It's not everyday that the work of graffiti artists is shown in the same space as 15th century German painter and engraver Albrecht Dürer. But an unusual show at the El Segundo Museum of Art (a small, nonprofit arts space otherwise known as ESMoA) has put the two together in an exhibition that provides a new way of thinking about graffiti.
"Scratch," which opens to the public Sunday, is organized by ESMoA and the Getty Research Institute (GRI), and brings together a selection of rare books from the Getty's collection -- many of which date to the 16th century -- in a room that is drenched in graffiti murals.
The concept for the exhibition was actually born last year, when Ed Sweeney, a prominent collector of graffiti art in Los Angeles, approached the Getty Research Institute about doing something graffiti-related. David Brafman, a rare books curator at the Getty Research Institute, along with assistant curator Lisa Cambier, then took it on, helping to put together an art book that featured original works by an estimated 150 L.A. graffiti artists.
The project married the idea of the graffiti black book (the notebooks in which graffiti writers work out their designs) with the "Liber Amicorum," a Renaissance-era tradition in which different members of European nobility would paint their crests into each other's blank books. Liber Amicorum means, literally, "book of friends."
Seeing a link between these historic books of emblems and the iconographic symbols employed by graffiti artists, Brafman invited a number of L.A. graffiti artists to the Getty to look at vintage books.
"Graffiti artists create works using the same techniques any other artist would," Brafman says. "They are designing emblems, they are working with perspective, they are employing calligraphy."
That meeting spurred the creation of a one-off original book -- the "L.A. Liber Amicorum" -- which features original drawings from dozens of Southern California graffiti artists and now resides in the Getty's collection.
The concept behind the L.A. Liber Amicorum (which was not without controversy when it was launched) is the basis of the ESMoA exhibition. "Scratch" features various vitrines of rare books, including a book on perspective by Dürer that dates back to 1525, an actual liber amicorum that belonged to an ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, and a tome devoted to proportion that includes woodblock prints designed by Leonardo da Vinci.
"There are calligraphic books, books on the origin of the alphabet and books on divine geometry," Brafman says.
Also on view is the black book the Getty created last year -- all placed amid walls covered in graffiti by popular L.A. writers like CRE8, SABER, DEFER, AXIS and EYEONE, among others.
Seeing the two forms together is instructive. Too many graffiti shows take some graffiti, slap it up on a wall, then call it a day. "Scratch" gives it a framework. Contemporary graffiti isn't just vandalism. It's part of a tradition of calligraphic design and emblem-making. And the form could use more smart shows such as this to put it in context. Brafman says he has garnered the appreciation of the artists he has worked with in this regard. "One of them approached me after one of our sessions and said, 'Thanks for demonstrating that we are part of a canon.'"