Los Angeles is known to be an international hub of art: from movies and music to theater and fashion, the city has been recognized in turning out the latest and greatest works in several industries. But less known to cultural tourists is the rich street art that Los Angeles has to offer, tucked just under the noses of passersby in well-traveled areas.
Whether you’re a tourist visiting for the first time or a local to Los Angeles looking to see your city from a new perspective, these nine displays will leave you wanting to discover more from the city’s historic and ever-changing street art culture.
Urban art’s historic link to Los Angeles
Although graffiti has come to be more aligned in the cultural psyche with East Coast cities like New York and Philadelphia, Los Angeles boasts its own unique take on the medium after it established a distinct identity in the 1990s. City dwellers used their version of the New York subway cars — buses and concrete walls — to emulate motifs from pop art, Latin American cultures, and Old English typeface to create styles all their own. Some took to highways, streetcars, and buildings to find canvases. Others took to the city’s less-policed river, which runs for 51 miles and was largely abandoned, serving as a prime location for hobbyist taggers in the late 80s and early 90s. During the same time period, Muralism and street art also became oft-used forms of artistic protest by Los Angeles’ Chicano population against urban politics, as author Stefano Block writes in “Why do Graffiti Writers Write on Murals? The Birth, Life, and Slow Death of Freeway Murals in Los Angeles.”
Out of these movements, several key figures rose to prominence and made Los Angeles a pillar city in the street art scene. Risk and OG Slick, both of which represented the U.S. at the International Street Art Competition in the late 80s, took graffiti from highway overpasses and freight trains to gallery walls. Risk also lent his talents to projects for Michael Jackson, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Bad Religion, and Ice Cube, later moving to clothing as his canvas with a graffiti-inspired apparel line. Meanwhile, Chicano artist collective Los Four rose to prominence in the 80s, painting politically-charged murals and even made instrumental strides in the creation of the Great Wall of Los Angeles.
Fast forward to 2022 and you can still see the influence that the late greats have on modern street artists, who still use vivid hues, identifiable iconography, and dynamic uses of the California landscape to express emotion, politics, and identity in an undoubtedly unique city.
9 best places to check out urban art in Los Angeles:
- L.A. Arts District: Kicking off our list is the L.A. Arts District in the heart of the city, which can be found in the vicinity of East 4th, East 5th and Palmetto Streets. The area, once home to artists living in converted warehouses in the 1970s, now features dozens of massive building-wide murals in bold colors with Instagram-worthy colorful displays such as the historic 1932 work “America Tropical” by Mexican painter David Siqueiros and “Bloom,” a hyperrealistic floral tribute to community activist Joel Bloom.
- The Container Yard: Nestled within the L.A. Arts District is the Container Yard, a space made up of four small lots touting shops, art installations, food trucks, and more. Engulfing the space are life-sized murals from internationally known graffiti artists such as RiseOne and Royyal Dog. Grab some local grub or a coffee and take a step back to enjoy 360 degrees of dynamic art all around.
- Venice Beach: Who said street art should be confined to the heart of the city? Wander out to Venice Beach to see some striking urban art on the boardwalk featuring the Jim Morrison Wall Mural, an Arnold Schwarzenegger mural, and even an interpretation of Van Gogh’s “Starry Night.” Other major mural sites can be found at Abbot Kinney Boulevard, Pacific Avenue and Market Street, and Main and Horizon Streets. Bonus: many local artists are granted permits to use the Venice Public Art Walls Artists at no cost, so be sure to check out the display during open hours on weekends.
- West Hollywood Library: Shepard Fairey (perhaps known best for his 2008 HOPE image of Barack Obama) has completed several iconic pieces around Los Angeles, including “Peace Elephant,” a MOCA commission for Art in the Streets in 2011. The mural was Fairey’s largest to date at 70 feet by 106 feet and covers an entire wall of the West Hollywood Library. You’ll be able to see the likes of RETNA and Kenny Scharf on other walls of the edifice, too.
- Art Share LA Building: Known as the “coloring book of LA,” this E 4th Place building offers live/work studios for local artists and an ever-changing canvas of street art to offer to the public for free. Carve out a few hours to participate in stimulating programs and exhibitions like “Our Angeles,” “The Observer and the Observed,” and open calls for local artists.
- The Great Wall of Los Angeles: Simply put, it’s known as the Great Wall for a reason. This half-mile-long painted history of Los Angeles was originally created in the 70s and 80s (with the help of members of Los Four) and restored in 2004, but there’s talks to add onto the piece to update its history. Along the mural — known as one of the largest in the world — you’ll find the local tribes of Native Americans, the Great Depression, Japanese-American internment during World War II, and suburban development.
- Mural Mile: Since 2012, over 50 separate murals have sprawled within a three-mile radius of Pacoima City Hall, featuring an abundance of art styles, cultures, and themes important to the immediate community. In fact, Mural Mile is known to be a collaborative initiative between artists and the city government, championing projects to highlight area landmarks, wildlife, and city heritage. See work from local contemporaries like Kristy Sandoval, Sarah Ponce, and Juan Reyes, as well as dozens of others, highlighted in this outdoor treasure trove of urban art.
- Santa Monica’s Pico Boulevard: Alongside the iconic pier and picturesque beach, Santa Monica’s street art can be touted as one of its beautiful sights. Touting over 130 street art murals within eight miles, the area isn’t hard for a wandering art lover to enjoy. Just on Pico Boulevard, you’ll find a large tribute to Kobe Bryant and his daughter, as well as Angels pitcher Tyler Skaggs who grew up in Southern California, to name a few.
- Skid Row City Limits Mural: Named the best new street art piece in LA in 2015 by LA Weekly, this piece on San Julian Street was created by Skid Row citizen volunteers and organized by local street art crew Winston Death Squad and community activist General Jeff Page. “It is both a beautifying tapestry and a statement of community,” LA Weekly said of the work. “When the city tried to rename the infamously off-the-grid neighborhood ‘Central City East,’ Skid Row community organizer General Jeff knew it was time for its residents to take control of their destiny, at least symbolically.”
Although there’s a wealth of art to view in and around the aforementioned locations, Los Angeles is a sprawling city with new street art constantly being commissioned, made, and discovered, so go forth and explore the city with a fresh pair of eyes. And if it’s just too hot under the California sun, you can always skip down to The Geffen Contemporary (MOCA) to see acclaimed street art within air-conditioned walls.
What’s your favorite spot to see graffiti or street art in Los Angeles? What do you think it takes to be a great street artist? Tag your thoughts in the comments.