Graffiti art at the Graff Lab.
Photo by Tess Barker

Graffiti is Welcomed (and Even Encouraged) at Pico Union’s Graff Lab

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Community activist Ricardo Guerrero founded Graff Lab in 2007 as a way for creative kids in the neighborhood to ‘blow off steam.’

The Graff Lab on Union Avenue and Venice Boulevard is a stretch of pavement and concrete walls. The asphalt is scarred. There are bike tire tracks, tape lines and splatters of spray paint everywhere. The walls, which in a previous life may have been cinderblock grey, are packed with saturated color. There are large murals featuring animated and dramatic figures, bubbly letters and the signatures of their creators.

This afternoon, a handful of painters — wearing masks and bandanas to protect themselves from the fumes — spray new creations onto the wall space. “Stuck in the Middle with You” by Stealers Wheel blasts from a guitar amp propped up in a nearby carport. It’s “Free Day” at Graff Lab which happens a few times a year. On “Free Days,” director Ricardo Guerrero waives the five dollar donation he usually asks of the graffiti artists who flock to Graff Lab every weekend.

“If you don’t have it, whatever you’ve got. And if you have nothing, that’s okay too,” Guerrero says. “If I turn you away, you’re going to go do some illegal stuff, and that’d be going against what I’m trying to do here.”

Graff Lab was established by the Pico Union Housing Corporation, as part of their affordable housing group, and Guerrero has been at its helm since its inception in 2007. He says he conceived the program during a particularly hot summer.

“They cut the art program,” he says, “and they cut summer school. The kids needed to blow off some steam.” Guerrero recalls seeing kids as young as 7 years old in his neighborhood, getting in trouble for tagging. He was also motivated by the transformative role arts education played in his own childhood.

  • A mural of Marvel's Avengers at the Graff Lab in Pico Union.

Artists at Graff Lab are welcome to explore their craft through a variety of techniques and subject matters. Gang-related tagging, however, is strictly forbidden. Photo by Tess Barker.

“I was a latchkey kid, and I was always into art,” he says. “I was a straight fail kid, except in art, I got an A.”

As a 10-year-old kid attending community art classes in the same Pico Union neighborhood, Guerrero says he taught as many as 200 fellow classmates art techniques and tricks he’d picked up from obsessively reading craft books. As compensation for his tutelage, the program director paid him cash out of her own pocket.

After dropping out of art school and bringing his skills to a career in retail design, Guerrero returned his focus to enriching the Pico Union community, and for a time, he worked with the Los Angeles Regional Food Bank.

“I used to deliver food to the kids where I knew mom wasn’t right, or I knew mom was okay but they just didn’t have any money,” he says. “Those were my targets. I’d load up two to three trucks and go hit those houses. And then the seniors.”

Guerrero became something of a guardian figure to many in the neighborhood. So much so, he moved to Monterey Park in order to give himself some space from the constant onslaught of issues he’s asked for help with. Parents often approach him when a child has run away, or worse.

“If so-and-so got shot, I got to see how the family is doing. We have all kind of days. We have good days and we have bad days, but it would be even more boring if there weren’t bad days, I guess,” Guerrero says.

The Graff Lab compound also houses dancing, music and eco-friendly arts classes. Guerrero regularly hosts art shows, dance recitals, fashion shows and sangria-fueled parties.

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“In the community, [Graff Lab] has been a safe haven. There are seven gangs around us,” he says.

Everyone is welcome to paint at the Graff Lab — and that includes gang members. Gang-related tagging and other issues, though, have to be left at the entrance.

“If there’s a problem with another crew,” Guerrero says, “there’s an alley down the street. Go beat your ass and then you’re welcome to come back, but I ain’t having it. If you’re here, you’re an artist. I don’t care where you’re from. You’re not going to paint no gangster stuff.”

Part of Guerrero’s goal with Graff Lab is to give artists of all ages and experience levels a place where they can get graffiti “out of their systems so that they don’t do it illegally.” Guerrero is able to recognize the work of many of the artists who frequent the lab, and when he finds graffiti that’s been done illegally elsewhere around town, he chides the person responsible.

“They like to say ‘that’s part of the culture.’ Well, no. Culture is having some culture,” he says with a laugh. “Ask permission, and you’ll be surprised how many people go for it. Now you see cars, trucks, everything painted because somebody asked.”

“If there’s a problem with another crew, there’s an alley down the street. Go beat your ass and then you’re welcome to come back, but I ain’t having it. If you’re here, you’re an artist. I don’t care where you’re from. You’re not going to paint no gangster stuff.”

Ricardo Guerrero, Graff Lab director

Lesho is one of the many Graff Lab regulars who got a taste for painting while tagging as a kid. Now, he regularly sells pieces and travels for shows and commissions.

“Let me break something down for you right quick,” Lesho says, a little sheepishly. “Originally, I started as a vandal. I was also into the action, the fights and stuff like that, and eventually, I joined a gang. For 17 years, I did my thing for the neighborhood. In 2014, I was at the Graff Lab, when I got inspired to pick up a can.”

Painting at Graff Lab exposed Lesho to other artists whose work he admired. It got him back in touch with the creativity he’d explored as a child, back when he’d briefly been enrolled in a special youth program that led him to work on painting murals throughout Watts.

“I just love painting,” he says. “I found a passion for spraying and being able to create art.”

  • Graffiti artist Lesho poses for a photo in front of one of his murals at the Graff Lab in the Pico Union neighborhood of Los Angeles.
  • A mural depicting a pastoral scene by graffiti artist Lesho.
  • A mural depicting a farmhand working in a colorful field.

Top: Graffiti artist Lesho poses for a photo in front of one of his murals at the Graff Lab in the Pico Union neighborhood of Los Angeles. Bottom row: Lasho says his murals of colorful pastoral scenes and monochrome farm workers are intended to make viewers think about the human cost behind many goods and services. Photos by Tess Barker.

Shortly after he began painting at Graff Lab, Lesho left his gang.

“I had to walk away … I’m really here on my last chance, to be honest,” Lesho says, arms crossed. “I’m a three-striker. I don’t just want to waste my time. I don’t feel that I was given a second chance just to waste it. I went from sitting in the hood playing with guns to smiling faces, shaking hands with people who enjoy my art.”

One of Lesho’s favorite pieces is splashed across the large exterior wall of Graff Lab’s Venice Boulevard facade. It’s a three-panel mural, which depicts images inspired by his Salvadoran and Guatemalan heritage. The first panel is painted mostly in greys and shows a farm worker slumped over in a cornfield. Only the ear of corn in his hands is in color — a bright yellow that emanates light like gold. The shining corn and the black-and-white worker, Lesho says, are intended to make people reflect on the labor behind much of the food and other goods that people can take for granted.

“A lot of workers are out there in the sun all day long so you can give flowers to your girlfriend or daughter or mom,” Lesho says. “This whole wall represents torture. It represents hard work. It represents what our people come from.”

As the panels progress, Lesho’s mural evokes a vibrant rural village — small houses, a church, a creek.

“I wanted to show people, ‘don’t think that it’s always hard.’ Even though they work hard and they struggle, at the end of the day, you get somewhere to sleep, lay your head and be with your family,” he says. “That’s something that should be appreciated.”

Lesho returns to the first panel — the one in black-and-white, with its solemn worker slumped over.

“This one is the most important to me,” he says, leaning himself against it, “because I see it all day long.”

Los Angeleno