Archive for the 'Inspiration' Category



Gaia in Seoul

Something excited me. I wanted to write about it.

That’s pretty much how it goes for me, and even better when it goes well. Making my internet rounds a couple weeks ago, I came across some coverage of US-based artist Gaia‘s recent work in Seoul, a five-piece street art project that explored conflicts in Korean culture.

All my little interest antennae were piqued. But coverage was all on art sites that focus mainly on photos rather than text. I needed to know more: Why Seoul? Why this project? What was his connection? How did the project come about? How did this dude, this outsider, this traveler, find a way down into the pulse of a place, the cement aorta of the city—and leave a mark on its walls?

So I found him and I asked him. Lovely guy. You can read the text version of our 45-minute conversation over at Hi-Fructose, here.

What interested me most about the project was its deep interaction with place. It goes beyond site-specificity, for me. All street art, one could say, involves a very visceral, physical interaction with a place, its architecture, cement, rooftops—its placeness. Which I love. But this project went beyond that. The pieces spoke to very deep conflicts within the culture—tradition versus modernization, internal versus external—conflicts you could say define the culture. The project did this, not in essays or lectures, but in art, on the street. It spoke to the cultural elements of the place through the physicality of the city itself.

Pretty bad ass. And some damn good travelin.

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Travel Tip: Wear a Fanny Pack

Much has been written about the fanny pack. Most of it is bad.

What began as a utilitarian fashion craze of the early 90s (shut up, you know you had one) has now been strictly relegated to the arena of unabashed tourist. Worse than Tevas, worse than zip-off pants, worse than wielding a guidebook or clutching a map or asking for directions loudly in English, the fanny pack is the ultimate signifier of clueless tourist. Just ask the people who write this blog.

But on my last trip in Austin, my good friend and travel buddy Liz presented a most compelling argument in favor of the fanny pack:

I guess it’s all in how you wear it.

Having trouble finding support in your fashion-forward revival of the fanny pack? Use your free hands to take solace at The Real Fanny Pack.

Estudy of Estyle: Chilean Street Art and Figuring Out What the Hell It Is I Have to Say

There’s something I’ve been thinking a lot about, but struggling to find the words to explain: the connection between travel and street art. I’ve had fumbling conversations in which I attempt to articulate it, flapping my lips like hands gasping at butterflies, trying to gather vague supports for an unformed thesis. An idea has been forming in me, very far inside my brain, amid the murmuring currents of subconsciousness—like a toddler without the vocabulary to express herself, feeling emotions she doesn’t understand, but only knows are true.

And then a friend posts a video on Facebook that starts to explain everything I’ve been thinking and struggling to say. Thank God.

Chile Estyle has released the first documentary in what I’m hoping will be an ongoing exploration of the evolution of the burgeoning and blossoming Chilean spin on the global phenomenon of street art. And in its coverage of the specifically Chilean take on the art form, Chile Estyle touches on what I’d felt street art is doing all over the world: revealing (like a striptease) just a little more of the soul of a place.

I’ve been hearing a lot about Chilean street art, most recently in a photo essay by Oakland artist Obi Kaufmann (discussed in connection to his recent mural here). We stood around The Oakbook’s small gallery space, and I listened to Obi talk about the distinctions of Chilean street art: materials lending a unique aesthetic (due to the relative absence of aerosol spray paint in the country), and the culture of muralism leading to the acceptance, even support, of the community (you’re more likely to see street art on the sides of businesses and schools than abandoned warehouses). I can’t say I saw a lot of street art when I was in Santiago, nearly five years ago. Something has changed.

Judging from the picture presented by Chile Estyle, the explosion of street art in Chile has a lot to do with the country regaining confidence and reestablishing its identity. Artists in the video talk about seeing work from New York, Europe, Brazil, and taking pride in the fact that Chile can contribute works just as valuable and important. But, of course, it comes with their own distinct style, a product of their own history and culture.

