As a young artist in Romania, Mihai Nicodim had to get approval from a Communist Party commission to show his work.
Smiling portraits of workers and peasants would easily score a place in an art show. Abstract paintings stood less of a chance.
For a chance at freedom, Nicodim swam across the Danube River in 1983, risking capture by Romanian soldiers. A friend met him on the other side and drove him to Italy.
In the United States, he was homeless, then slept on a friend’s couch. He and his wife, Ono, saved money for years before achieving their version of the American dream: an art gallery.
The Nicodim gallery operated in Chinatown and then Culver City before moving to Boyle Heights in early 2015.
But to anti-gentrification activists, the Nicodims are the face of unwanted change. Last month, someone scrawled an obscene reference to “white art” on the gallery’s metal screen door.
On Saturday morning, members of the Boyle Heights Alliance Against Artwashing and Displacement held a news conference on the steps of the Nicodim gallery. They are incensed by the Los Angeles Police Department’s decision to investigate the graffiti as a hate crime.
“It’s another way for the LAPD to criminalize youth and create racial divisions in this community, to allege an anti-white hate crime when they’re out there shooting our youth — people of color,” said Elizabeth Blaney, a Boyle Heights resident and co-director of the community organizing group Union de Vecinos.
Josh Rubenstein, an LAPD spokesman, said that detectives initiated the hate crimes investigation based on the available evidence. Parallels drawn by the activists between the investigation and the Aug. 9 fatal shooting of Jesse Romero by an LAPD officer are unfounded, Rubenstein added.
According to an LAPD account, Romero, 14, had been tagging gang-type graffiti when he ran from officers, then pointed a gun at them.
The Nicodim gallery and several other art galleries targeted by the activists are located in an industrial area between the Los Angeles River and the 101 Freeway. The activists want to see laundromats, supermarkets and child care centers in the properties, which had previously housed businesses such as warehouses, print shops and fish packers.
Amid concerns about rising rents, the activists see the galleries as a harbinger of change, which they fear will end with the working-class, mostly Latino neighborhood becoming a second Arts District.
“You are not the cutting edge of culture,” Walt Senterfitt, a tenants’ rights activist, said of the galleries. “You are the leading edge of gentrification, colonialism and destruction.”
During the protest, LAPD Sgt. James Baker arrived with a message. A captain from Hollenbeck Station wanted to arrange a meeting with them.
Later, the Nicodims arrived, as some protesters lingered outside the gallery.
Inside, Nicodim pointed to the white walls of the soaring space, where paintings by the German artist Philipp Kremer, with price tags in the $10,000 range, were on display.
Nicodim said he and his wife painted the walls themselves. They rent the space from a man named Mr. Chang, who had kept it empty while using the other half of the building as a warehouse for knickknacks.
Nicodim, 60, who lives in Echo Park, said many of the artists he shows are not white. Oscar Murillo, who was represented by Nicodim at the beginning of his career, is a black artist from Colombia. When the graffiti incident occurred, the gallery was showing “Why Don’t You Eat Stinky Tofu?” — work by the Chinese artist Tong Kunniao.
“Would Oscar agree with that? It’s just sad,” Nicodim said of the graffiti.
Nicodim said he is determined to stay. He risked his life to come to this country so he could live wherever he wants and open a business wherever he wants.
“America is a great country,” Nicodim said. “They have the right to demonstrate. I have the right to be here.”