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Dark Progressivism: Southern California's Street-Smart Art

From the blood on the streets to the art on the museum walls, Dark Progressivism is a style of art that first appeared in Southern California. It’s based in design and lettering. It didn’t come out of art school, though it is being now being recognized by academics and by art lovers around the world.

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Dark Progressivism comes from the darkness of the streets. It has roots in gang tattoos and graffiti; and some, but not all, of the artists have lived the gang life. Many are immigrants, or first and second generation Americans. Through the built environment, the artists absorbed elements of German Expressionism, Post-war Modernism, and Southern California design and architecture, as well as film noir and typography. These influences can be seen in their art.

213 60”x90” composite polaroid photograph on INNOVA archival paper and applied mixed media.
Photographer Jim McHugh in collaboration with David Cavazos “Big Sleeps,” from the project “LA Neighborhoods” / Via lancastermoah.org

213 60”x90” composite polaroid photograph on INNOVA archival paper and applied mixed media.

Dark Progressivism was recognized as a regional style by author and filmmaker Rodrigo Ribera d’Ebre who wrote and directed an award-winning documentary about the style and artists. D’Ebre was a gang member who changed direction after friends were indicted for the murder of a federal informant. He now holds a degree in political science from California State University, Los Angeles and an MFA in writing from Mount Saint Mary's University. He authored Urban Politics: The Political Culture of Sur 13 Gangs, a socio-political analysis of SoCal gang culture, and is contributor to the Huffington Post and the Los Angeles Review of Books.a

This eye-opening documentary tells the story of a local nativist tradition in artwork, explicating how the dark aspects of the built environment combined with forward-thinking principles have influenced contemporary art.
Rodrigo Ribera d'Ebre / Via darkprogressivism.com

This eye-opening documentary tells the story of a local nativist tradition in artwork, explicating how the dark aspects of the built environment combined with forward-thinking principles have influenced contemporary art.

The film’s success created additional interest in this Southern California genre, and now there is a museum show dedicated to it, which opens November 11, 2017 at the Museum of Art and History in Lancaster, California. Dark Progressivism: The Built Environment runs from November 11, 2017 though January 14, 2018.

Hollow, by Liz Brizzi forms the background of the flyer image for Dark Progressivism: The Built Environment
MOAH / Via Instagram: @darkprogressivism

Hollow, by Liz Brizzi forms the background of the flyer image for Dark Progressivism: The Built Environment

“The Built Environment” refers to the alteration of natural environments by the impact of man-made structures, like freeways, train tracks, housing developments, and shopping malls. These built environments may then be altered by those who live in and around them, or by outsiders. Dark Progressivism: The Built Environment demonstrates the drive and resiliency of its artists, as well as the breadth and depth of Southern California art.

Dark Progressivism artists like David Big Sleeps Cavazos and Joe Prime Reza elaborate on traditional gang tags and lettering. Jim McHugh, a critically acclaimed photographer, whose work appears in Architectural Digest, has collaborated with Big Sleeps and Prime to create the Neighborhood Projects series.

Washington Blvd, composite Polaroid photograph on INNOVA matte canvas with applied mixed media, 44” x 115” diptych, unique.
Photographer Jim McHugh in collaboration with LA street writers, artists Joe Prime Reza and David Big Sleeps Cavazos, from the project “LA Neighborhoods” / Via lancastermoah.org

Washington Blvd, composite Polaroid photograph on INNOVA matte canvas with applied mixed media, 44” x 115” diptych, unique.

Big Sleeps, a world renown tattooist has created a series of books, Letters to Live By. His paintings mix abstract elements with letters that have become elaborated to the extreme. However, those fluent in tagging can still read them.

Metamorphosis, 2017, mixed media on canvas, 72" X 48"
David Big Sleeps Cavazos / Via lancastermoah.org

Metamorphosis, 2017, mixed media on canvas, 72" X 48"

Prime, considered one of the 25 most influential graffiti artists in Los Angeles, was shot and lost the use of his right hand. During his recovery, he taught himself to paint and draw with his left hand so he could continue to create. He is a member of the legendary graffiti crew K2S (Kill To Succeed) with Gajin Fujita, Juan Carlos Munoz Hernandez, and Big Sleeps. This piece pays homage to cement carvings, the earliest form of graffiti in Los Angeles.