This one's for you, Mom

The video discusses “Chilean graffiti identity,” informed by the country’s tradition of political muralism. Uber populist and at its core revolutionary, graffiti and street art are seen as an extension of the self-expression that acted in rebuttal to (right-wing) major media outlets—“walls are taken much like a newspaper.” The tradition has lent a culture and community far more tolerant of street art than in most places of the world; it’s seen as “a gift for the people,” rather than vandalism. And, as Chilean street art has begun to garner international attention (like in a recent exhibition at LA’s Carmichael Gallery), it’s become a source of national pride.

How different this is from the culture of street art around the world. And more than just isolated vestiges of self-expression, one can take Chilean street art as a product of the country’s past and perhaps one of best reflections of its contemporary culture.

This is what I’ve been suspecting street art could do. In moments of blinding conviction, I’ve felt that street art, in its democratic and uncommercialized glory, can capture placeness just as well as food or architecture or music or any number of things people look to when they travel. In a continual cross-pollination of artists and influences, cities wear a bit more of their souls on their walls, as though the murals and stencils and wheatpastes were images from its dreams. It’s the way a city like Tel Aviv becomes a mecca for political street art, the way the aesthetic now known as Mission School bloomed in the alleyways of the 90’s SF Mission, whispering its stories in neon—and the way the tradition of political muralism paved the way and painted the walls for a purely Chilean approach to the art form.

And I still don’t have the words for it, the right or complete words to explain it all—because of course, virtually the same things could be said about all art forms, in how they inform and are informed by place. But something in me sparks when it comes to graffiti, in the same place of my brain that travel ignites. I guess the only thing to do is keep digging, poking, on the internet and down alleyways, until I stumble upon the thing it is I’m trying to say—painted on the walls in plain sight.

Candy, Travel and Love in Los Angeles

On a smog-sighing spring afternoon in Los Angeles, I met my soul mate. Possibly two soul mates.

Tuesday was a charmed day, my last full one before I hit the highway and headed back up the green spine of California. I ultimately failed in my scurrying attempt to cram in everything I hadn’t gotten to in the previous days—but I did encounter, sheerly by happenstance, two kindred spirits, cosmically bound in a coruscating tango set to the tune of my greatest loves: the unexpected beauty of travel, and sugar.

I got to Glaco’s Soda Pop Stop the round-about way. I learned about the Highland Park neighborhood (where Glaco’s has operated since 1897) through Trekking Los Angeles, a non-profit that aims to leverage cultural tourism to bring financial benefit to underserved communities. A pretty bad-ass ambition, and especially interesting given the recent spark in the ongoing debate about the cultural benefits/damages of tourism at World Hum and Matador. But how would it play out practically? I tried out one of their neighborhood guides.

The Highland Park guide focused mostly on art galleries and community spaces, which though interesting yielded a pretty incomplete neighborhood guide. I cruised past several of the galleries, finding only one open, and discovered the crowning Southwest Museum to be closed indefinitely due to earthquake damage.

What I ended up finding coolest was just wandering the streets. Far from trendy and slick, Highland Park is a diverse, working class community (not too different from Oakland) filled with raspado carts, 99 cent stores, auto shops, old women walking under the shade of umbrellas, panderias displaying Nescafe, Santeria markets, Food4Less, fast food chains, the lonely hiss of traffic. And art. Graffiti bloomed electric in the alleys, while murals covered the sides of buildings, highlighting local history, cheerfully advertising for businesses or bilingually encouraging you to recycle your motor oil. If it hadn’t been for Trekking Los Angeles, I’d never have ended up in Highland Park.

But Yelp led to me to the real gem of the neighborhood. Judging by the magazine articles taped to the front door, Glaco’s is far from undiscovered. Which is a good thing. Because under the fluorescence and atop the linoleum lies one of the most killer collection of sweets I’ve ever seen. I’d come to the holy land of sugar fiends. Cane sugar fiends.

