Josh Kun wanted to document Los Angeles’ history through autographs, so he started in an obvious place: the signatures of the famous.
But then he went to an unexpected place: the streets, where he noticed the stories embedded in the graffiti, murals and gang tags across the city.
“The issues that autographs raise, which are issues around fame, power, celebrity, remembrance, are always important issues in the history of L.A.,” said Kun, director of the USC Annenberg School of Communication.
“But right now, I think it’s fair to say that the city is going through a particularly intense moment of ... redevelopment, of growth, of gentrification, of neighborhood change that’s making large communities in the city feel as if their names and their stories and their histories don’t matter and are disposable and easily forgotten.”
In his new book, “The Autograph Book of L.A.: Improvements on the Page of the City,” Kun chronicles the evolution of the autograph, from the Hollywood signatures cemented on concrete blocks outside Grauman’s Chinese Theatre to the graffiti scrawls in East L.A. The Angel City Press book is being published in tandem with a Los Angeles Central Library exhibit Kun curated with librarian John F. Szabo, who also wrote the foreword.
The project is Kun’s third book stirred by the library’s special collections. The 224-page book features an introduction by Shepard Fairey, an activist and graphic artist who writes about how graffiti influenced his work. Words by street artist Chaz Bojórquez fill the pages too. In an essay Bojórquez reveals his love for the Chinese Theatre and the way that writing and painting on walls across the city made him feel immortal and like a celebrity — the same way he felt when he put his hands on the handprints of celebrities.
The roots of this new autograph book can be traced back more than 100 years. Shortly after former Los Angeles Librarian Charles Fletcher Lummis trekked more than 2,000 miles on foot from Ohio to Los Angeles, he began racking up signatures from notable figures. John Muir, Will Rogers and Clarence Darrow were among the intellectuals, artists, scientists and numerous others who attended Lummis’ house parties and filled the pages of his guest book.
In 1906, Lummis launched an autograph collection of prominent people at the library. He wanted to promote the city — and the library — as “hubs of fame and excellence.” Mark Twain, Jane Addams and L. Frank Baum were just a few of the 800 autographs he gathered of “People Who Count,” as he called them.
Kun’s book details Lummis’ autograph collection and the evolution of the signature in contemporary L.A. He says people’s desire to be seen and outlive the present persists.
He writes, “[W]ords and names are not words and names. They are vessels that carry the bodies and lives embedded within them forward in time. They are statements of presence and wishes for endurance, reminders that those who came before cannot so easily be made to disappear.”
The book includes photographs of murals and graffiti from throughout the 20th century, with images of autographs, poems, letters and drawings from Lummis’ collection juxtaposed with photos of recent signatures. When Kun and Szabo reached out to the public last year, hundreds of Angelenos participated in the library’s Autograph Day. And in the process, they redefined the idea of “People Who Count.”
In researching the book, Kun said his biggest a-ha moment came from Lummis’ idea that if he could just get the right people’s signatures, he’d bring fame to the library and city.
“That impulse of surrounding oneself with a network of famous people to make yourself famous, and make that city famous, is pre-Kardashian,” he said “and it’s also at the core of social media culture where we tag famous people in our posts to make people notice us.
“And that impulse of saying like, ‘I want you to see me because I see you,’ that’s something that Lummis was doing in deep analog form in the early 1900s.”
These ideas about visibility and remembrance reverberate through “The Autograph Book of L.A.'s” pages and beg the question: Whose stories are told and preserved, and whose are erased and ignored?
And that will leave readers asking: What’s in a name?
Information: “The Autograph Book of L.A.” exhibit runs through Jan. 19 at the Central Library’s First Floor Galleries, 630 W. 5th St., Los Angeles. Free.