Urban Landscape, 2017, cement, 68" X 74"
Joe Prime Reza / Via courtesy of artist

Urban Landscape, 2017, cement, 68" X 74"

Prime's site-specific installation Payphone inspired a short story by curator Rodrigo Ribera d’Ebre, included in the exhibtion's catalog.

Prime, Payphone, mixed media, 2017
Photo of Prime by Jim McHugh / Via courtesy of artists

Prime, Payphone, mixed media, 2017

Chaz Bojorquez, considered the godfather of Cholo art, studied Asian brush lettering and calligraphy around the world before returning to Los Angeles to begin his career as a professional artist. His work is in numerous permanent museum collections, including the Smithsonian Institute, Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA), and Laguna Art Museum.

100 Tags on Skull, 1996, Zolatone paint, acrylic paint, glitter on canvas, 39" X 43"
Chaz Bojorquez / Via lancastermoah.org

100 Tags on Skull, 1996, Zolatone paint, acrylic paint, glitter on canvas, 39" X 43"

Gajin Fujita developed his art as member of the Los Angeles graffiti crews K2S (Kill 2 Succeed, whose members included Juan Carlos Munoz Hernandez, Big Sleeps and Prime) and KGB (Kids Gone Bad). His work which combines classical Japanese iconography with Mexican-American tagging and U.S. pop culture images, has shown internationally and is in several museum collections.

Guardian Angel, 2016, spray paint, paint markers, markers, Mean Streak, 12k white gold leaf, and 24k gold leaf on wood panel, 48" X 48"
Gajin Fujita / Via courtesy of artist

Guardian Angel, 2016, spray paint, paint markers, markers, Mean Streak, 12k white gold leaf, and 24k gold leaf on wood panel, 48" X 48"

Before Rafael Reyes (Leafar Seyer) formed the Cholo-Goth band Prayers with Dave Parley, he was showing his art in San Diego galleries, and had published Living Dangerously, a fictionalized coming-of-age story about his life as a gang member. The charismatic Seyer mixes traditional indigenous and Cholo symbols with European cultural iconography, indicating both the conflict and synthesis of his worlds. He created the sculpture, Southland, specifically for this exhibition.

Southland, 2017, acrylic and glitter on wood, steel frame and stand, 36" X 96" X 3"
Rafael Reyes (Leafar Seyer) / Via courtesy of artist

Southland, 2017, acrylic and glitter on wood, steel frame and stand, 36" X 96" X 3"

As an active member of K2S, Juan Carlos Munoz Hernandez was commissioned to create a mural for Homeboy Industries. Later he apprenticed with sculptor Robert Graham, and helped to create internationally acclaimed public works including the doors of Our Lady of Angels Cathedral in Los Angeles. His delicate lines and use of color reflect sonic frequncies and show a relationship to Light and Space artists.

River of Life, 2016, acrylic on wood panel, 47.75" X 60"
Juan Carlos Muñoz Hernandez / Via courtesy of artist

River of Life, 2016, acrylic on wood panel, 47.75" X 60"

Roberto Gutierrez, considered one of the most important Chicano artists to come out of Los Angeles, was born in LA in 1943, the youngest of nine children to a father who worked in the railroad yards and as a dishwasher. He served in the U.S. Marines, stationed in Vietnam during the early days of the war, from 1961 to 1966, and used the G.I. Bill to attend East Los Angeles Community College. He has since focused on his art, which depicts life in the barrio and greater Los Angeles.

Echo Park, 2013, acrylic, 36" X 60"
Roberto Gutierrez / Via courtesy of artist

Echo Park, 2013, acrylic, 36" X 60"

Estevan Oriol began his career as a low rider with a camera, able to get the best shots of cars and crowds in action, and went on to work with Cypress Hill and House of Pain, and to direct videos and commercials. He has photographed Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, Dennis Hopper, Kim Kardashian, Kanye West, Snoop Dogg, and Floyd Mayweather, as well as underground cultures.

Untitled, 2016, photograph on archival paper
Estevan Oriol / Via courtesy of artist

Untitled, 2016, photograph on archival paper

Roberto Chavez is a highly respected painter whose work is part of the Smithsonian collection. He was an active member of the Chicano civil rights movement. His 200-ft long mural, The Path to Knowledge and the False University, at East Los Angeles Community College, where he was chair of the Chicano Studies Department was painted over by the college; its importance was celebrated decades later. This portrait of his brother Raul, painted in 1957, shows the influence of German Expressionism.