I walked starry-eyed through the aisles, along displays of glass bottles and vintage candy. As I stocked up on candy cigarettes, Bubble Up and chocolate taffy, I perused some of the ingredients list. High fructose corn syrup was nowhere to be found. At the check-out line, I asked the grayed, smock-wearing clerk if the sweets sold were all in fact original recipes, free of all the chemicals and crap found in American candy today.

His eyes shone, a web of smile wrinkles appearing. “Our products only contain cane sugar.” My heart fluttered. My wallet opened.

Turns out the clerk was John, the owner of Glaco’s and the man responsible for turning it from an old-school deli to a cornucopia of candy. Being a fairly mellow Tuesday afternoon, John commenced to guide me around the store, explaining his philosophy and pointing out beloved brands.

John was all about the taste. He wasn’t a new-agey health nut (obviously)—to him, products made from natural ingredients like cane sugar just taste better. “The big companies are all about cutting costs,” he told me. “They don’t care about taste.” He told me how he remembered, as a kid, when 7Up switched from using lemon and lime oils to extracts. “It was terrible,” he lamented, with the touch of nostalgic heartbreak reserved for unhealed childhood wounds. “Now this,” he picked up a bottle with care, “is the good stuff. Original Dr. Pepper formula, with Imperial cane sugar.”

John and I proceeded to bro down about ingredients for about 20 minutes. Coming from the Bay Area dining scene, it’s all about quality, natural ingredients, even at the bar—squeeze your own fresh juices, make your own simple syrup, even your own small-batch Vermouth, increasingly. It’s a trend based on taste. But for John, it’s no trend. The vintage candy and soda thing isn’t a gimmick, isn’t hip. It’s just the way sweets were always meant to be. A square-shaped old man with smiling eyes and a die-hard passion for sugar, I almost asked if he had any single grandsons.

Thirty dollars and one mean sugar buzz later, I headed clean across town to Culver City, the undercover hotbed of hipness. Some of LA’s most prominent contemporary urban art galleries are housed in the unassuming tract of wide streets and windy sidewalks, including one often featured on one of my favorite street art blogs, unurth. I checked out the whimsical exhibition by Brazilian street artist Nina Pandolfo at Carmichael Gallery, and chatted up the friendly dude gallery sitting. He told me not to miss the current exhibition two doors down, at Roberts & Tilton. And oh man, am I glad I listened.

The white walls of the gallery’s main room were lined with a single ring of photographs, hung right at eye-level. The black-and-white images were haunting, gritty, unflinching, and ultimately beautiful. They were the work of Ed Templeton.

Ed Templeton is a kind of a Renaissance Man of contemporary cool—a pro skateboarder, photographer, artist, editor of a magazine, and, after reading the press release for his current show The Seconds Pass, a damn good writer, I’ve decided:

There is a scribble of asphalt and meandering ribbons of concrete tangled all over North America in a contiguous line of material that connects each of us to whomever else is also in contact. I sometimes marvel at this, walking from my front door and standing on the asphalt looking down at its grimy blackness, wishing I could rest my ear down on it and hear everything like the Indians in an old western film. The pavement I’m standing on is connected to other pavement, concrete, or steel to almost anywhere I can think of. Certainly everywhere you can drive to. Someone in Burnt Church, Tennessee is standing on gravel that is connected by touch to my street, just like someone is in Halifax, Nova Scotia. I can be in New York City in 3 days from my home in the suburban sprawl of Orange County, California without ever touching the earth.

All the photographs in the exhibition were taken from cars. On the road, in transit, the photos captured those fleeting moments, those “ephemeral winks” that slide past the glass like a poem of images, a slideshow of humanity and place. Walking, biking, waiting for the bus, staring out through the windshield—they were snapshots of those little moments, seemingly small and sometimes lonely, that are somehow connected, or connect us.

