I on LA by Erika Schickel

Erika Schickel

Biased reporting from Los Angeles

Chalk it up to troubled times


I was down at 6th and Spring on Thursday for Art Walk, killing time before I picked up my teenage daughter, Franny, from her summer internship at the Gloria Delson Gallery. I wandered up and down Spring Street where the Art Walk crowds had the sidewalks tightly packed. The energy felt frenetic and charged.

I walked past a group of kids who were handing out pieces of sidewalk chalk, encouraging pedestrians to draw on the pavement. I assumed it was some kind of spontaneous street art project in the spirit of Art Walk, but since the rain was coming down fairly hard, I thought drawing with chalk was a pointless exercise and passed it up.

The chalk kids were scruffy, pierced and dreadlocked, and though I heard no words of protest, they were Occupy-ish in their mien. They were there to whip us up, but into what, was unclear. I couldn’t decipher the moment or understand why they were there. It felt wrong, but harmless. The fat pieces of pastel sidewalk chalk were just like the ones my own kids have at home. The sidewalk in front of our house is often marked with kid hieroglyphics -- exhortations to live and love -- just like these. Chalk is so harmless. It is cheerful, temporary, and the medium of teachers, hop-scotchers and Keith Haring. So, okay, I thought, this is all okay.

It was the police presence that added a dystopian note to the festive gathering. It felt like date night, but with mean chaperones. Mini-skirted girls teetered in pumps and giggled beside their buzz-cut boyfriends in crisp shirts. Cops glowered at them from every corner. On the one hand the vibe was festive and arty, on the other hand, it felt like it could ignite at any moment.

The last time I was downtown it was for an Occupy event, and it felt just the same. Granite-faced cops pegged corners and crosswalks. Their sobriety stood in stark relief to the festive, tiddly energy of the art lovers. I didn’t like it, so I sought refuge from the rain in The Last Bookstore, flipping through a book of Robert Capa photographs. The men who fought the Spanish Civil War were as young as the kids out on the sidewalk. Revolution belongs to youth.

At 8:40 Franny texted me that she was done at the gallery and we met on the corner of 5th and Spring at 8:45, walked to my car and drove home.

The next day she and I were getting getting mani/pedis at our local nail nook and we saw the news reports of what happened fifteen minutes after we left Spring Street. All hell had broken loose. Bottles were thrown, rubber bullets were fired. sixteen people were arrested. We had left just in time. “Some of those kids were teenagers” Franny said. “I guess drawing with chalk is wrong, but child abuse is okay.” Out of the mouth of my babe, who is coming of age in zero-tolerance times.

As my nails got painted I watched footage of workers spray painting over the chalk art that had ended up on the side of a building, thereby graduating the doodles from harmless art to vandalism. I wondered why on earth they would go to the trouble and expense of painting over the chalk when a hose would have washed it off in a jiff. But this is the theater of self-righteous indignity. By defending businesses from harmless scribblers, the police were sending a message that it is business, not people, who are protected by the law.

These are troubled times, everyone is taking everything so seriously. There is a time for revolution, and there is a time for just letting people enjoy the street and neither the chalk kids, (whom I suspect were not an official an Occupy Wall Street group) nor the LAPD seemed willing to let Art Walk be about art. Throngs of people chanted, “These are our streets!,” and of course, they were right. There’s nothing wrong with using Spring Street as a temporary canvas for people who will never have their art on a gallery wall, to say something about what it feels like to be alive in this strange, exultant, fraught and confusing moment. The LAPD would have it all swept away, when in fact, the strange, unseasonal rain was already doing the job for them.

Addendum: My daughter reports that the chalkers came into the gallery on Tuesday to talk about what happened on Thursday night. They said they hadn't intended to cause a ruckus, nor had they anticipated the aggressive police presence. They were going around to all of the businesses to apologize and explain their intentions - which was to build community and allow people to participate more actively in the artwalk event. They told her they will hold a community meeting to talk about what happened. I will keep you updated if I hear of anything more.

More by Erika Schickel:
Baby's first bust: guerilla postering with Robbie Conal
Chalk it up to troubled times
Ten cents a dance
A girl in no man's land: Singing for Johnny Mercer

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