Critic’s Notebook: The real controversy in MOCA’s ‘Art in the Streets’ graffiti show


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In 1972 Willie Herrón, reacting to a gang assault on his brother, painted a wrenching mural in a City Terrace alley, carefully incorporating the wall’s existing graffiti into the mural design. Later, he explained to an interviewer why the graffiti he found when he began to paint was so important to the finished mural.

‘I embraced graffiti and graffiti became part of my work because I respected the voice of the community,’ the artist said of the mural, ‘The Wall That Cracked Open,’ which helped catalyze the emergence of Chicano art in Los Angeles. ‘And I added to their voice. I didn’t get rid of their voice and say, ‘My voice is superior.’ ‘


Graffiti, then as now a contentious public artistic expression, was not something Herrón felt comfortable incorporating into his portable paintings. What drew him to it in the first place was the fact that it was a vernacular art -- ‘painted by the real people it represents,’ he said, ‘and most of them aren’t artists in a traditional sense.’ Other artists did adapt graffiti to sometimes impressive gallery work, and they have ever since.

Some are included in ‘Art in the Streets,’ the 40-year survey of graffiti and other types of street aesthetics that has been drawing crowds to the Museum of Contemporary Art’s Little Tokyo warehouse space. But others are not.

Nor is Herrón’s work acknowledged in the show’s four-decade time line or its catalog chronology. The show has been highly controversial, mostly because some see it as a glorification of vandalism. But in Sunday’s Arts & Books section, I’ll look at the problematic history presented in ‘Art in the Streets’ -- a history that ought to be the show’s most controversial feature.

Read the story here.

--Christopher Knight