I’d been roadtripping for 9 days, riding the veins of America, the journey of it as much a destination as the places themselves. Dusty towns, gasping palm trees, billboards and cacti, strip malls and faces, faces—it was like a projection of something, a movie flickering on my windshield, disappearing in the side-view mirrors. And a thread of something laid underneath it all, tying it all together, like some obscure plot line I couldn’t quite grasp, but that kept nudging, whispering at me in its language of images, the roar of the wind. It was the road, the black asphalt itself—and god-damn, if I could take a decent picture, it’d look something like the ones lining the walls of that gallery.

It might have just been the cane sugar coursing through the blood, but things were beginning to make sense.

Searching for the Swallows in San Juan Capistrano

The air twitched with flies. Wild rabbits darted like phantoms from some hallucinogenic come-down; lizards crawled like insects out of the eyes of middle-school acid trips. Rocks and weeds tumbled down into a tight ravine; on the other side, trains rumbled past and the interstate roared like a wild thing. A weathered “No Trespassing” sign grew small behind me. I wasn’t concerned—this was bigger than trespassing. Down an abandoned road, amid the unkept overgrowth of a forgotten corner of Orange County, I was searching for what I’d come for—the swallows of San Juan Capistrano.

It started with the tattoo. I, like half of the tattooed population of the planet, have swallows. Not that I’m a sailor, bird enthusiast or have any particular affinity for traditional tattoos. But it means that every little old lady I meet asks me, “Have you been to San Juan Capistrano?” I found out that San Juan Capistrano was the town where swallows migrate back to every spring, after their trip down to Argentina. They arrive like clockwork every March 19, swooping around the old alcoves of the Mission there, building their bizarre nests and diving through the calm air and whispering history. I got tired of answering “no”—this year, I was going to the god-damn Mission and seeing some god-damn swallows.

I drove into the belly of the beast—Orange County. Motherland of every suburban California stereotype: sixteen lanes of chocked traffic, smog-smudged horizons, Del Taco and Starbucks, too-skinny arms and too-hard boobs. But somewhere amid all that was a kind of authenticity, a tradition, a natural phenomenon that hadn’t been strangled out by sprawl. I’d sat on the balcony of my cheap hotel in the Fez medina one dusk and watched the sky come alive with the swoop and screech of swallows: black, like shadows, fast, like phantoms, so that they almost seemed unreal. I wanted that rush again, that marvel and awe, in what seemed like a most unlikely place, this suburb of all suburbs.

The return of the swallows is San Juan Capistrano’s biggest event of the year. The Mission opens its doors to tons of visitors; I learned too late that the main event was the Swallows Day Parade on Saturday. But whatever. The main event for me were the birds themselves. I ditched my car about a mile from the Mission, hiked through the traffic and crowds of families and old ladies. I bought a couple $2 tacos, a pan dulce as big as my head, and entered the Mission.

Only the swallows weren’t there. Crowds milled around with their audio-tour headsets, their cameras and sun visors, through the neon flowers and crumbling edifices of the Mission, looking skyward at nothing but blue. “Ooh, there’s one,” an elderly man exclaimed. “No, dear,” his wife answered, “that’s a blackbird.”

What the hell? I sidled up to a ranger and asked, “So, um, where’s all the birds?”

“They don’t really come here anymore,” she answered in a hushed voice.

“Why not?”

“Well, we don’t really know. Some people think it’s climate change, but more likely it’s urbanization. The area was all rural when the Mission was built—lots of bugs and dirt for the birds. But now, you know—” she waved her hand at the hiss of traffic from beyond the Mission walls. “I’ve heard they’re mostly down by the creek.” She gave me directions to a creekbed just outside of town, where a small colony of swallows was rumored have nested, to be swooping through the skies. “Lots for them to eat out there,” the ranger told me with a smile.

