Review: ‘Art in the Streets’ exhibit at the Geffen Contemporary at MOCA in Los Angeles (photos)

Time is running out to catch this one-of-a-kind exhibit.

Art in the Streets Exhibit @ MOCA

Is graffiti “art”? When taken out of the streets and into the hallowed walls of a museum, is it glorifying and sensationalizing what is essentially a crime? Is the credibility of a street artist diminished once his work is brought into a museum and commercialized?

These are the types of questions that the Art in the Streets exhibit at the Geffen Contemporary at MOCA in Los Angeles seeks to answer.

>> Scroll to the end of this article for photos of the exhibit!


Since it opened in April, the exhibit has been full of controversy. There was an uproar in the street art community around the selection of the artists featured.

In December, Jeffrey Deitch decided to remove the commissioned wall mural by artist BLU because it was deemed too controversial.

In the days leading up to the opening of the exhibit, there were reports of an influx of graffiti and street art in the neighborhoods surrounding the museum.

There was even a rumor that Space Invader, one of the artists featured in the exhibit, had been arrested. This led the public to question why an illegal act was being brought into a museum.

Earlier this month, the Brooklyn Museum canceled plans to bring the exhibit to NYC in early 2012. The official word from the museum is financial constraints. But some believe it was the pressure from the community and the local government that led to the cancellation.

A-list artists

Curated by MOCA director Jeffrey Deitch in association with Roger Gastman and Aaron Rose, Art in The Streets is the first major U.S. museum exhibition of the history of graffiti and street art.

The exhibition traces the development of graffiti and street art from the 1970s, specifically in New York and LA, to the global and commercialized movement it has become today.

AITS showcases installations by some of the most influential street artists including Fab 5 Freddy, Taki 183, Banksy, Kaws, Shepard Fairey, Spike Jonze and street art photographer Martha Cooper, among many others.

The Exhibit

When you first walk into the museum, you are hit with a rainbow of sights, sounds, colors. As you pause to take it all in, you instantly know you’re going to have fun.

Art in the Streets Exhibit @ MOCA

The most “museum-y” part of the exhibit is the historical timeline of graffiti dating back to the ’70s and ’80s, centering around New York and LA.

Artists like Taki 183, whom the NY Times recently called the Forefather of Graffiti, CakeBread, and Fab 5 Freddy, who was referenced in the Blondie song Rapture, are featured.

Though it focuses on NY and LA, this section felt New York-centric. There is a brief mention of “cholo” inspired graffiti that was specific to LA. However, aside from a couple of photographs, it didn’t give enough credit to the gang graffiti in LA around that time which has inspired a lot of street artists today.

Once you are well informed, you are ready to make your way around the rest of the massive exhibit. There is a circus-like installation of a makeshift New York environment with graffitied bathrooms, storefronts, signs, arcade, and two mechanical guys on top of a van tagging a wall.

Art in the Streets Exhibit @ MOCA

Rooms are devoted to prominent street artists like Keith Haring, Shepard Fairey, Neckface, and the Dogtown films of Spike Jonze.

Banksy, whose documentary Exit Through the Gift Shop was recently nominated for an Academy Award, probably had the largest real estate in the entire museum.

My favorite was Henry Chalfant’s top to bottom, wall-to-wall photographs of New York City subway cars.

Art in the Streets Exhibit @ MOCA

When you first approach the room, it looks like a colorful mess. But when you get closer to the photographs, you see that they show hundreds of subway cars covered in graffiti.

As you look at them you can imagine what it must have been like to live in New York in the ‘80s, before the Giuliani years, back when Times Square was a seedy part of town and Soho could still call itself bohemian.

Graffiti as art

With photographs, film clips, black-and-white drawings, and graffiti sprayed right onto the museum’s walls, not to mention tagged cars, and a skate ramp (that is skateable) taking up the entire museum and the annex, AITS is at times overwhelming.

It’s the type of exhibit you should visit twice, maybe three times, but realistically you will go once and just tell your friends about through the many pictures you take.

In the end, I walked away with a new-found appreciation of the term “graffiti.” Sure the tagging on walls, storefronts and freeway signs can be defined as ugly, menacing and signifies a declining neighborhood. But to the people who do this, it is also form of expression.

When seen in this context, within a museum, there are the pieces like the NY subway cars of the ‘80s and the work of Andre’ and French artist JR that one can legitimately call works of art.

These works deserve to be appreciated and admired.

The bottom line

No matter what opinion you have of the entire exhibit, it’s a fun-filled extravaganza that people of all ages can appreciate.

Catch it while you can– the exhibit will be up through August 8.


MOCA – Geffen Contemporary
250 South Grand Avenue
Los Angeles, CA 90012-3007
213 – 626 – 6222
Sunday 11am – 6pm
Monday, Friday 11am – 5pm
Tuesday, Wednesday – Closed
Thursday 11am-8pm
Saturday 11am-9pm
Admission: $10
Open through: August 8, 2011

Art in the Streets Exhibit @ MOCA

Every corner of the museum is covered in street art, including the women's bathroom stalls (by artist Andre).

Art in the Streets Exhibit @ MOCA

Space Invader's work appears throughout the exhibit.

Art in the Streets Exhibit @ MOCA

Shepard Fairey's iconic "Hope" poster.

Art in the Streets Exhibit @ MOCA

The Dogtown skate culture of Southern California.

Art in the Streets Exhibit @ MOCA

"Cholo"-inspired graffiti.

Art in the Streets Exhibit @ MOCA

Paper installation by Swoon, one of the few female artists featured.

Art in the Streets Exhibit @ MOCA

Art by Banksy.

Art in the Streets Exhibit @ MOCA

Art in the Streets Exhibit @ MOCA

Work by Shepard Fairey.

Art in the Streets Exhibit @ MOCA

Art in the Streets Exhibit @ MOCA

Art in the Streets Exhibit @ MOCA

"Lost" by Erik Brunetti.

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About Martha Rivera

Secret technophile in love with food, coffee, music, film, culture, biking, random acts of spontaneity and not getting lost in LA.