It was Saturday night, light was still out. The paint was dry, but the mini murals shone as if still wet from the last spray of color. Electric hues, bubble letters, cartoony characters, and calligraphic signatures popped from the walled murals in an eye-catching display. Surrounded by their work, graffiti artists congregated with hip hop music blasting. Over the music, they conversed with each other and the public about their artwork, posed for photographs, and just had a good time.
Quite a different scene from the quiet halls of the Metropolitan Museum of Art for this one-time intern at the Met, LA-to-New-York-back-to-LA transplant.
That Saturday, I was amidst the crowds convened for the opening of “The Legendary Belmont Tunnel,” a tribute exhibit to the birthplace of West Coast graffiti at the Crewest Gallery in downtown Los Angeles. Curated by Carlos Marquez, the show called upon respected artists to create their own “Belmont Tunnel” spray can while also documenting the artistic progression of the historic Tunnel.
“Belmont is where style started in LA,” Man One, founder and director of the Crewest Gallery, explained to this graffiti novice. And, “Mecca” was the word—graffiti artists at the exhibit worshipped the Tunnel as their artistic gathering place.
Despite its role as an artistic pioneer, Belmont Tunnel also held a nostalgic place in the hearts of these acclaimed artists. For Man One, the Tunnel was the beginning of his own career in graffiti art. He grew up watching artists paint there, eventually making his own murals there.
“Belmont was like home for me,” recalled artist Relic with a smile as he stood by his gallery piece, "STN." Housing 40-50 of his own works, Relic has his own private gallery at the Tunnel, but deep within the layers of paint.
Relic explained, “The better the piece was, the longer it ran.” Simply, a mural piece that is recognized by other artists as particularly outstanding would not be painted over right away. Instead, a respected work might last weeks on display in the Tunnel, rather than mere days.
“Everyone knew you by what you did in Belmont,” said Wisk next to his self-titled work, “when you went to Belmont, you had to bring your A-game.” And for Wisk, it was a leap of faith and a bit of courage that propelled him to create his first Wisk piece at the renown Tunnel.
So, how is a New Yorker to relate this local urban Mecca of graffiti?
Wisk explained, “In New York, you have your hall of fame. Here, Belmont is the yard of fame.”
That's the laid-back cool of this LA art scene—its roots lie in this simple outdoor yard and transcend to become the historic and artistic holy ground for graffiti.
“The Legendary Belmont Tunnel” is on view now until June 28 at Crewest Gallery (www.crewest.com).