I wandered around the Mission. It was beautiful in the way that Southern plantations are beautiful—peaceful and shady, but with something sinister inside the breezes and gardenia scents, a hint of haunting in the wild-blowing quietude, as though if you listened very closely, you could hear the echoes of crying, of cultural genocide and Christianization. I listened to my headset, watched the candles flicker in the chapel, observed the statue of missionary taming the savage, lion-cloth-wearing Native American.

“Are those swallows on your arms?” a woman wearing a swallow-studded t-shirt asked.

“They sure are.”

“Can I take a picture?”

I turned around and squeezed my elbows together, so that the birds on either sides of the arms were touching. The woman snapped her photo. “Those are the only ones I’ve seen today,” she told me wistfully.

I laughed. “Me too.”

Like everyone else, I kept looking up, searching the squinting blue sky for signs of the birds. Phantom swallow syndrome: kept thinking I saw the diving wings and forked tails of the elusive birds I’d come for. It seemed like a metaphor—like gentrification, like the more predatory forms of tourism, we’d descended en masse and through our seeking of something authentic and real, we’d driven out the very thing we sought. And I was, of course, one of them, in the way you never want to admit you’re really one of them (“I’m a traveler, not a tourist”)—with my digital camera, snapping photos at ghosts.

I’d find them, I decided. I got back into my desert-dust, dead-bug covered car and went creek-ward. I curved down a quiet road, spied the cleave in the green earth when the creek was, searched for somewhere to ditch my car that didn’t have an ominous “Tow Away” sign. I pulled up to a driveway and asked a little old man if he’d seen any swallows. He scratched his head, answered in a heavy accent, “No, but maybe down by the Church.”

The grounds of Rancho Capistrano weren’t very welcoming—sprinkled with “No Trespassing” and “No Parking” signs. I left my car between two parked big-rigs on the street outside and tromped in, down through shady grasses and soccer fields, alongside a 6-foot chainlink fence covered in forbidding signs. The grounds gave way to open space, wild grass and small, rustling animals. The natural creek was swallow-less, but as I approached the cement embankments, I saw the diving black figures I’d been searching for.

About a dozen swallows moved through the half-shadowed concrete, white bellies and black wings. I crouched down, snuck under the tall fence and crawled over big rocks to get closer to the birds’ strange dance. I tried to snap photos, but they were too fast, too elusive for my slow fingers and cranky old lens. I put down my camera and just watched, thinking of the balcony in Fez, the long journey of the small creatures, the city they’d shunned and where they’d ended up instead.

Los Angeles, Give Me Some of You!

“Los Angeles, give me some of you! Los Angeles come to me the way I came to you, my feet over your streets, you pretty town I loved you so much, you sad flower in the sand, you pretty town.”

John Fante, “Ask the Dust”

Us Northern Californians are prejudiced.

That’s right: prejudiced. We look down our noses, down the long craggy coastline, at Los Angeles as though it were the traffic-clogged  layer of Hell Dante forgot to mention. Tanned and Botoxed and full of silicone, Southern California steals our water, votes Republican, gave us the Governator. In its smog-laden haze of red carpets and reality shows, it skews our state’s reputation, bogs down our ethereal quest for Prius-driving utopia of gay marriage and legalized marijuana. It’s Sparta and we’re Athens, the “LA face and Oakland booty” that never quite make it onto the same person, never combine to create the ultimate bad-ass state, but instead go careening on their own individual, bickering paths of disapproval (NorCal) and complete unawareness/indifference (SoCal).

I once read an essay that whittled the whole Northern-Southern divide down to the difference between internal and external—Southern California was the glossy, teeth-whitened facade, Northern California the soulful, spiritually searching inside (you can guess which side of the debate the author fell on). It’s Bikram and we’re Hatha. And while Southern California remains too self-absorbed to even notice our despising of them, people write whole books on the cultural clashes of the US’s most populous state.

But I’ve long suspected that there’s more to Southern California than SUV-driving anorexics and flip-flop-wearing bros. It may have given us Kardashians and Speidi, but what about Charles Bukowski and John Fante, Camille Rose Garcia and The Date Farmers, The Germs and NWA? There must be, I’ve thought, a whole nuther Los Angeles, down beneath the glittering grotesque surface, that most people never see—hidden and raw, like an open wound or a small, beating heart.

