My second year of studying L.A. graffiti and street art (breaking down local streets, uncovering pieces most people have not already seen) is like high school sophomore year. It becomes clear that graffiti crews (cliques) spread vastly around the city, all with distinct styles and identities. They stick tight and are ready to pounce on outsiders if things look amiss. Recognizing individual graffiti artists’ visual styles is like assembling a scouting report on each athlete around a sports league.
With street art and graffiti photography, I see the biggest priority as improving tech. It can be an easy crutch to flood the photos with color, especially with limited natural light. Some photographers, conversely, pride themselves on using no post-editing effects or filters, highlighting the naturalism. The artwork, in my opinion, can often be more than a document. There is room for honest photographic storytelling beyond what’s on the wall.
In 2017, some of my favorite pieces were ensembles in the city’s alley masterpieces (credit 2Mex for the phrase). This is where some of L.A.’s most precise and imaginative artists—at least those not working in corporate Hollywood—thrive, weaved seamlessly into crew brands as team art. It often contrasts with the individualistic nature of commercial contemporary art.
On trend this year has been a proliferation of electrical box art. Some high-visibility electrical boxes have become go-to spots for street artists, sometimes with artist collaborations on a single box. More importantly, legitimate graffiti artists have embraced them for new and interesting concepts, refashioning boring, gray electrical boxes into old-time TV sets and gasoline pumps.
Here are some of my favorite photos I took around L.A. from 2017. —Nicholas White
Gaso’s gas pump and Cache’s TV set electrical boxes
The ubiquitous electrical boxes have long been the domain of street artists. This year, Gaso helped bridge an important gap between legitimate graffiti art and crossover street art, unveiling a series of 20+ painted electrical boxes as gas pumps or city scenes with helicopters above. Cache’s redesign of an electrical box into a pre-HD TV with his trademark chicken characters in the Silverlake/Echo Park area near a freeway exit flips the script from a common electrical box canvas to a combination of function and form.
DJ Neff’s Chameleon near Venice and Mar Vista
DJ Neff had a brightly tweaked mural in the grimy Hollywood-set 2015 flick Tangerine. While this mural closer to the Pacific Ocean may not be Hollywood vile-glam, the iguana’s textured and colorful skin has the precision of a Swiss watch (and is so generously gifted to the public when it could be defaced any time.) The night light gives extra glow, particularly a pink highlight. An inspiring keeper photo as a testament to the artist’s discipline.
Frankenstein in South Central alley
Off a sleepy South Central residential neighborhood, this alley has an interesting, 3D-graff imposing spread of classic Hollywood horror characters, including Dracula, Bride of Frankenstein, and, in the picture, Frankenstein. Queen of the Night Elvira anchors the front of the alley, which at night can look a little frightening. With the alley’s lack of protection in prime gangland, the characters have all been vandalized. Frankenstein, for example, has a sprayed-on white mustache. But the distinctive mood and technical expertise endures.
Transcending Walls mural in Little Ethiopia
Transcending Walls aces the 3D public art aesthetic. This stunning piece in Little Ethiopia becomes extra poignant at night, creating the stark illusion of a boy coming out of the wall. Some of the most progressive street art plays on 3D dimension-bending, encouraging a new element of audience interaction. This is at the essence of art. The ambition helps redefine what other artists are doing.
El Mac and Retna mural in car wash
An oldie but goodie, this piece mixes night color with brooding mood. Located modestly in the back of a car wash parking lot, it’s a collaboration between respected graffiti titans Retna and El Mac. Retna’s trademark calligraphy style is a staple of L.A. graffiti, and the night light gives the statue an iconic feel.
Scom billboard in the Valley
A relatively minor piece, but very L.A. Tha RK Mob’s artist Scom (standing for Society Creates Only Monsters) leaves his monster-style characters around the Valley and beyond. This North Hollywood billboard piece, apparently unauthorized, fits the traditional definition of graffiti. Cameras lurk on buildings at this busy intersection but have little bearing here. The artist’s name and crew are provided readily, and the community accepts it as part of local culture. The paint against the wood contrasts strongly at night.
Jazz player on South Central wall
A mural of a horn player, one of three musicians painted low-key on a building side, is soulful and shiver-inducing in deep blue night light. It’s a sublime, piercing reminder of staying true to the soul of this cultural headquarter, South Central, known worldwide as a birthplace for artistic expression and with a long history of exploitation for financial gain. The photo has the same narrative at day but isn’t as on point as in the dark blue twilight. It’s classy, understated, and unassuming to passersby, just like its subject.
Bumblebee Loves You boy at night
It’s up for debate how cool the street art within a crosswalk of the Beverly Center truly is. Artist Bumblebee Loves You, known for warm and fuzzy murals, however, brings it with this piece of a sleeping boy in a bumblebee-colored t-shirt on the slanted side of a parking garage ramp. It’s safely in the realm of authorized street art and represents the Beverly Hills-adjacent community well. The photograph’s setting at night adds a calming, therapeutic effect with the black sky matched against sleep. Dark naturalism provides context the piece can’t fully provide alone.
Nychos and DXTR’s scary wolf
Probably my favorite piece all year. This half-and-half collaboration from Nychos and DXTR is an unreal contrast of the artists’ styles. Nychos is hyper-real with horror movie detail, while DXTR is a throwback of ’80s and ’90s Nintendo games. So happy these artists decided on this wolf’s face to collab, because it is an image like no other. The night light creating an “X” effect adds to a uniqueness that doesn’t exist at day. A dark sky helps create the surreal, scary effect of the Downtown L.A. piece, tucked away slyly in an alley.