2 Street Art Exhibitions Want To Spray-Paint Chinatown Red

Lead photo
Photo by Marcos Najera for KPCC

Colorful murals on the sides of buildings, lively graffiti tagged on billboards, spray-can stenciling on staircases. Here in L.A., you'll find examples of street art everywhere — but we usually don't know who made it or why.

This summer, two new Chinatown gallery shows are inviting art lovers to take a closer look at outsider artists by stepping inside — one show small, one huge, but both packing a multi-sensory punch.

The Chinese American Museum's show is called "Don't Believe the Hype: Asian-Americans in Hip-Hop."

The museum's new curator Justin Hoover worked with sociologist Ninochka McTaggart to create an interactive collage for the eyes and ears. There's music to hear, art to see, stuff to draw, and places to dance.

Dr. McTaggart says the exhibition explores the four pillars of hip-hop: rapping, DJing, breakdancing, and graffiti.

The 4 pillars of hip-hop
The Chinese American Museum exhibition "Don't Believe the Hype: Asian-Americans in Hip-Hop" looks at the four pillars of hip-hop. (Photo by Marcos Najera for KPCC)

"'Don't Believe the Hype: Asian-Americans in Hip-Hop,' it was about breaking this model-minority stereotype," McTaggart said. "And the idea that ... stereotypes are stereotypes for a reason; because they are not really fully true. It's complicated. That's what I have to say about race. It's very complicated."

Gajin Fujita is L.A.-born and based. The 46-year-old artist is known for mixing a high-end art studio practice with low-brow tagging and graffiti. His canvases often mix street symbols on top of layers of embossed gold leaf.

Fujita's blending of techniques from the street and the studio developed over time. Fujita says he had to figure out what role his Asian-American heritage played in his art. That epiphany happened during a family trip to Japan.

Artist Gajin Fujita
Artist Gajin Fujita is one of only two artists whose work is displayed in both exhibitions: "Beyond The Streets" and "Don't Believe The Hype: Asian-Americans in Hip-Hop." (Photo by Marcos Najera for KPCC)

"We were in Kyoto," Fujita recalled. "I took a photo of 'Kinkaku-ji,' in Japanese. It translates to 'The Golden Pavilion.' This pagoda that sits in the middle of a pond was dedicated to a prince back in the days and is covered ... with gold leaf. And it just shimmers off the water."

When he saw it, he had an idea — what if someone tagged the hell out of that pagoda?

"So instead, I said, 'F—- it! I'll just make my own walls that are gilded in gold leaf. And I'll tag, I'll do whatever the hell I want with them, because they're mine.'"

"He saw himself as like a sampler with visual art," McTaggart explained. "In a way a DJ samples music, he was sampling with different references."

McTaggart, who co-curated the "Don't Believe The Hype" show, sees Fujita as a bridge between her smaller show at the Chinese American Museum and the larger "Beyond The Streets" exhibition — housed in a 40,000-square-foot warehouse space. She describes his aesthetic as street style infused with his Asian-American identity, that has morphed into an accomplished studio practice. McTaggart says Fujita is a wonderful example of a uniquely American mixtape.

"His art specifically samples things we might see in America," McTaggart said. "So we might see a boombox, a 40, we see tattoos, we see bandanas in his work. But then, speaking to his Japanese-American identity, he also has a samurai. One of his pieces has Fujin, the [Japanese] wind god. But instead of carrying a bag of wind, he was carrying a boombox on his shoulder."

"Beyond The Streets" exhibit
"Beyond The Streets" is an exhibition celebrating street art in a space in L.A.'s Chinatown district. (Photo by Marcos Najera for KPCC)

Stepping outside the "Don't Believe the Hype" show, you can take a 20-minute walk to Chinatown's northeast edge. That's where you'll find "Beyond The Streets."

The show's a sequel in a way to a graffiti retrospective created seven years ago for the Museum of Contemporary Art by "Beyond The Streets" curator Roger Gastman. Despite the original show's extreme popularity, Gastman's quick to point out that it's still not easy to find a welcoming space for an often unwelcome art form.

"Fortunately and unfortunately, so many museums run off of private funding and donors and or city money," Gastman said. "Most cities, or all cities, don't really like graffiti or street art. And we don't need to talk about why that is."

For most people, the 'why' is a no-brainer. Graffiti and street art considered by most governments to be blight at best, and more commonly they're crimes that come with hefty fines.

