Plastic lined the floors of the Little Tokyo gallery and globs of brightly colored paint — neon yellow, poppy orange, Easter egg blue — were splattered everywhere: in the gallery entranceway, out front on the sidewalk, down the shirts and across the faces of the artists setting up their mural installations.
A four-person street art crew — which goes by, simply, Nomadé — worked in sync to a mix of punk, hip-hop and thrash music, putting finishing touches on a mural of contemporary Los Angeles anchored by a nine-foot-high Greco-Roman soldier. Carrying a palette instead of a shield, a paintbrush instead of a sword, the soldier — Nomadé's trademark — is "an artistic warrior," said one crew member. "He leads, we follow."
It's a curious thing, street art — which also includes graffiti art, stickering, sculpture installations, among other sub-genres. Much of it is hit or miss, as anyone with a spray can and an agenda could call themselves a "street artist." But the genre is rapidly growing in established circles — partly fueled by the accessibility and popularity of artists like England's Banksy and Shepard Fairey, whose Obama Hope poster went viral in 2008. The sprawling, horizontal landscape of L.A. lends itself to graffiti and poster-art collages — and this past January, the L.A. Art Show for the first time hosted a five-day live graffiti installation at the downtown convention center.
"Marxist Glue," which opens Thursday at downtown's Hold Up Art gallery, will showcase 13 of L.A.'s most established "wheat-paste artists," a niche of street art devoted to postering urban walls and other open spaces — sometimes without permission — with graphic, sometimes politically charged images. The term comes from the milky, homemade paste of flour, water and a few secret ingredients — recipes differ — that the artists use to blanket concrete surfaces.
The show chose mostly fine artists who straddle the edgy, subversive world of street and graffiti art, as well as the international museum and gallery scene. The artists' work can be seen at an above-board auction house or an abandoned L.A. parking lot. Guerrilla artist Robbie Conal, known for his biting political caricatures, and Mear One, sometimes referred to as the "Michelangelo of graffiti art," are among the artists in the group show.
The idea for "Marxist Glue" "was to harvest the art from the street," co-curator Toks Shoyoye says. "It's very ephemeral, it never lasts and you never know if you'll get another chance to see that little piece of art on your route. We wanted to get the artists in one place, where it would stay up for an allocated amount of time and people could enjoy it."
Hold Up owner Brian Lee reinforced the gallery's walls with plywood, giving each artist a 9-foot, floor-to-ceiling blank space on which to work.
One of the most striking walls in the show is a black-and-white panoramic Hong Kong cityscape, shaded with deep jewel tones, by an artist who goes by the name Eddie Colla. Another prominent street artist, Shark Toof, printed kitschy black-and-white illustrations onto sheets of coupons from the Sunday paper — then he spray painted a poppy, neon fog over it, a color palette very much of the '90s, punk skateboard aesthetic.
A wall by Cryptik is deceptively simple at first — seemingly just a repetitive pattern of Buddha and Gandhi heads in a wash of browns and tans. But it's layered with aerosol stencils and florid, hand-painted text — it looks like an Arabic-Egyptian hybrid — a language the artist invented. The cryptograms spell out Gandhi quotes like "An eye for an eye, the world goes blind."
"He's trying to re-create a real wall that was attacked, painted over, [exposed to] the natural aging process" Lee says. "He was the first to start and will probably be the last to finish." When "Marxist Glue" closes, Lee will donate the walls to art auctions for charity. Signed, limited edition silkscreen prints of the artists' work will be for sale at the show.
But ultimately, Mear One says, it's not about sales. "It's about taking back the streets, and speaking to an audience I wasn't invited to speak to," he says.