Portrait of the Artist’s Brother Raul, 1959, oil on canvas, 34" X 24.125"
Roberto Chavez / Via courtesy of artist

Portrait of the Artist’s Brother Raul, 1959, oil on canvas, 34" X 24.125"

Susan Logoreci was commissioned to create a mural for Los Angeles Metro Expo line, and her public art has been displayed at Los Angeles International Airport, Harbor-UCLA Hospital, and City National Bank Tower in Downtown Los Angeles.

L.A. Plays Itself, 2015, colored pencil on paper, 48" X 84"
Susan Logoreci / Via courtesy of the artist

L.A. Plays Itself, 2015, colored pencil on paper, 48" X 84"

Like Logoreci, Jaime Scholnick has a mural commission for a station on the Los Angeles Metro, and she too has created public art for LAX. This diptych--a large scale version of which will be installed on the platform level of the Expo/Crenshaw Station--shows the changing face of South Los Angeles.

Crenshaw Blvd., L.A.B-31 and B-32, 2016, mixed media on wood panel, 24" X 67" X 2"
Jaime Scholnick / Via courtesy of the artist

Crenshaw Blvd., L.A.B-31 and B-32, 2016, mixed media on wood panel, 24" X 67" X 2"

Shizu Saldamando, who also created a mural on the Metro Expo Line, has been featured at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington D.C. and the Venice Biennale in Italy, amongst other museums and exhibitions. Her portraits are influenced by her Japanese and Mexican heritage, and her skill as a tattoo artist is in high demand.

Crasslos At Chicos Montebello, 2016, mixed media on paper, 22" X 30"
Shizu Saldamando / Via courtesy of the artist

Crasslos At Chicos Montebello, 2016, mixed media on paper, 22" X 30"

In a painting created specifically for Dark Progressivism: The Built Environment, Sandow Birk drew on castas, painted charts from the colonial period depicting mixed racial marriages and their offspring. West Coast Casta mimics the traditional casta charts of centuries ago and depicts some of the innumerable racial and ethnic blends that currently exist.

West Coast Casta, 2017, acrylic on canvas, 43" X 54"
Sandow Birk / Via courtesy of the artist

West Coast Casta, 2017, acrylic on canvas, 43" X 54"

Eva Malhotra grew up in East Los Angeles. An an immigrant, she attended art school, then UCLA and UC Berkeley, graduating with a law degree. Her paintings, which are created by layering acrylic on wood and then scraping away the strata, have shown at Latino Art Museum in Pomona, California; in the Mexican Consulates in Los Angeles and Santa Ana, California; the Institute of Art and Culture in Tijuana, Mexico; the gallery of the University of Mexico in San Antonio, Mexico; and in Merida, Yucatan.

Un pedazo de cielo, 2016, acrylic on birch board, 62" X 62" (diptych, 31" X 31" each panel)
Eva Malhotra / Via courtesy of the artist

Un pedazo de cielo, 2016, acrylic on birch board, 62" X 62" (diptych, 31" X 31" each panel)

Louis Jacinto is a renown photographer and curator who captured LA’s emerging punk, art, and queer scenes in the late 1970s and 80s, and continues to document his environment. For Dark Progressivism: The Built Environment, the curators chose photos of the punk band, Los Illegals featuring muralist/singer Willie Herron who appears in the film Dark Progressivism, and images of the early days of the Sunset Junction Street Fair in Silver Lake where gang members and the LGBT community celebrated together. His photographs have been exhibited in museums across the U.S. and Mexico.

Sunset Junction: Monitoring Our Safety, 1981, photograph, 16" X 20"
Louis Jacinto / Via courtesy of the artist

Sunset Junction: Monitoring Our Safety, 1981, photograph, 16" X 20"

Jason Hernandez’s work is influenced by the cosmos, in both its scientific and religious representations. He created this piece depicting Elon Musk and featuring a quote from the Space-X founder specifically for Dark Progressivism: The Built Environment.

