By The Time I Get To Arizona

"By The Time I Get To Arizona" at the Mid-City Arts Gallery. Photo by Mark Vallen ©.

"By The Time I Get To Arizona" at the Mid-City Arts Gallery. Photo by Mark Vallen ©

When you visit the Mid-City Arts Gallery on West Pico Boulevard in Los Angeles during the month of July, you will first notice the meticulously painted gallery window facing the street. Hovering above a strange looking geometric pattern are the words, By The Time I Get To Arizona.

The geometric shape is a minimalist representation of the huge “security” fence now being constructed along the U.S.-Mexican border. The words are the title of the gallery’s current exhibit; a presentation that mixes graffiti, street and conceptual art, paintings, prints, and photos that take aim at the anti-immigrant legislation in Arizona known as Senate Bill SB1070.

Step into the gallery and the second thing you are likely to discern, aside from the confrontational artworks of some 2o artists hanging on the walls, are the white funeral crosses. They exist as wooden crucifixes nailed to the gallery walls, as spray-painted images stenciled onto the floor of the art space, and as design motifs incorporated into an indoor wall mural; but all of the crosses large and small are emblematic of just one thing – the thousands of undocumented souls who have died along the border in their attempts to enter El Norte, the United States.

By The Time I Get To Arizona – Detail of a collaborative mural created by Vyal One & The Phantom.

"By The Time I Get To Arizona" – Detail of a collaborative mural created by Vyal One & The Phantom.

Mid-City Arts Gallery is an unusual venue in that it serves the graffiti arts community of Los Angeles and beyond, showcasing graffiti artists both legendary and upcoming.

In speaking to the curator of the Arizona exhibit, Viejas Del Mercado, concerning his reasons for mounting such an exhibition, he told me it was a necessary response to dire circumstances.

A good portion of those who frequent the gallery are Latino – and they are disquieted by the racist scapegoating they see going on in the United States. Del Mercado told me that he plans to hold a series of exhibits at Mid-City Arts on the topic of undocumented workers and their dreams and aspirations. It is significant and encouraging that at least a certain layer of street artists are exploring vital social issues. The show at Mid-City Arts is visceral, angry, unapologetic – and well worth seeing.

Rodent Trap Arizona Flag – Vyal One. Working mousetrap painted as the Flag of Arizona.

"No Man's Land: Western Exterminators" – Vyal One. Working mousetrap painted as the Flag of Arizona. Photo/Vallen ©

The back wall of the main gallery displays an installation by artist Vyal One, an orderly arrangement of a dozen or so working mousetraps that have been painted in the colors of the U.S. flag as well as those of the State of Arizona.

The array of colorfully painted but menacing rodent traps playfully brings up a number of serious questions, not the least of which is the very idea of nationalism being a clamplike snare that entraps all. The installation also sarcastically posits the question of immigration in a way that takes right-wing rhetoric on the matter to its logical conclusion; “illegals” are vermin to be exterminated.

AmeriKKKan Gothic: Malice in Wonderland was a special installation and performance piece created just for the exhibit’s opening night reception. L.A.’s legendary street artist The Phantom, based his installation upon the famous 1930s painting, American Gothic, by the American regionalist artist Grant Wood. Everyone attending the opening was eventually encouraged to enter a small darkened room, where the only thing that could be seen was a large framed painting hanging on a back wall, only it was not a painting; it was a tableau constructed from three dimensional objects arranged to appear like a painting. Moreover, due to the fact that the faux painting actually masked a small hidden stage, a young actress was inserted into the picture. The representation of course was of Wood’s American Gothic, but the iconographic image was transformed into a disparagement of xenophobia, racism, and U.S. corporate culture.

"AmeriKKKan Gothic: Malice in Wonderland" – The Phantom. Installation with live actor. Photo/Vallen ©

"AmeriKKKan Gothic: Malice in Wonderland" – The Phantom. Installation with live actor. Photo/Vallen ©

The tableau replaced Wood’s old farmer and his pitchfork with a crude effigy of “Jack,” the imaginary CEO and symbol of Jack in the Box Inc., the U.S. hamburger fast food chain. Clearly Jack epitomized U.S. power, but he wore the traditional flannel button down shirt of L.A.’s Latino homeboys – he was a corporate “Trojan horse” if you will. Against a painted backdrop of Wood’s now graffiti-covered Gothic Revival style farmhouse, the dummy Jack stood next to the actress, who was dressed in a colorful huipil, the traditional garment of Mexican women.

