October 11, 2015

Keep Street Art on the Street

"Grand corner-lot home looking to be restored to her former glory."

The mansion at the corner of South Harvard Boulevard and 22nd Street was supposed to be included in the West Adams Heights Home Tour a few months ago, but upon arrival, its address had been crossed off the program. No explanation was given other than the current owner pulled out at the last minute.

It was a shame, because the house looked pretty creepy and cool. And if West Adams Heritage Association had wanted to include it on their historic home tour, there must be something historically significant about it.

The lot is nearly a half-acre, big enough to fit a 6957 square foot single family home with six bedrooms and four baths. Understandably, someone might want to buy it just for the value of the land and tear down the 1911 mansion. It is not landmarked, but it's been packaged with the Beckett Residence next door, which does have landmark status.

Both mansions have been abused. They're frequently used as filming locations, and the Beckett Residence was used for the Delusion haunted play, a production that did not respect the historic character of the building.

But as badly as they have been treated, there was some hope of restoration. They were not condemned. No demolition permit had been issued.

And then street artist Hanksy decided to transform 2200 South Harvard Boulevard into a pop-up gallery, defacing nearly every exposed surface, and drawing a crowd of smoking, drinking revelers into the fragile house—way beyond fire code capacity—to gawk at how the mansion had been vandalized. Worse yet, the "after party" was next door at the Beckett Residence, where drunkards could hang from the rafters while listing to live bands shatter the silence of Saturday night on Sugar Hill.

I went to see the inside of the house. I think I was the only person there for the building.

Photo: Planomatic

There's a reason why graffiti is called "street art." It reflects urbanity—the industrialized concrete jungle that chokes the oxygen out of the air by replacing trees with warehouses and grass with parking lots. Creating murals on the sides of buildings gives voice to a marginalized populace that has no other way to speak for itself. Tagging water tanks and bridges and abandoned tunnels can be considered art because it transforms them and their purpose. It brings color to an otherwise bleak landscape. It can be a valuable, anachronistic form of expression, and it can be beautiful to look at.

But spray paint doesn't belong inside an already-endangered historic home—no more than it belongs on the face of boulders in our national parks. Who decided to take street art off the street?

The most dangerous part of this is the slippery slope effect. Tagging the inside of this early 20th century mansion in such a public way gives the wrong message about how old buildings should be treated. Visitors who lined up to walk through were just looking for something cool to Instagram, but because they look up to these so-called street artists, they want to be like them. They emulate them. There were people scrawling their names and messages on the walls with their own permanent markers, just to be a part of the "art."

"Yeah, this is my shit!" I heard one young woman say. It's not her fault. She doesn't know anything about architecture. No one has taught her about historic preservation, or how to have respect for old buildings.

Photo: Planomatic

As an avid urban explorer, I only want to observe and document. I live by the creed, "Do No Harm." If I can't experience a place without cutting a fence or breaking a window, I don't experience it. It's not my place to change it. As much as possible, I try to leave no trace.

It shouldn't matter what bad condition the mansion was in, how far it had fallen into disrepair. It had not reached a point of no return. It's lazy and naive to say that whatever had been done to the house could just be "painted over," especially when some of the desecrated surfaces weren't even painted walls, but porcelain fixtures and other architectural and decorative elements. Covering up the damage just creates more work for future restoration. How many layers of paint have to be chipped away? How many past mistakes have already been covered up? Restoration is often more about removal (of carpeting, wallpaper, paint, dropped ceilings, etc.) than about anything else.

It was upsetting to witness. I felt like I was watching a woman being raped, and the act of violence justified because she was a whore. I witnessed the scary group mentality that blurs the lines between what is and is not OK—the same that arises in protests and riots and wartime and natural disaster.

But this wasn't a political event. This wasn't a statement against gentrification or racial discrimination or socioeconomic inequality. This "gallery" was all about naked body parts and drugs and pop culture. Maybe the artists would call it "satire." It just seemed like a bunch of nonsense—a self-aggrandizing spectacle.

Beckett Residence on 10/10/15

At least Shepard Fairey has his own gallery that he can do this sort of thing in. He can do whatever he wants in there. And at least Mr. Brainwash did this in a warehouse that, as far as I know, wasn't historically significant.

But even if Hanksy had bought the house at 2200 South Harvard, that doesn't mean it would've been OK to treat it this way. That's what Historic Preservation Overlay Zones and historic districts are for. That's what landmarking is for. Sometimes, buildings have to be protected from their owners.

Don't call me names or slap my face because someone else has done it before you. If you're dog is sick or already crippled, that doesn't mean you can cut off one of his legs or terrorize him with a hot poker. You can't feed him poison and watch him throw up and laugh. Anyone would tell you it's wrong.

Houses in this condition need more love, not less. They matter even more because they need our help.

Beckett Residence on 10/10/15

How did Hanksy get away with it? As far as I can tell, it was set up as a film location, except there was no filming. The special filming conditions for the 2200 block of Harvard Boulevard were not adhered to. No one stuck to the Filmmakers' Code of Responsibility established by FilmLA. And when it went past 10 p.m. (which it's not supposed to do—but you're not supposed to shoot on a weekend, either), the cops came and broke it up.

As a preservationist and a board member of the Los Angeles City Historical Society, I felt embarrassed to be there. I wondered if my mere presence was contributing to the problem, though I hadn't paid an admission fee or spent any money there.

I'm even reticent to post my photos of the event, because I don't want to glorify what's been done. I don't want people to see my photos and not read my words and just think, "That is f-ing cool." It wasn't cool. It was sad. I tried my best to photograph the building, but the design and architecture was pretty much eclipsed by boobs and Tom Hanks.

I'm hoping my sadness shows through in the photos. I hope they spark the same outrage I felt in other people. I hope people see them and are aghast and appalled.

To see the photos of the pop-up gallery (NSFW), click here.

Related Posts:
Photo Essay: Behind the Closed Doors of West Adams Heights
Photo Essay: The Museum of Misfit Houses

Further Reading:
Street Artist Mr. AndrĂ© Admits to Tagging Joshua Tree National Park (KCET)

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