When Did Power Lines Become Gallery Space?
Amanda Lewis Does this bunny look happy? Or like he's hanging from a noose?
First came the birds. Gallery owner and guerrilla street artist David Browne covered the city's telephone wires with whimsical plywood "berds," as he called them, in 2008. Then came the celebrity heads, encased in giant arrows; the bicycling robbers; the foam letters adorned with mustaches; the tiny glow-in-the-dark plastic bears; the sparkling ruby red heels; and the stuffed animals that appear to be wearing pink blindfolds.
Driving around town, you keep getting the feeling something is watching you. You peer out your windshield and see a teddy bear dangling in the air, uncanny, staring down at you. A puff of magic illuminates your daily commute, and then the light turns green.
"Is it raining fairy tales?" you wonder. Or are power lines the latest temporary venue for street artists to share their work, until someone from the city comes with a ladder and ruins all the fun?
"[Power lines] always looked a little sad ... like there's something missing on them," artist Manny Castro says. "It's like finding a shelf with nothing on it. ... It just needed a little razzle dazzle."
Castro decided to invert the expectations associated with the shoes that typically pepper power lines in bad neighborhoods, indicating gang territory or a drug deal. So last fall he bought 1,000 high-heeled shoes in a variety of shapes, sizes and fabrics from Out of the Closet, hand-brushed them individually with very strong glue and covered them with vibrant red glitter.
Emma Cunningham Castro's red shoes dangle over an intersection last fall, accompanied by the logo for his fall gallery show, "This Hollywood Life."
Reflecting on their nighttime missions to hang their work, both Castro and the electronic dance duo HeartsRevolution, who are responsible for the recent spate of stuffed animals, compare themselves to Robin Hood.
Considering how surreal it is when these pieces pop into view, appearing for a minute to hover independently over the road until your eyes find the thin string or ribbon connecting object to cable, it's no surprise both HeartsRevolution and Castro are trying to conjure the theme of dreams. However, Castro references Dorothy, and the belief that all you have to do to make your dreams come true is click your heels, to point out the distance between actual Hollywood and the false possibilities offered by Hollywood, while HeartsRevolution wants to drum up genuine nostalgia for childish flights of fancy.
"Like a child's mobile, they're colorful, they're dangling, they're there to say hi," HeartsRevolution's riot grrrl lead singer Leyla "Lo" Safai says (see our People Issue piece on Leyla Safai here).
The stuffed-animals project began a few years ago when Safai grabbed a pink marker in the band's offices in New York and began adding the "revolutionary neon pink eyeband" -- her signature look since the band began performing almost a decade ago -- to everything in sight: an eraser, a Japanese doll and, finally, her favorite stuffed animal from childhood, which had been lying on a shelf.
"Look at him sitting there!" she remembers marveling. "[Stuffed animals] emote in a way that other graffiti doesn't. ... I can feel what he's saying. And that must be what people feel when they see me."
HeartsRevolution performed recently at the Echoplex and are about to release a free mixtape on their website, with a full album, Ride or Die, due out next year. In addition to placing plush playthings on telephone wires, stenciling unicorns and hearts on walls and wheatpasting inspirational messages around the world, HeartsRevolution claims to have helped jump-start the food-truck trend with their fleet of funky pink HeartsChallenger ice cream trucks, which travel to raves, festivals and concerts spreading joy through sugar.
"In 2005, we were the fucking pioneers," Safai says. "We definitely 100 percent were the first cool ice cream truck in Los Angeles or America."
Safai says the goal is to put 2,012 total "streethearts" or "soldiers," as they call the stuffed animals, up in Los Angeles and New York by the end of the year. Although she says she personally has about 800 stuffed animals ready to go in her sublet in Silver Lake and her apartment in New York, she says a number are put up not by her and bandmate Ben Pollock but by the HeartsChallenger Army, the 10,000 devout followers of the band who fling the streethearts onto power lines from Mexico City to Moscow to Tokyo, upload photos to Tumblr and Instagram, and spread the blame around so that Pollock and Safai are not the only two held responsible in case the city chooses to come after them with fines or warrants.
Of course, part of the appeal of hanging your work along wires in the sky is that it is much more difficult to take down something suspended 30 feet above a busy intersection than it is to rip down a poster or paint over a stencil.
"If the city doesn't want artists putting things up there, they could always move the power lines underground," Castro says, mischievously.
Safai says she got arrested in New York once but hasn't inspired much official backlash in Los Angeles, other than one obsessive man, bike enthusiast and Silver Lake resident Will Campbell, who has repeatedly emailed the band with complaints and insults.
"Those teddy bears you've lynched all around my neighborhood and beyond were depressing to begin with, but now look particularly dreary dangling drippily after last night's rains," Campbell wrote to the band last month, in the first of many messages. Claiming the stuffed animals are promoting suicide because each appears to be hanging from a noose, Campbell has contacted city officials and City Council members numerous times in an attempt to get the art taken down. Safai scowls at the memory and directs me to an odd video online of Campbell talking to his cat.
"Bro, why do you give a fuck?" she says. "Leave me the fuck alone. I'm a Scorpio. I will come after you."
Castro acknowledged, though, that an artist cannot be picky about how anything displayed on power lines ends up looking to the viewer, since it is so difficult to arrange the work just so, as you can in a gallery.
"I clicked the heels together and hoped that they would land in the right spot," he says. "Each and every one of them was like a surprise."