I’m going to find it. I’m going, filling my beat-up car with gas and kicking the tires to check the air, going down the writhing road of Highway 1, past old Missions and crumbling cliffs, sleepy mansions and under-funded state parks. I’m headed into the desert, to psuedo-Old-West honky tonks and lawless squatter encampments. I’m watching swallows return from their long flight, to build strange nests and swoop their shadows through the dusk. And then I’m headed into the city itself, the city of Angeles and dreamers and dirtbags I’ve adored. I’ve got no traditional guidebook, no road map—just my phone and a smattering of tips divulged by friends and dug up on random websites.

Oh, and I’m taking you along for the ride.

Temporal Permanence: Ruins, Street Art and the Narrative Beneath

The speechless candlelight made the images more powerful. The way the sage billowed, the music groaned, the little light flickered—it made the images seem less like a mural and more like the hallucinogenic remnants of a dream, bloody and hand-smeared on the walls of a very dark cave, or on the inside of your skull—which may be the same thing. Dancing on the under side of your eyelids, before swollen and searching pupils, this was the stuff of mushrooms and all-nighters, of contemporary graffiti and ancient cities, of Latin American travels and my Friday night in Oakland.

The showing of Obi Kaufmann‘s mural The Feathered Serpent at The Oakbook was less like an art show than a ceremonious seance. Painted in the fever and fury of a single day and night (and mushroom trip), the mural was inspired by the artist’s recent travels through Latin America. The distinctive flavor of Santiago’s street art scene and the whispering ruins of Oaxaca’s ancient city Monte Alban swirled around in the artist’s subconscious until a dream pushed images out, from one side of the brain to the other, through his fingers and onto the wall of the gallery.

I am not an art critic, journalist, collector or student, so I won’t try to review or surmise. Instead, I’ll let the artist speak for himself. Here’s his photo essay of Santiago street art on Artopic, and his written essay about the genesis and symbolism of the piece on The Oakbook’s website.

After checking out the essays, I got pretty stoked to see the mural. The work being travel-inspired got my antennas twitching. I’d been to both Santiago and Monte Alban, I love crumbly old ruins, and I really love street art (as you’ve seen before)—often for the aesthetics but more because, as a traveler, I find it reveals so much about the beating heart of a place. I was curious to see how it all connected.

Indeed, what I found most compelling about the work (aside from the spooky images and skeletal figures) was the way it blended seemingly disparate influences. There doesn’t seem to be a lot of similarity between the streets of Santiago and the ruins of the Zapotec city Monte Alban: vibrant color versus crumbled stone; modern versus ancient; temporality versus remains—a continent, culture and two millennia apart, what commonality did these two places hold? For the artist, it was some kind of communalism, each place informing part of a narrative that was at once universal and personal, regionally distinct and part of a bigger story. Obi saw the world, human history, in the cavernous, torch-lit intersection of two places that don’t seem to intersect. And if that’s not some damn good traveling, than I don’t know what is.

The artist

Travel often brings up puzzling paradoxes (thus the tired line, “land of contrasts”). How does one hold, in the same hand, the transience of graffiti and the permanence of hard stone foundations? Or, to extend the metaphor, how does a traveler simultaneously love the spontaneity of the open road and the rootedness of home? I think the answer, if there is one, must lie somewhere down beneath all that, in the narrative thread that ties this big world together—in the collective unconscious, if you wanna get real heady. Or at least, you know, in the images and scrawlings and paint smears that have now been painted over—a wall blazing white and sealed-lipped about the stories it holds.


Lauren Quinn is a writer and traveler currently living in Hanoi. Lonely Girl Travels was a blog of her sola travels and expat living from 2009 to 2012. She resides elsewhere on the internet now.

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