Walk Like an Artist in Downtown Los Angeles

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Author: Martin Cramer

Los Angeles pulsated with artistic energy at the November Downtown Art Walk. On the second Thursday of every month, thousands of art-eager folk descend upon downtown, transforming the scene into a carnival of creative expression and uninhibited artistic passion that only L.A. could host. The underlying purpose of the Art Walk is “celebrating art, creativity and cultural diversity in the Historic Core neighborhood . . . [and] to harness this momentum to craft long-term policies for economic stabilization, job creation and the promotion of positive public space, all while preserving the dynamic balance of local history and culture,” according to the Downtown Art Walk Web site. Although the walk officially began at 3 p.m., it paid off – as it so often does – to show up a few hours late.

Parking costs a measly $5, but you pay for the savings in hassle, as the lot is incredibly overcrowded and difficult to navigate. Upon stepping out of the parking structure, however, music begins pouring in from every direction, and accompanying the vivacious vibrations is a myriad of exotic sights and smells. The Art Walk truly tantalizes all of your senses, including the more metaphysical ones, like creative passion and exuberance for expression. The abundance of activities and galleries can become overwhelming, so it’s best to take the journey one step at a time.

Open-air parking lots, which are converted into flea markets for vendors, provide the ideal first destination on the walk, as they offer a snapshot of what to expect from the rest of the event. A single parking lot represents a variety of cultures through art: ornately decorated skulls for Dia de Los Muertos, vintage and hand-crafted jewelry, unique silk-screened T-shirts, large photo prints of sights in the Middle East and contemporary sculptures and charm bracelets based on African and Native American mythology line the vendor tents.

While snaking through the vendor set-ups, you’ll find yourself inadvertently melding into the crowd and drifting along shoulder-to-shoulder with the sea of strangers – there are so many people packed onto the pavement that it’s nearly impossible not to. The crowds slide in and out of the galleries, which give great exposure to the aspiring artists whose works are on display. Nearly everyone at the Art Walk became enraptured by the electrifying eccentricity of the event, especially the gallery owners and artists.

Many of the galleries inhabited any expansive piece of property they could find, demonstrating that art can be cultivated anywhere. One gallery took advantage of the massive size of its building and utilized the acoustics of the room to add an eerie ambiance to the show: Inside, a handful of androgynous figures dressed in slick black suits meandered through the crowds, emitting strange musical sounds from speaker boxes that were tied around their necks. The fluorescent masks that they wore, and the fact that they spoke to no one, added to the other-worldliness of their appearance.

Some artists were completely opposite: They shed the pretension that’s so often associated with artists and presented hilariously self-indulgent advertising ploys. One such artist, photographer Tommy Blanco, hung a sign that read, “YO! This is Tommy B. shit. A bill a piece (cheap right)! . . . (that’s $100 for whitie).” His photos were realist renditions of scenes in L.A., including shots of construction sites and the sides of buildings.

Also committed to tearing down the apparent pretension in art, one gallery had paintings and mixed media collages that combined genres to make the images more accessible. For instance, one painting had a Warhol-inspired peeled banana in the center, but from the peel rose a slew of bullets. Across the background was cryptic graffiti text, suggesting an overall theme of peace through art, not war. Not all galleries were so overtly politically active, though. Some, like the Captivity Show, sought to redefine art by utilizing mixed-media designs to promote California pride.

The Captivity Show gallery seemed to have appeared overnight, as it was housed within the gutted and unrefined remains of an old bank building – the still erect construction equipment scattered around complemented the atmosphere well. The gallery’s artists demonstrated their California pride as only artists could. A life-sized, paper-mâché circus bear met visitors as they filed in. Other versions of bears were displayed throughout the building: Some were dancing, while others stood by regally. The bears reflected the bear on the California state flag, and they seemed to reflect the connection between art and state.

The animal theme extended far beyond the Captivity Show, and actually proved to be something of a defining feature for the Art Walk. For instance, local live painter Max Neutra set up a makeshift street studio in front of a pet store, where he painted expressive ink and wash depictions of surreal animal forms.

Other artists took a slightly more conventional approach and performed their live painting inside of galleries. Watching fine artists at work and being able to experience their process first hand is a rare opportunity that the Art Walk uniquely provides. In doing so, it reminds everyone of the vivacity in art and that art is a living mode of expression. The experience is draining, though, so food trucks ready to re-energize everyone can be found on nearly every block.

Food becomes the great equalizer at the Art Walk. The rich, the poor, the gangsters, the hipsters, the locals, the tourists, the art-savvy and curious can all enjoy the delicacies from the food carts – and not just the traditional taco truck, either. There are hot dog trucks, grill trucks, pastry trucks, sushi trucks and even an ice cream sandwich truck. That last was my personal favorite.

Cool Haus, the ice-cream sandwich truck, provided freshly made creations that you can’t find anywhere else in the city. They have a variety of classic cookies, including snickerdoodle and gingerbread, but it’s the unique filling flavors that set Cool Haus apart from its ice-cream chain competitors. The three most compelling flavors were brown butter & candied bacon, roasted pear with nutmeg, and dirty mint chip. Personally, I fell for the dirty mint chip on chocolate cookies. Inside the generous scoop of vanilla ice cream were real mint leaves (hopefully that’s all that made it “dirty”). Either way, it was delicious and drew members of the community together over a delectable dessert.

Nestled amongst the food trucks and galleries stands Bolt Barbers, a traditional barber shop with a vintage yet modern vibe that provides support for the community by fostering togetherness through art and activities. Employees stood outside, inviting everyone on the street to come in, saying there was something for everyone: a jukebox, a shuffleboard, an expansive black and white photo exhibit and, of course, a team of talented barbers who make a show out of their business. The barbers laughed loudly as they publicly cut people’s hair with pronounced glee, taking large strokes and making dramatic sheering gestures. The barber shop, like most other gallery buildings, happily allowed dogs, “as long as they don’t pee on the floor,” according to their sign.

Many of the patrons did, in fact, bring their real canine companions along for the ride. Some galleries even dedicated their presentations to the dogs. Bark Ave., a dog daycare and art gallery, advertised its abstract dog portrait paintings, and, more importantly, some of L.A.’s most adorable puppies available for adoption.

As current residents of L.A., you owe it to yourselves to escape the mediocrity of campus life and delve into the vivacity of city life. So whatever you might be doing next month on Thursday, Dec. 10, skip it: The Downtown Art Walk will enlighten and inspire you beyond your most distant dreams with its explosions of creative energy and cul
turally diverse crowds. Simply put, you just cannot afford to miss an event that screams L.A. so proudly.

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