A local street artist is reinventing art, leaving his mark on street corners instead of a canvas.
In a dimly lit bar off of Glendale Boulevard in the Atwater area of Los Angeles sits a tall, skinny, 20-something-year-old male only known as Netsil, which is listen spelled backwards.
This mysterious figure is sporting a brown hooded sweatshirt, with the hood over his head, a black bandana over the lower half of his face and dark skinny jeans with white paint drips on the legs; a look that does not stand out in this part of town, where the hipster elite part of east Hollywood is. He chooses not to reveal his face, just pulls the bandana up slightly over his mouth every time he takes a sip from his Jager and Red Bull.
“I just want someone to be walking down the street and see something [Netsil’s art] I put up, and stop in their tracks,” he said, “There, in that moment, I caught their attention and maybe made them smile a bit.”
Netsil pulls out a small digital camera and shows an example of his work, an image of a humanoid figure wearing a black and white suit with two old Victorian era phonograph speakers for a head and a pair of Nike dunks on its feet.
The image was printed on paper, glued with wheat paste (a mixture made of water and wheat flower) on to a low-level sign overlooking the intersection of Alvarado Street and Beverly Blvd. in Echo Park.
The humanoid also made a brief appearance on GCC’s campus on a power box located by the footbridge where Cañada Boulevard and Verdugo Road meet. The poster has been scraped off and painted over.
Another image shows a small black square in the corner of high-rise billboard above Sunset Blvd. in Silverlake. The billboard is an ad for “The Grudge 2” and it has a small subtle addition in the top left hand corner, an image of Netsil’s own face with trademark bandana.
“That was my first billboard,” he said, “After I finished pasting the image, a guy that was watching me from across the street started to yell at me, ‘What are you doing up there?’ I got kind of freaked and ended up jumping off the roof to the street below for my get-a-way. It was about a 15-foot drop.”
Because of such acts, Netsil chooses to hide his identity. The choice of canvas for street artists like Netsil may not settle well with property owners.
“I would never deface someone’s private property, I choose to keep my work in the public domain,” he said.
The California penal code bans such art from public property, fining heavy fees and possible jail time on those found guilty of defacing public property.
As for the billboard, he was quick to defend himself. “The movie is going to suck anyway, so I’m doing them a favor and spiced things up a bit,” he said.
Aside from the legal aspects, artists like Netsil keep their identity secretive for artistic reasons as well.
“I like my art to represent itself. If people know who’s behind the work, I think it takes away from its meaning. The work is famous because of the individual behind it and not its substance.”
A good example of Netsil’s philosophy is legendary British street artist, Banksy, whose identity is also unknown. Banksy’s work is deeply political, so his alias keeps him out of hot water and allows his work to speak for itself.
“He’s an icon, but nobody knows who he is,” said Netsil, “He doesn’t want to be famous, just his work to bask in the limelight.”
Banksy hosted an exhibit in L.A. last month with a live painted Indian elephant and is infamous for pranking famed heiress Paris Hilton.
On the other side of the spectrum is Shepard Fairey, also known under the moniker of OBEY.
Fairey started his career as a street artist with his infamous “Andre the Giant Has a Posse” wheat paste posters back in 1989. After revealing his identity, Fairey became financially successful and artistically respected. His empire now includes a graphic design company and clothing line. His work is currently on display at the Merry Karnowsky Gallery in L.A. through Oct. 14.
Street art has been growing larger in popularity in the last 20 years. More and more artists are turning to the streets to get a message across through what had become a worldwide phenomena. Sites like ecosystem.org and woostercollective.com showcase photo galleries of street artists’ work from around the world.
Along with the traditional wheat paste posters and spray-painted stencils, some artists like Mark Jenkins are making a name for themselves with art installations.
Jenkins makes sculptures out of plain, clear plastic tape, then dresses the figures in clothing and places them in strange positions on busy street corners. One such sculpture has the shape of a person sticking out the side of a building. The headless figure makes the passersby do a double take; the look on their faces is priceless. Images of his work can be seen on his site, www.xmarkjenkinsx.com.
Whereas some may consider street art as just simply a masking for graffiti, they are clearly two different genres.
“It’s true that street art grew out of tagging and graffiti but what is different is the message,” said Netsil. “Graffiti isn’t always negative, the common misconception is that all of it is gang related, which is not true, or at least the good stuff isn’t. As for the case with street art, artists are using the streets to relay a message, be it political or simply artistic to the masses.”
One of Netsil’s messages includes an image of Vice President Dick Chaney holding a set of balloons in the shape of aerial bombs with children in the background, lining up for a free balloon.
As the definition of art is being reworked through a new generation of self-funded visionaries, art is now being used a means of communication, bringing to light issues such as politics to a broad population using the streets to convey the message.
“Art shouldn’t be confined to the frail walls of a gallery or museum, that charges a ridiculous entrance fee,” said Netsil. “It should be on the streets for all to see, where it can invoke free thought in a person, free of interference.”
As street artists continue to entertain a new generation of fans through means of spray paint or wheat and paper, be it plastered to the side of a freeway overpass or hanging in a pricey gallery, it shows the world that anyone can be an artist. It just takes some imagination and a blank wall.
As for Netsil, he will continue to plaster his toils of love as long as he is able to, bringing his vision to the streets.
“I like to stay productive,” he said. “I’d rather be making art to entertain others, getting chased off rooftops and reflect a message, than wasting time standing in line at some lame bar in Hollywood.”