Sunday, June 16, 2024

Unveiled: Eric Garcetti’s Official Portrait by Street Artist Shepard Fairey

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Most people are unaware that Los Angeles has a mayoral portrait gallery. It’s on the 26th floor of City Hall and is reached by taking two elevators (transfer on 22). The walls hold a compendium of images of L.A.’s legendary and largely forgotten leaders, from a debonair depiction of Tom Bradley (mayor from 1973-1993, prior to the introduction of term limits) to the fantastically mustachioed Fred Eaton (1898-1900).

The images are, by and large, flat and two-dimensional—not just physically, but in feel. They reveal mostly men in dark suits and ties, often with a vague background meant to focus attention on the figure’s serious facial expression.

As of Monday, the portrait gallery has a serious case of “one of these things is not like the others.” That morning, about 75 attendees gathered on the 27th floor of the building, in a towering room named for Bradley, for the unveiling of Eric Garcetti’s official mayoral portrait. Contemporary artist Shepard Fairey, who emerged in the late 80s from the street art movement and is probably best known for the Barack Obama “Hope” poster, took the commission.

L.A.’s 42nd mayor is shown in a dark jacket and tie, but that’s where the similarity to the other works stops. The background has the same light blue and eye-catching red as the iconic Obama piece. An insignia for the 2028 Summer Olympics and Paralympics, which Garcetti secured for Los Angeles, occupies the top left corner, and the words “Justice and Equity”—the theme of Garcetti’s 2021 budget and State of the City address, fill the upper right.

There are physical references. The concrete ribbons of the Sixth Street bridge, a signature project of Garcetti’s tenure, are over his shoulder, just beneath the city seal. Layered across his jacket is a group of workers, representing Los Angeles raising its minimum wage to $15 an hour, a Garcetti-initiated effort.

“There’s a balance between showing the multi-faceted layers of L.A. and then not overcrowding this beautiful face,” Fairey quipped to laughter in the moments after a black cloth was pulled from his artwork.

At his first public appearance in City Hall since leaving office, Garcetti, who was frequently under fire during his final year as mayor and buffeted by questions about the city’s homelessness crisis and his still stalled nomination to be U.S. Ambassador to India, appeared remarkably relaxed and easygoing. He shirked the tie. He wore jeans. He spoke in decidedly non-mayoral tones, calling a bevy of honors given to public officials “ass-backward.”

“My staff knows I always said, ‘Try to name anything after me, not only while I’m mayor but while I’m alive, and I’ll come back and veto that, and then I’ll come back from the dead,’” he remarked.

Garcetti gave no hint to the status of the ambassadorial nomination during what was, essentially, a big like-fest. Bass, who sat in the front row on what was her 50th day in office, was praised for her early work and he promised to help if needed. She lauded the ground he laid, referencing L.A.’s environmental advances during his time in office and the COVID protections her predecessor installed. She described the many transportation projects kicked off under his watch, efforts that will come to fruition during her tenure.

“You have left an indelible mark on the city,” Bass pronounced.

Still, the most intriguing element was the pairing of the politician who spent 20 years in City Hall and Fairey. The artist emerged from the skater and graffiti artists community in 1989 with his striking “André the Giant Has a Posse” street art campaign, which later evolved into images of the late wrestler with the word “OBEY” underneath turning up across seemingly any available surface in cities worldwide. Fairey has called the street campaign “an experiment in phenomenology.”

Perhaps the pairing of these two should not have been a surprise. Fairey has long been embraced by the mainstream. Plus, he and Garcetti’s relationship goes back a few years—during the COVID crisis, Fairey’s Studio Number One created posters encouraging Angelenos to get vaccinated as part of a city program known as the Pandemic Art Project. During his remarks to the crowd, Fairey described himself and Garcetti as “kindred spirits,” adding that his aim was to depict the mayor and some of the forward-thinking things he focused on—hence the inclusion in his piece of the upcoming LAX people mover.

Both touched on the interplay between culture and civic structure and on art and the ability to cross boundaries.

“To me, Shepard, you are the metaphor of this city too, because you’re still that graffiti artist, that rule breaker who doesn’t ask for permission,” Garcetti said. “But you also know how to come indoors.”

The Garcetti portrait creates a curious interplay with its predecessors. For example, the waist-up shot of L.A.’s 41st mayor, Antonio Villaraigosa (2005-2013) is as staid as they get, perhaps most notable for a purple tie. The image of Frederick T. Woodman (1916-1919) shows the World War I-era leader with upswept hair that makes him look like a member of a 1980s New Wave band. The plaque below the portrait of Frank Shaw (1933-1938) informs that “Shaw left office as a result of a recall action.”

With nine-and-a-half years in office (his second term was extended by 18 months when the city shifted election dates), Garcetti served longer than anyone but Bradley and Fletcher Bowron (1938-1953). That gave Fairey a lot to reference in the piece, and as people snapped photos, he pointed to elements in the work. He noted the Lucas Museum, still under construction. He highlighted a zero-emissions bus.

Someone asked what the dark patch above Garcetti’s shirt collar represented.

“That’s just the shadow of his neck,” Fairey responded.

The photos continued.

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