When two art worlds collide, history can be rewritten from the experience. Two vastly different circles of thought can breathe life into one another and co-exist in the same environs. Graffio is a mid-19th century Italian word meaning, “a scratch.” It is a term used long before its contemporary definition, graffiti that denotes “words and drawings that are written, scribbled or sprayed on” in public places such as walls or trains. Street and tattoo artists design letter forms, draw perspective, unify line, color, and form with the same methods used by Renaissance masters as Albrecht Dürer.
El Segundo Museum of Art (ESMoA) and the Getty Research Institute will present their 21st century encounter with artistic tradition, LA Liber Amicorum, also known as the Getty Graffiti Black Book in an exhibition titled, Experience 11: Scratch.
Art collector, Ed Sweeney, envisioned a collaborative concept. He contacted the Getty Research Institute with the idea of assembling a prodigious “piece-book” that would embody the works of Los Angeles tattoo and street artists. The idea further developed into a scholarly interpretation when several Los Angeles artists met with Curator of Rare Books for Getty Research Institute, David Brafman, who introduced them to a rare book collection with histories of insignias and writing.
For the project, Brafman instantly recalled one of his favorite rare book acquisitions at the Getty, the liber amicorum. The book was “a 16th and 17th century fad,” noted Brafman. Similar to a modern-day yearbook, the bound “book of friends” was blank inside. The book holder would “go around and get people to add a coat of arms, or a painting, or a poem.” This form of interaction “became a part of your social identity and your networking,” added Brafman.
Over the course of the graffiti book design, the artists surveyed the first edition of Dürer’s breakthrough book on perspective entitled, Introduction to Measurement, among other rare treasures at the Getty Research Institute.
Los Angeles’ leading tattoo and graffiti artists responded by creating works on paper that would eventually be bound into a single book. Street artists have made use of black books for decades to produce a visual memory of sketches and to function as a tool to exchange ideas. The rivalry that sometimes results among artists can also bring respect as rivals invite one other to “hit-up” their black books with original, creative works.
The participants agreed on a title for the Getty Graffiti Black Book – LA Liber Amicorum – with the intention of “capturing the spirit of the transformation of adversarial writing crews” into a singular, collaborative Los Angeles black book.
The completed book features a cover simply stating, “LA,” in elegant calligraphy designed by the graffiti artist, Jose “Prime” Reza. As the selected artists gathered to review the final book, their usual reserve for one another was replaced with commentaries and nods. The first page of the black book is an introductory entry by Los Angeles-based street artist, Axis, who suitably quoted Hemingway, “There is no friend as loyal as a book.”
The works were bound together in black leather, alphabetically. The final edition of LA Liber Amicorum: Book of Friends is stamped in silver with a stylized “LA” motif designed by Prime. The completed book features 143 works on paper and was formally donated and registered in May 2013.
Subsequently, the ESMoA and the Getty Research Institute invited six co-curators from the Los Angeles street art community to transform the art laboratory of ESMoA into a “sanctuary” of urban art for the Experience 11: Scratch exhibition and the unveiling of the Getty Graffiti Black Book to the public.
The six artists brought in crews to paint the walls and portions of the floor with graffiti imagery loosely based on the pages from the book. The graffiti surrounds cases holding precious treasures of engraving, calligraphy and emblematic symbolism from the Renaissance to the Enlightenment, along with the 16th century painted friendship books that were the project’s inspiration.
Seventeen of the books to be shown from Getty’s rare collection include Liber Amicorum, (Album of Friends, 1587 to 1612) by Johann Joachim Prack von Asch, the Holy Roman Empire of Rudolph II’s diplomatic envoy to the Ottoman Court; Albrecht Dürer’s Underweysung der Messung (1525) from the Italian Renaissance; a 15th-century Islamic prayers and poems compilation by Moroccan mystic and scholar, Muhammad Ibn Sulayman Al-Jazuli. These treasured books will be surrounded by the graffiti-writers’ art, along with the LA Liber Amicorum placed within a clamshell box.
Visitors can ‘e-flip’ through the books displayed on mounted iPads. The visitors will not only share in the artists’ own creative encounter and reaction after viewing these rare books, but also continually co-curate the space by selecting which page-openings will be on view with the exhibited art.
Brafman stated that there are elemental differences “in the use of color and perspective” in Los Angeles murals or subway tags compared to New York or other cities. He went on to say that Los Angeles is a “vast horizontal town” with equally beautiful natural light as beautiful darkness. Even within the city of L.A., exhibiting artists have shown a varied approach to their hand styles, signs, symbols, letter forms and themes. The project demonstrates the diverse landscape of graffiti and street art in the Los Angeles area.
LA Liber Amicorum provides a snapshot of the Los Angeles street-art scene. The project will ultimately help scholars to write about graffiti “within the context of art history and within the canon of human civilization,” stated Angst, one of the featured street artists. When art historians view any of the 143 artist’s methods, it will enhance not only meaning, but garner an understanding as to how street artists respond to the City of Angels.
By Dawn Levesque