 2011 "Art in the Streets" show and has fans all over the world. The braid in his bib-length beard flips in the wind as he works.

Across the street, leaning against a steel-gray wall, as if it were a stoop in Brooklyn, a group of heavily tattooed men smoke cigarettes and watch the action. But it's the man standing in the shadows of the wall who has their attention.

MAP: L.A. Freewalls mural project

"Hey, it's the Mayor" says one of them, pointing to a slight, fresh-faced figure in rolled-up jeans and tousled brown hair. "Seriously, the wall Mayor!"

Shying away from the attention, Daniel Lahoda walks past the men. "I don't know what I am," he says quietly. "People call me a lot of things."

Looking younger than his 35 years, Lahoda could easily be one of the neighborhood's art students. He's actually the owner of the nearby LALA Gallery, which showcases prints and original paintings by street artists.

He's also known to many as "the guy who gets the walls" for artists. Through his LA Freewalls project, Lahoda brokers deals between businesses and street artists, offering building owners new murals to cover up unwanted graffiti and securing wall canvases for artists.

The project has resulted in more than 120 new murals, mostly in downtown L.A.'s Arts District, by some of the world's leading street artists, among them Shepard Fairey, French artist JR and SEEN.

But in the tightly knit street art world, Lahoda is a deeply controversial figure. Just the mention of his name may prompt spontaneous outpourings of praise or abrupt phone disconnects.

This duality has created something of a mystique around Lahoda, who is not an artist himself, but who has carved out a niche as a renegade art entrepreneur helping to proliferate — and profit from — the uninstitutionalized, territorial and often chaotic world of street art.

Some view Lahoda as a passionate art activist helping street artists spread their messages while also supporting the business community.

PHOTOS: Freewalls mural project

"He's turned the neighborhood into a museum without walls that draws tourists from all over the world," says Estela Lopez, executive director of Central City East Assn., an advocacy group for downtown business owners. "Murals have always been here, but not of this scope. Daniel created an infrastructure to put the Arts District on the map."

Others, however, point to an LAPD crime alert seeking information about Lahoda. Easily found on the LAPD's website, the alert cites complaints about "allegations of art ordered and paid for but never delivered" and "taking art on consignment and diverting the art and money obtained for his own use."

LAPD Det. Don Hrycyk, who posted the alert, says he's received complaints from as far away as Japan, Sweden, Brazil and England regarding Lahoda's online businesses — JetSet Graffiti and Lahoda Fine Arts.

The Better Business Bureau of Los Angeles has one Lahoda-related complaint on file from the last three years; no complaints have been made about LALA Gallery, JetSet Graffiti or Lahoda Fine Arts over the last year.

"Lahoda wants to project the image of being a champion for the underdog and graffiti artists and freedom for certain kinds of art," Hrycyk says. "But we've had complaint after complaint about his business practices — and by some of the same artists that he claims to champion."

Lahoda insists the allegations against him are false. He adds that comments about him online — including a letter on a graffiti forum from L.A. artist SABER, who painted an L.A. Freewalls mural in 2010 — are from competing businesses and artists with whom he has had personal conflicts. "Graffiti politics," he says.

"It's hurt my business and been really painful," Lahoda says of the crime alert, which has been online since 2009. "I haven't been arrested or charged with any of these things. Where's my day in court? I don't want to sue the city [over the alert] — I'd rather put my money into beautifying it."

Struggling for legitimacy and ensconced in contention, Lahoda mirrors multiple aspects of the street art subculture. His is a new business model in which deals are made on the fly and visibility is a currency. But it's a pliable model and often misunderstood, not unlike the nuances of street art itself, where the lines between criminal behavior, political activism and fine art often blur.

Even Lahoda's own description of his job, which defies categorization, speaks to the growing mainstreaming and commercialization of public art.

"I'm part curator, part location scout, part producer, part art dealer," Lahoda says. "You can call me a lot of different things. You can call me a complete scoundrel — some do."

One might add agent or power broker to that list. Lahoda is a gatekeeper, not only working with established artists, but getting exposure and walls as canvases for new talent.

Murals have the power to elevate artists' profiles, which, in turn, can raise the price tag on their print sales online and in galleries. The murals Lahoda initiates don't carry his name or gallery logo, lest they be considered advertising, not art. But Lahoda's LALA Gallery represents many of the artists who paint the walls he acquires, so their exposure translates into gallery sales for him — money that at least partly goes back into creating more murals, he says.

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"He's a mystery, like a noir art curator," says mural expert and blogger Ed Fuentes. "He rolled into town, a man with a past."

Lahoda grew up in Vestal, N.Y., where his mother was a nurse and his father worked for IBM. He's been interested in art since college at Goddard, where he majored in art history and anthropology.

