What street art and skaters can teach us about community.
It’s not every day that you chat with the Devil himself about gentrification. But here we were standing at the corner of Rose Avenue and the Venice Beach boardwalk, just yards from the white-capped Pacific, talking about the changes he’s seen in his beloved neighborhood over a decade as a street performer.
“You know those little yellow ghost signs popping up in all the windows on the houses around here? That’s Snapchat. They’re buying up everything and it totally changes the feeling of this place.” I nodded at this well-worn neighborhood gripe and made a mental note that apparently even the Devil isn’t a fan of Venice’s “Silicon Beach” transformation.
But, as we stood in the middle of the human flow of skateboarders, drummers, tourists, musicians, drunks, and dreamers, I wasn’t too worried for the neighborhood. Skyrocketing rents and omnipresent Bentleys aside, Venice’s essential DNA, its bohemian wildness, seemed alive and well. A bicyclist on a low-rider bike laced with neon lights rolled by as if to punctuate the point. Also, I was talking to a man wearing horns, a pentagram necklace, and a speedo.
Celebrating that wildness and bringing together the community that makes it possible, was the whole point of the day. I was a part of a team of people from enso, a mission-driven creative company, and the Inside Out project, a global art project by JR, creating a collaborative art piece about “wild thoughts” in partnership with TEDxVeniceBeach.
One of the core ideas behind the TEDx event was that unconventional thinking rarely happens in a vacuum, it needs collaborators, fellow travelers, and a vital community to hatch and promote new ideas. Underpinning the day’s talks was the idea that fostering unconventional thinking begins by strengthening the bonds of the communities where this thinking happens.
So that’s what we tried to do through the magic of photography, printing, brushwork, and a few buckets of wallpaper glue. We encouraged everyone who walked by the “camera truck” — literally a truck that resembled a camera on wheels — to step inside and pose for a photo to add to a mosaic of portraits that would be pasted around the neighborhood. We asked each participant to outstretch their arms in the truck’s photo booth so that when their poster-sized portrait was placed with the larger group it would seem like everyone was linking arms together. A kind of visual shorthand for the unity we hoped to inspire in the weeks, months and years going forward.
The act of gathering together to take the portraits was a kind of community bonding in itself. Over the course of the day, moms, dads, bodybuilders, musicians, beachgoers, and at least one world-famous filmmaker (Agnes Varda) brushed elbows with each other as they waited in line and entered and exited the photo booth. (Varda and JR’s beautiful movie “Faces Places” all about his Inside Out project is in theaters now and highly recommended).
Everyone shared a collective moment of anticipation while their portrait emerged out of the aperture on the side of the truck. Did I blink? Was my facial expression good or goofy? Will I be happy with the image of myself or disappointed? Fortunately, through some kind of unknown alchemy perfected by the Inside Out team, the portraits never failed to elicit smiles and congratulatory slaps on backs.
As we put up the posters in two locations (Rose Avenue at the boardwalk and along the fence of Westminster Elementary), another kind of neighborhood moment started to happen. The streets where we were working became a kind of outdoor gallery installation/performance space. People hopped out of their cars to ask what it was all about, look for their neighbor’s faces, or to find their own. Phones came out pockets to record the balancing act of the team as they stood on scaffolds or scaled fences. And there were smiles of recognition and snippets of conversation when people spotted someone they knew.
In the fading light of the day as we pasted up the final posters, a skater with a group of friends rolled by, looking up at the faces staring down at him. “Hey, check it out, it’s the Devil Guy. He’s been around here for years.” The others turned for a second to take a look at the neighborhood celebrity before rolling on. Their nonchalant approval was probably one of the best blessings of the day from a group of notoriously no-bullshit locals. (Fact: skaters don’t suffer fools). It seemed to say: there’s nothing much to see here except something that already feels like a part of the wild community of Venice. And that, really, is what we were going for all along.
Thanks to TEDxVeniceBeach, Inside Out project, Lucy Walker, Davi Sing, Kevin Liangcy, Alice Pang, Juliana Barbera, Jaime Scatena, sebastian buck, Tynessa Jue, Andrew Wisniewski, Mustafa Ulker, and Stephanie Phoutrides.