When he started painting on walls 10 years ago in Downtown Los Angeles, Diego de la Gavé (a pseudonym I chose to spare him any professional trouble) almost died one night, hunted by a man with a gun. In comparison, the year and a half he spent in jail for vandalism was a bliss. “I had uncles there, I knew some people so I was fine”, he recalls of this period when he just turned 18.
Diego, now 28, is from a Mexican-Italian family who had ties with East L.A. latino gangs. “Both my parents were in a gang, each in a different one”, he says. His father went to prison, like many of his relatives, which changed his view about life. “When he was released, he kind of found God and became a pastor”, the young artist says. Diego didn’t want to become a gang member but he was attracted to the thrill of doing graffiti in Downtown L.A. “I like the illegal part of it, the challenge, at least as much as the painting itself”, he says.
That’s the essence of being a street artist. Many in Los Angeles come from underprivileged neighborhoods, like Diego. The cinema and TV industry, with its lack of diversity and need for expensive gear, seemed out of reach, building dreams for other kinds of kids. But like the African American graffiti artist from South L.A., Sight, told a local journalist in 2012: “When you go out in the nighttime, there’s nobody out there. There’s a full moon; the air’s crisp. I’m with just me and my thoughts. It’s a beautiful experience.” An experience that led him to do four years in prison.
While the city fought hard, spending millions of dollars, against what it called a “graffiti epidemic” and a “public nuisance”, the movement became more and more trendy in the art world. Some street artists gained as much recognition as some contemporary artists, or as some Hollywood big names. Fancy art galleries spread in places previously described as “no go zones”. United Talent Agency, headquartered in the affluent city of Beverly Hills, recently opened an enormous space in Boyle Heights, the neighborhood where Diego is from located just South East of Downtown L.A.
“This is part of the gentrification that’s happening here, he explains. This neighborhood is on its way to becoming like Williamsburg, in Brooklyn”. He is very well aware of that process since he has been working for a company based in this hip part of New York City for a few years. With street art becoming trendy across the globe, some brands are going back to an old form of advertising: giant painted murals.
Diego is active all across the US and also abroad. “We just painted an ad for Google in Brussels”, he says. The former outlaw is now living an employee (yet very nomadic) life, earning a good salary for doing what was once a rebellious and daring adventure.
As to whether he likes being paid for painting for the corporate world: “I don’t”, he simply admits. “Painting sexy girls who drink alcohol, that’s not what it was meant for”, he says, having worked for some big brands of alcoholic beverages as well as fashion companies. “I guess you could say that it’s called selling out, but painting is the only thing I know how to do”. As a lot of ‘creative people’ today, Diego is just experiencing the eternal artist dilemma, being torn on top of it by the feeling of betraying his own people for participating in the gentrification process that drives local population away.