After college, Lahoda worked as curator at a Boston gallery and at two Las Vegas-based print publishing companies. Then, in early 2008, he launched his own print publishing company, Lahoda Fine Arts, which licenses the work of street artists and sells limited print runs online. He moved to L.A. later that year, settling in the Arts District.

In December 2009, he started LA Freewalls, in part to fight the citywide ban on new murals that had been in place since 2003. He felt the more rogue "mural bombing" that was going on in the Arts District at the time — where artists painted on the run and many business owners operated in fear of their property being defaced — wasn't sustainable.

Instead, he sought to produce murals in a more organized fashion, with support from the community, though still operating outside city regulations.

"LA Freewalls stands against that code almost in a protest fashion" says Lahoda, who regularly attends City Council and city planning commission meetings to advocate for an ordinance that would lift the mural ban. "We're able to pull it off because we have widespread community support. But we're keeping it in the Arts District where people are tolerant. I wouldn't do this in Beverly Hills."

Warren Brand, of Culver City's Branded Arts, finds walls for Westside artists and says of Lahoda, "I have a lot of respect for Daniel — he's been doing it a lot longer than I have. I'm kinda the Westside street art curator, but I haven't done any in Downtown L.A. That's all Daniel."

One way Lahoda acquires walls is by going door to door, educating business owners about the merits of murals. They deter graffiti, he says, because taggers aren't likely to deface the work of artists they respect. He also points out that murals make buildings more visible and draw tenants.

Artists appreciate the public canvases; residents like the aesthetics.

Many of the walls come free and so do the artists. Lahoda handles logistics, such as contracts and equipment rentals, which most artists don't want to bother with. He also typically pays for paint and other supplies, a cost mitigated by his sponsor, the German company Montana Spray Paint, which aims to get its cans into the hands of well-known artists.

Fairey painted the first LA Freewalls mural; works by Ron English, RETNA, identical twins How and Nosm (Raoul and Davide Perre), and the Cyrcle collective followed. Lahoda opened LALA Gallery in mid-2012 to give the project a brick-and-mortar home.

PHOTOS: Freewalls mural project

Increasingly, corporations are using street art murals to brand their aesthetic, and some turn to Lahoda to find walls or artists. He organized two murals for Red Bull earlier this year on the side of San Francisco's Ian Ross Gallery, as part of its Ride + Style event.

In L.A., corporate murals most often appear on walls permitted for advertising. Lahoda comes up with a production budget so that the company can cover supplies, a location fee for the building owner (anywhere from $1,000 to $25,000 and higher) and something for himself. The artists are paid separate commissions, sometimes $5,000 or even $50,000, depending on the artists' experience and popularity.

Who owns the rights to public art and murals is an ongoing issue. One of How and Nosm's LA Freewalls murals, a collaboration with the married Dabs Myla team, was featured in a Chevrolet commercial that aired during this year's Grammys. The production company approached Lahoda for the rights to use the image on TV.

"He never even told us about it," Nosm says. "I should have been compensated, not him." (The production company eventually paid How and Nosm a licensing fee.)

"I didn't make any money off of the rights. I only made money off of brokering the deal," says Lahoda, who insists he gave the artists advance notice of the ad. "I was working in the interest of How and Nosm."

On another day, at another RISK mural, a wall roughly 6,000 square feet drips with purple and aqua paint. It's part of the artist's "Beautifully Destroyed" series, with counterparts in Miami, New York and London.

Across the street, Lahoda waits in line at a bustling coffee shop. His mirrored sunglasses and worn baseball cap are speckled with paint. He adjusts the collar of his gray sports jacket, a designer item that, more than anything, sums up his polarization of character.

"This jacket, it's reversible" Lahoda says, slipping it off, turning it inside out and repositioning the buttons before putting it back on. What was once sporty-looking is now slick and corporate. The quick transformation leaves him beaming. "I'm such a Gemini."

A helicopter roars overhead as RISK sprays geometric stencils onto the wall; a homeless woman pushes a rattling cart. The mural, now bathed in a luminescent, bluish haze, lends a distinctly playful vibe to the block.

RISK says he doesn't engage in business transactions with Lahoda — he sells his work through Corey Helford Gallery — but he's happy to paint Lahoda's walls for free.

"It's crazy that we have a city so rich in cultural art and murals and no one's painting because they're scared of the city," RISK says. "Daniel's ignoring the obstacles, he's doing it, and he's taking a lot of heat for it. He's rejuvenating the Arts District. As long as he provides walls, I'm gonna paint them."

"These murals," adds Lahoda, "they define us, they define the neighborhood."

And what defines Lahoda?

"I'd like to think I defy characterization, and that's what keeps me relevant," he says. "At the end of the day, I'm just someone who's passionate about the art."

 

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deborah.vankin@latimes.com

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