Celebrating the Urban Canvas


Aiko Nakagawa, a.k.a. Lady Aiko, has installed a street mural at Mateo and 7th Streets in L.A.’s Art District. With her is Martha Cooper, whose photograph was the inspiration for the work. The mural is part of the local art project called “LA Freewalls.” (Photo by Sally Levin)

Rafu Entertainment Editor

In his 1966 song “A Poem on the Underground Wall,” Paul Simon intimately described the emotions of a man scrawling graffiti in a subway. After writing urgently on the wall, the man flees, while “his heart is laughing, screaming, pounding.”

That spontaneous impetus is an essential key to what has become the street art movement, a discipline that is being celebrated in established and lauded galleries the world over.

A comprehensive exhibit on what was once – and often continues to be – considered vandalism has opened at the Museum of Contemporary Art’s Geffen Contemporary in Little Tokyo.

“It’s a spontaneous happening, an act of pure passion,” said Aiko Nakagawa, a New York-based artist who has taken part in MOCA’s exhibition and has pieces currently on display at the Carmichael Gallery in Culver City.

The MOCA show, “Art in the Streets,” is the first major U.S. museum exhibition on the history of graffiti and street art. It will focus on the history of the movement, from its origins in the 1970s to the phenomenon it has become worldwide. The exhibit, running through Aug. 8, features work by the likes of Banksy, Fab 5 Freddy, Spike Jonze and others.

Known in the art world as Lady Aiko, Nakagawa, 36, first traveled to New York in 1997, to pursue a master’s degree in media studies at the New School. The Tokyo native recalled that upon her arrival, she felt isolated, lacking confidence in her English fluency and feeling somewhat lost, and it was  the unspoken language of art in urban areas that first gave her a voice in America.

Aiko Nakagawa helps to install a photo collage at the MOCA “Art in the Streets” exhibit. (Photo courtesy Aiko Nakagawa/Martha Cooper)

“I couldn’t really speak, I didn’t know anybody and street art gave me an opportunity,” she told the Rafu on Wednesday. “I have been able to express so many things through art – my culture, my femininity, my sexuality.”

Nakagawa joined a burgeoning street art scene that had been growing in stature in New York City since the early 1980s, when well-established galleries began assembling exhibits based on graffiti. She joined a crew – a group of artists who would “strike” at urban locations without notice or permission – before feeling comfortable enough to branch out on her own.

In addition to helping set up a display of portraits by photographer Martha Cooper at the MOCA show, Nakagawa spent a good portion of the last few weeks erecting a piece of her own in the Downtown Arts District. The mural, “Blue Wave,” is one of several on the facade of a building at Mateo and Seventh Streets.

The artist was among several speakers Tuesday at a Little Tokyo Community Council meeting, to introduce the MOCA exhibit and to address local concerns about the increase in vandalism that has followed the opening in Little Tokyo. Police have reported a marked uptick in tagging around the hall since the Sunday start of “Art in the Streets.”

Nakagawa said she hoped that the Little Tokyo community as well as local Japanese Americans would embrace and appreciate that MOCA is taking the art form to a new level. She later added that the movement is a positive one, that like others, will bear precious fruit and foster understanding in the long term.

“For artists, this is truly self-expression at a very basic level,” she explained. “Like the beginnings of pop art, this is a once-in-50-years event. From time to time, we have an explosion at a moment in art. This is one.”

MOCA’s “Art in the Streets” is open through Aug. 8 at The Geffen Contemporary, next to the Japanese American National Museum in Little Tokyo. Open 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday and Friday; 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. on Thursday; 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday; closed on Tuesday and Wednesday. General admission is $10 for adults; $5 for students with an I.D. and seniors (65+); and free for MOCA members, children under 12, active military, jurors with I.D., and everyone on Thursdays from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. For information, call (213) 626-6222 or visit moca.org.