Los Angeles, famously, is a city of characters—of all types—not to mention the home of cartoon icons Spongebob Squarepants, Bart Simpson, and Mickey Mouse. If you head south of downtown L.A. into the sprawling lowlands of South Central L.A., look beyond the thick layers of gang graffiti and under-cooked throw-ups, and you’ll see a versatile, unique set of graffiti cartoon characters. They’re eye-catching and fun for unaware kids growing up in that tough area, and slyly subversive for the normally serious vibe of many graffiti crews. The work belongs to one of L.A.’s most distinctive graffiti crews, K4P, which balances general interest characters with edgy graffiti and a local South Central pride vibe. The artwork almost seems like a form of generously spirited community service.
Many graffiti characters are already famous from other sources. They piggyback on an established image, like, say, Disney characters. K4P characters, by contrast, are mostly original. Each has personality and professionalism noticeably unique because L.A.’s culture thrives on creative expression. They include smiling tigers, iguanas with gold teeth, talking spray cans, “Simsbots,” and dollar signs on dog faces, popping up everywhere in South Central’s 20s to, roughly, the 50s streets.
This is an area with a particularly nasty and violent history. Video images of Bloods vs. Crips in the ‘90s depicted bloodshed in these streets. Just a few years ago, a criminal ring in the “Rollin’ 40s” was indicted on federal criminal charges. Today, the ruthless battleground isn’t in your face; it’s mostly a community dotted with graffiti/street art fusion. To boot, it works, unlike Hollywood, without a massive commercial backing.
It has been said by the uninformed that graffiti characters (compared with stylized graffiti writing) appeal to a feminine sensibility, a less serious outlier in the boys club of graffiti writers. Further, by overlapping with the more bourgeois street art, the graffiti characters can flirt with lack of hood credibility. In the context of the problematically violent area, however, K4P graffiti characters appear to serve a more sublime purpose than pure calligraphy.
If respect is earned in the streets, K4P boldly paints masterpieces in some of the ghetto’s grimiest alleys, building credibility in the world famous South Central L.A. I’ve pulled photos of some of my favorite K4P pieces. —Nicholas White
Hang Out on Clouds (All Day)
K4P’s Notik throws a knuckleball of signature cartoon characters in a psychedelic setting. This modest but stunning piece is a moody, idyllic oasis that, just off camera, glimmers in the shadow of a dimly lit convenience store. The purples and clouds strike a chord in the soul of the urban landscape where the two seamlessly coexist here. Hanging out on clouds doesn’t sound bad. The “all day” reference at the bottom is a staple of K4P pieces, and a further reference to the local “LA All Day” saying.
Lion with TLOG Necklace
From Duem, this piece’s physical setting goes a long way in establishing ambiance, as it’s buried in a seedy alley best covered in mystery. This picture in particular benefits from the nighttime lighting. It’s a terrifying, highly produced image in the narco traficante style that seems at home in this alley coated with varsity-level graffiti.
Ode to the Ghetto
Another aspect to like about K4P is its self-awareness of friendly lightness in a historically heavy area. Several of K4P’s artists here—Dsrup and Chelo—each gets a character solo to rep the crew and remind everyone we’re in the ghetto. Inviting colors and surreal presentation distinguish local vibrant expression in a way most traditional graffiti (and street art) can’t. Calling it the ghetto in cartoon style takes the teeth and ominous feel out, subverting the traditional premise of a cultural mindset that keeps outsiders away.
Crazy School Teacher Mural
This kid-centric mural by K4P’s Xume lecturing her students outside a South Central school creates an irreverent, comfortingly familiar presence in an area known for violent schools. It’s like public service, smartly reaching its young, local audience more effectively than, say, a wall of flowers, trees, or butterflies. While gang-style graffiti in the area can create a constant sense of unease, this thematically different graffiti helps to neutralize perceived threats from gang scrawls and perhaps inspire kids.
Krush IV Power
One of the K4P centerpieces (if not the top) in South Central is the sprawling Krush IV Power mural on the side of a wall many locals and commuters pass every day. The Punisher character takes center stage above the world, surrounded by an eerie green sky. Because of its prominence and central location, the Krush IV Power mural can be a magnet for bad tags. They’re cleaned up, though, to keep this one looking fresh and enduring. A favorite of mine city-wide. Homeless encampments often set up next to it, as though its large presence provides safety in its size.
A tried and true graffiti wall-side K4P crew mural tag in big, block letters is a dominant, eye-catching statement that pops up in numerous spots around South Central. Because the murals can be vulnerable to taggers, if they stay mostly clean, it’s a testament to how much respect they have in the community. Their ubiquity and inviting vibe hints the graffiti is mostly supported by the community.