Personifying Mexican culture, the woman clutched a microphone as if she were about to address the audience, but she remained mute throughout the performance. She wore an angst-ridden expression and her mouth trembled in anxiety; she was being smothered by the force of U.S. cultural imperialism. Melancholy mariachi music played over the entire performance, and the romantic sound of guitars, violins, trumpets and vihuelas (the Mexican 5 string guitar), only served to amplify the abject terror of The Phantom’s surreal nightmare.

"Cry Now" – El Mac. Pen on paper. 2010.

"Cry Now" – El Mac. Pen on paper. 2010.

Another highlight of the show was a pen and ink drawing by El Mac. Titled Cry Now, the drawing not only displayed the sophisticated calligraphic style of a superb draftsman, it was heavy with Chicano-Mexicano based cultural signifiers. First and foremost, the favored but highly stylized “Old English” typeface so often seen in placa (Caló or “Chicano slang” for a person’s graffiti tag), is inverted by El Mac from a symbol of authority into one of victimization. The text invites viewers to collectively mourn something that has been lost; the human and civil rights of a people. “Cry Now,” is an entreaty from those suffering persecution.

The mask of pain El Mac depicts also reminds me of the payaso (clown) tattoos so popular with a certain layer of Chicano street youth, but here the clown is a symbol of lamentation instead of power. What is to come once the sorrow passes? The answer of course lays in the strength of the people, reflected once more in the constantly changing face of that mask, which ultimately resembles a magnificent stone carving from one of Mexico’s most powerful ancient civilizations – the Olmec.

My only critique of the exhibit is that it falls short when it comes to examining the economic questions behind the issue of immigration. U.S. corporations have closed factories in the states, only to open them in the so-called maquiladora zones of Mexico, where labor laws are lax, U.S. companies enjoy relaxed or non-existent environmental laws, and where Mexican workers labor for long hours but receive little compensation. Moreover, the majority of workers in the maquiladora zones are young women – and they suffer terribly from sexual exploitation at the hands of their bosses. In general Mexican women are paid one-sixth of what a U.S. worker would be paid. This has led to super-profits for U.S. and Mexican elites, but impoverishment for U.S. and Mexican workers – the real cause of “illegal” immigration.

The Phantom autographs the sketch book of a young fan with his signature placa on the opening night of "By The Time I Get To Arizona." Phantom’s graffiti body outlines with politicized text have long appeared on L.A. streets, one such image appeared as cover art for "The Battle of Los Angeles," the third studio album by Rage Against the Machine. Photo/Vallen ©

The Phantom autographs the sketch book of a young fan with his signature placa on the opening night of "By The Time I Get To Arizona." Phantom’s graffiti body outlines with politicized text have long appeared on L.A. streets, one such image appeared as cover art for "The Battle of Los Angeles," the third studio album by Rage Against the Machine. Photo/Vallen ©

The building in which the Mid-City Arts Gallery is located has quite a history. Located in a solidly multi-cultural section of L.A., it was a gathering place for some of the first hip hop DJs in L.A. during the early 1980s. Through the 80s and 90s it served as a hip hop record store, and sometime in the 2000s the shop was split in two – becoming a record store and marketing office.

Its most recent makeover has transformed the site into a shop that sells essential graffiti art supplies to aspiring and experienced graffiti artists (33Third), and an art gallery where such artists can display their works.

By The Time I Get To Arizona will run at the Mid-City Arts Gallery for the month of July. Starting on Saturday, August 14, they will present Acto II in their series of immigration exhibits: El Camino Del Diablo (The Devil’s Highway), an exhibition featuring works by Vyal, The Phantom, Eder, and Cache. Mid-City Arts Gallery is located at 5113 W. Pico Blvd., Los Angeles, CA. 90019 (Map directions).

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