Dictum Factum, 2017, oil, acrylic and gold leaf on wood, 36" X 48"
Jason Hernandez / Via courtesy of the artist

Dictum Factum, 2017, oil, acrylic and gold leaf on wood, 36" X 48"

Michael Alvarez grew up in the El Sereno neighborhood of Los Angeles, California, fully absorbed in skateboarding and graffiti culture. A full time artist, he also coordinates workshops at Artworx LA, a non-profit organization combating the high school dropout crisis by creatively engaging alternative education high school students.

Neighborhood Watch, 2013, oil, spray paint, graphite and collage on panel, 72" X 96"
Via courtesy of the artist

Neighborhood Watch, 2013, oil, spray paint, graphite and collage on panel, 72" X 96"

A tattooist and fine artist based in Oxnard, CA, Horacio Martinez creates paños, ballpoint drawings on linen handkerchiefs that are elaborate freehand surreal narratives, in contrast to his realist portraits.

Untitled, 2015, pen on fabric, 16.5" X 16.5"
Horacio Martinez / Via courtesy of the artist

Untitled, 2015, pen on fabric, 16.5" X 16.5"

Marchers 1 and 2 are a collaboration by muralist and sculptor Cleon Peterson and neon artist Lisa Schulte. The 6-foot tall sculptures represent forward movement and progress, and their lines, recalling Minoan art and its influence on German Expressionism and Art Deco, are heightened and softened by the use of neon.

Marcher 1 and 2, 2016, aluminum, neon, electrical, 72" X 52" X 24"
Lisa Schulte & Cleon Peterson / Via courtesy of the artists

Marcher 1 and 2, 2016, aluminum, neon, electrical, 72" X 52" X 24"

Erwin Recinos shoots the changing landscape of Los Angeles. The son of immigrants, raised by a single mother, he is the senior photographer for LATaco.com and a co-founder of the photography collective Snapshot Galleria.

Building New Los Angeles, 2014,35mm photograph, pigment print on fine art paper, 16”x 20”
Erwin Recinos / Via courtesy of the artist

Building New Los Angeles, 2014,35mm photograph, pigment print on fine art paper, 16”x 20”

Sandy Rodriguez is the 2016-2017 Artist-in-Residence for Los Angeles County Arts Commission. Her paintings capture moments of transformation in the social and cultural landscape of Los Angeles. Under the 405 at Culver Blvd is a recent painting that captures a view of the end of the day under the Culver Blvd entrance of the 405 Freeway that the city landscaped, using rocks to deter people from taking shelter there.

Under the 405 — Culver Blvd., 2017, oil on canvas, photo by J6 Creative, 36" X 48"
Sandy Rodriguez / Via courtesy of the artist

Under the 405 — Culver Blvd., 2017, oil on canvas, photo by J6 Creative, 36" X 48"

As part of Dark Progressivism: The Built Environment, Fishe and Doctor Eye collaborated on a mural across the street from MOAH that celebrates both the Antelope Valley's topography and the region's contribution to aerospace.

Manifest Destiny, 2017, latex paint, acrylic paint, aerosol paint, 18' X 50'
Fishe and Doctor Eye

Manifest Destiny, 2017, latex paint, acrylic paint, aerosol paint, 18' X 50'

Carlos Ramirez grew up in Indio, California where his mother collaborated with labor organizer Cesar Chavez, and Ramirez himself worked picking dates in the palm orchards. Ramirez combines house paint, sparkly stickers, handwritten bilingual text, rusted bottle caps, discarded packaging, and an iconic stylized use of acrylic paint to speak of the inequalities within Mexican-American communities and to champion the common man as underdog.

El Circo (detail of mutlipart installation), 2017, acrylic and mixed media on wood, 48" X 36"
Carlos Ramirez / Via courtesy of the artist

El Circo (detail of mutlipart installation), 2017, acrylic and mixed media on wood, 48" X 36"

Alex Schaefer is best known as the plein-air painter whose representations of burning banks prompted visits from the Los Angeles Police Department and gained him international notoriety. His main influences are the early French Impressionists and San Francisco Bay area figurative and abstract artists of the 1950s.

Black Friday, 2017, acrylic on canvas, 30" X 30"
Alex Schaefer / Via courtesy of the artist

Black Friday, 2017, acrylic on canvas, 30" X 30"

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