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Artists find inspiration among homeless in L.A.'s skid row

Artists find inspiration among homeless in L.A.'s skid row
Dutch photographer Desiree van Hoek has dedicated much of her last five summers to shooting what she describes as the beauty and humor beneath the grit and misery of L.A.'s skid row. (Barbara Davidson)

Some European tourists spend their vacations at Yosemite or Big Sur. Desiree van Hoek takes hers on skid row.

For the last five years, the Dutch photographer has dedicated much of the summer to shooting what she describes as the beauty and humor beneath the grit and misery of the 50-block downtown homeless enclave.

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"I'm a little bit hooked on skid row right now," Van Hoek said recently.

Maybe it's the Lambruscos and ethnic cafes that are bringing the hipsters of downtown Los Angeles face to face with skid row's street encampments. Or a renewed local and national focus on the homeless crisis. But what was once a no-man's land is alive with documentary filmmakers, artists and even a comic, seeking their canvas, or a muse, amid the tarps and cardboard boxes.

An installation by Los Angeles Poverty Department, a 30-year-old skid row theater troupe, was part of the late artist Mike Kelley's show this summer at the Geffen Contemporary at MOCA.

"All of a sudden it became a thing to make your own portrait or caricature of skid row," said skid row activist Kevin Michael Key.

Some of those who work with the homeless, such as Ann-Sophie Morrissette of the Downtown Women's Center, call some of the art "poverty porn."

Drive-by videos of needles, filth and vermin — shot from car windows by kids with their faces hidden by blankets, and set to dirge-like soundtracks — invite viewers to gawk at homeless people without context or understanding, critics say. Other projects are dismissed as the naive work of newbies who think they'll be the first to expose skid row — or save it.

Some artists find the atmosphere less than welcoming. Shanks Rajendran, an Australian filmmaker, said he was robbed this summer during the making of "Los Scandalous — Skid Row." Rajendran described the documentary as the story of "the true gutter life in Los Angeles; from prostitution, homelessness, hard addiction, the drug dealers' perspective, police corruption and the system designed to keep them all there."

For a series called "Life Line Booth," Toronto filmmaker Ryan Oksenberg and friends installed a table, chairs, water, donated clothing and a bulletin board in front of a bank of sidewalk pay phones.

"We're using the metaphor of the phone: At the other end of the line is me, whoever is watching at home," said Oksenberg, whose five-part show aired in February on Pivot, Participant Media's cable network for millennials. "We're giving the homeless an opportunity to share their wisdom."

Someone with the nearby mission tore the booth down. "It looked like a bunch of clutter in front of our building," said Gabriel Wang, director of Azusa Lighthouse Mission on East 5th Street.

Wang said distributing donations on skid row streets without a permit could generate trash or lead to fights.

"Perhaps [they] felt some sort of competition," Oksenberg said.

A homeless man named Spyder said he wanted to stop robbing people and open a recycling business. When Oksenberg tried to raise the money, Spyder backed out, the filmmaker said.

"That was a failed episode," Oksenberg said. "I understand I was making a pact with someone who could use the money I give them for drugs, but that's all part of the improvisational series."

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Kristina Wong, a stereotype-busting comic who has crashed Miss Chinatown pageants as a cigar-chewing, whiskey-swilling contestant, received a city grant to launch a skid row improv and storytelling project.

Wong said she was inspired by accounts of "hilarious" skid row talent shows.

"I'm not interested in framing it as, 'OK, poor people, tell me about being poor,'" said Wong, who is still setting dates for the workshops. "It seems like the community is so brimming with experience."

Van Hoek, a former fashion photographer, stumbled on her project during a 2007 visit to Hollywood. The apartment next door burned down, revealing a child's skateboard left behind by a homeless family who had been living in a crack between the two buildings.

Van Hoek says artifacts like the skateboard are part of the "material culture" of homelessness that she seeks to capture. Her work focuses on the often fantastical interiors and clothing people conjure out of castoffs.

"It makes them feel human," said Van Hoek, who subsidizes her work by teaching and the occasional magazine assignment.

One hot summer day, she walked the streets of skid row, pausing by a man in scarlet snakeskin boots who peddled worn shoes and porn videos arrayed on a card table.

Around the corner, she snapped a shot of a vacuum cleaner incongruously perched on top of a red carpet.

"Every block is different," Van Hoek said.

One man asked her to pay to photograph him, but others encouraged her. "It will shame the U.S.," said Stephanie Wiley, 37, a recent arrival from Las Vegas. "This is what your people are actually experiencing."

Some Europeans cite skid row as evidence of Western capitalism in its death throes, but Van Hoek says she doesn't judge. She still hasn't figured out the place.

"Last year I saw new buildings, and thought maybe in a few years all the people will be off the streets," she said. "But now I come back and find … even more camps than last year."

She said she had forged friendships with homeless people like Anthony, an Army veteran she's known for years. Dressed in an apricot embroidered vest, he had packed his cart and belongings with military precision in a crevice between buildings.

"I didn't want to do sensational pictures of people with needles in their arms," she said.

At 5th Street and Stanford Avenue, a homeless man had created a sidewalk collage by stuffing items into a chain-link fence. His art — a kaleidoscopic tableau of Capri Sun wrappers, Cheerios box fronts, a stack of lottery tickets and a drawing of the risen Christ — became part of her art.

"In the misery they are so strong, still making fun and having really good friends," said Van Hoek, who plans to wrap up this year and show her work in Los Angeles and abroad. "Everybody should go to skid row."

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