"And graffiti and street art in its truest forms are vandalism. I'll never deny that or try to ignore that. It's real and we've told people the story of it. Good or bad, it's there."

"Exactly, it's vandalism," Gastman said. "And graffiti and street art in its truest forms are vandalism. I'll never deny that or try to ignore that. It's real and we've told people the story of it. Good or bad, it's there."

What's there at "Beyond The Streets" is a playground for people who love the sites and sounds of graffiti and street culture. The dazzling spectrum of artists comes with an array of gender, race, and age represented in the works throughout the space.

In one part of the exhibition, you might wander into Kenny Scharf's neon toy and trash room. Or step outside to catch the replica of a tagged-up Venice skateboard park. By the time you pass the pole-dancing area, the show's title starts to make some sense. This is street art showing up in ways and places beyond what you expect.

Installation art
Installation at the "Beyond The Streets" exhibition. (Photo by Marcos Najera for KPCC)

Or as street artist Shepard Fairey puts it: "The aesthetics manifested in a different style. The aesthetics that inform my work come from a lot of different places. I grew skating and listening to punk rock. But I also love graffiti. The excitement of going out late-night and climbing buildings."

Fairey is one of about a hundred artists represented in the show. For most, "Beyond The Streets" showcases how their work is still deeply rooted in the streets, but at the same time has branched out and evolved. In Fairey's case, it's become a lucrative studio practice.

"I will not wait in line for all the gatekeepers to tell me yes or no," Fairey said. "I'm going to seize opportunities on my own. I think that's what's driving me, I think that's what's driving a lot of people in graffiti."

Fujita described what life was like growing up in East L.A.

"I was confined in Boyle Heights and never really left the block," Fujita said, laughing. "I grew up with kids that never even saw the ocean! To them, it felt like the ocean was a world away, you know? It was! ... We were kind of left on our own to fend for ourselves to see how we could troubleshoot to see how we could get out of this mess."

When Fujita says "we," he's referring to fellow street artist Alex 'DEFER' Kizu. They're the only artists featured in both exhibitions. He and DEFER grew up together and consider themselves brothers. Fujita said that while the "Don't Believe the Hype" exhibition is much humbler than the large-scale "Beyond The Streets" show, it's more personal to him, because it's the first time he's created a piece with DEFER that explores their childhood.

Gajin Fujita in his studio
Gajin Fujita pictured works in his studio. (Photo by Marcos Najera for KPCC)

"That's why we titled it 'Extricate.' To see how we can make-do of the cards that we were dealt," Fujita said.

Fujita described a neighborhood riddled with plentiful access to drugs and crime, but few opportunities for art classes. Luckily, both his parents were artists who helped him explore his creative side. It wasn't long before the morning school bus that took Fujita to magnet art school programs around L.A. for years became his traveling museum.

"The bus from Boyle Heights — they called it 'The Zoo!'" Fujita said, laughing. "It also opened up my eyes to the aesthetics of graffiti. 'Cause jumping on the bus early in the morning, you go across town, you come across all these styles of graffiti."

Eventually, Fujita finished his art studies at UNLV in Nevada.

"My mentor and my professor at graduate school, Dave Hickey, had told us in one of his lectures: 'Art should be a violation of people's expectations,'" Fujita said. "I don't know if the other students were slapped in the face with that. But I certainly was. That got me thinking and my mind rolling just like, 'How can I f—-ing come up with something that would violate people's expectations.' And I already knew I had something, a component or a layer of that with the graffiti."

Spray-paint cans
Spray-paint cans are the tool of choice for street artists. (Photo by Marcos Najera for KPCC)

No matter how far beyond the streets his success might take him these days, Fujita says he'll never lose touch with his street sense and smarts.

"Recently I was out jogging in Silver Lake and there was a piece of chalk that kids draw with on the sidewalks and stuff," Fujita recalled. "I picked it up and I was tagging. Just instinctually or intuitively, I picked it up and started tagging my name."

"And then I was looking over my shoulder," Fujita added. "And I'm like, 'Aah, I gotta do it quickly, because my wife is in the restroom. And I gotta do it before she comes out!' But that sort of act of crime is always going to be with me I think. It's something inherent. I'm always going to be looking over my shoulder, you know? Yeah, [because] the popo don't know who I am. They could care less. They could care less if I'm Picasso!"

"Beyond The Streets" runs through Friday. Then it reopens and runs from July 13-Aug. 26. "Don't Believe The Hype: Asian-Americans in Hip-Hop" goes through November. Both are in Chinatown.


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