Los Angeles Paints Itself: Graffiti and the City (A Photo Essay)

Photographer Nicholas White surveys the various graffiti styles prevalent in Los Angeles.
By    September 12, 2016

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One reward that mitigates LA’s hassles is the city’s role as a serious force in graffiti. Known to some as the mural capital of the world, I spent much of 2016 going around L.A. taking nearly 1,000 pictures of street art and graffiti on walls. The gamut of styles, proficiency, and paint technology runs from amateurs to internationally known stars (Shepard Fairey, JR, Roa).

I covered DTLA, South Central, Arts District, West Hollywood, Venice, Chinatown, and Pico Union—and these places are just a fraction of what’s out there. A lot of the cooler stuff is in tougher neighborhoods, of course, particularly in alleys off smaller streets. What gives me as a photographer extra incentive to hunt rare photos is that these many of these spots are rarely hunted—at least on the web. As a relative newbie, I focused on pieces accessible by ground. An entire separate world of graffiti, however, abounds on rooftops, train cars, and freeway underpasses that people can’t see.

By day, I’m a journalist, and have been for years. High crime areas often cite a lack media coverage of their communities beyond violence reports. I wanted to experience the communities on the ground. What I saw is that South Central, while it does have violent crime throughout the day and night, feels quite peaceful in the dead of night and just before dawn. The tree-lined shadowy streets of houses are quiet with not a lot of foot or car traffic. It almost feels like a small town.

The process—which I usually do from 3:30 to 6 a.m.—is a frantic one of darting down streets. Meanwhile, I keep an eye out for loiterers, police, and anyone who could snatch me out of my car. The soundtrack for these experiences is N.W.A. and Ice-T—when photographing these area, the music creates ambiance and channels the neighborhood. South Central, more than other areas, has alleys coated in graffiti.

Here are 10 of my favorite photos, with a quick backstory behind each. —Nicholas White


The Black Light King’s “Angel”


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This one is a layering masterpiece—and really a testament to the progressive graffiti skills of UTI Crew’s The Black Light King, one of my favorite 3D graffiti artists. He paints at raves in addition to spots around downtown—as the name indicates, his designs glow in the dark. This was the first of my photos I saw pop up on a graffiti artist’s Instagram page—an indication to me that people might think they’re good.


Upside Down Cross Head


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Technical quality of this photo is pretty bad as it is one of the first photos I took. It’s blurry and too dark. But for me, it summarizes all that was fun about hunting these neighborhoods. It’s just off the Arts District in DTLA, so the neighborhood isn’t terrible. But the imagery I find quite scary, especially at night: a monster head with an upside down cross as the nose with too many teeth. It’s facing away from most people at the end of a cul de sac. It looked like seances were held there. So I got the picture and didn’t hang around long.


Pig Head with Sharp Teeth


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This is straight out of a South Central alley off San Pedro—I shot it as the sun was coming up. It really feels angry and what you’d expect to find in an alley. I feel like you might not see this in other parts of town, like West Hollywood, for example. Also the bright brilliance of the pink is electric.


South Central Mural


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This mural off San Pedro St. is beautiful on several levels. It stands for communal unity and organization. The peoples’ signs in the background are demanding clean air and ethnic studies. In South Central, you feel a vibe of genuine togetherness from this simple mural. The lime green and rainbow highlights give it a funky vibe, which can be rare with social justice street art.


Kill Whitie


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This is from a bridge underpass crossing the L.A. River, scrawled on the side. Too bad there is no attribution for this piece. This isn’t professional work, but is still a reminder of the reality of the city we live in. I colored it black and white because color didn’t add a lot to the picture—and the message of racism is, of course, timeless. The randomly placed tire and “fix your credit” sign couldn’t have been better props for the image.


Krush IV Power


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K4P is one of my favorite L.A. graffiti crews—their work pops up all around South Central—it’s playful and perfectly epic. This beast of a piece off Main Street shows the artistic dominance the crew has around the area. The community accepts it as part of the neighborhood. In some areas, people would protest that the idea of “krushing” is too intense for neighborhood children. The group effort of it makes it one of the best pieces in the area.


CBS Graff Campfire


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The CBS Crew is pretty dope—they dominate Melrose Alley through West Hollywood. This use of dimensional graffiti near downtown stuns me—it creates layers of a cave opening in the background, an animal with a spray can in the foreground, and cave features to the sides. You have to remind yourself you’re looking at paint on a wall. This is a two-dimensional wall transformed into something otherworldly with simple paint.


Fearo Piece in DTLA


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This is one of the anchoring pieces in this graffiti-heavy part of town, an area heavy with warehouses and manufacturing buildings. The skeleton and king’s crown are edgy to create the area’s personality. This piece’s dramatic impact, however, is in the soliloquy about the area’s “empty streets,” and how it represents a transitional area in town, from the ghetto to downtown, or the “forgotten kings with broken crowns” and “left for dead.”


Doctor Eye at Alley’s End


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This unassuming alley, off Bay St. and just south of 8th St., has become a favorite for artists, with pieces from K4P, Septerhed, Seratla, Vyal One, and numerous graff writers. What looked the spookiest was the priest looking character with a goblet pointing in the direction of where the alley goes. This is the same alley in which I ran into an older man hiding behind a corner at 4 A.M. Anytime the religious imagery is included, it creates suspense. This piece has since been painted over.


Los Angeles Map for Pauly’s Project


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Such a fun look at the connotations of different areas of Los Angeles – from the Westside south to Carson, with South Central taking central place in the mural. The map’s detail is too much to pass up, though a beautiful graffiti display is on the both sides of the map. The artists, from UTI Crew, know this city – and you’re seeing it from the local experts’ eyes.