Mar Vista’s Art Ninja
Mitchelito Orquiola colors a community one relationship at a time
By Christina Campodonico
Stroll along Venice Boulevard from Centinela Avenue to the Mar Vista Branch Library and you’ll find traces of artist Mitchelito Orquiola just about everywhere.
At Louie’s of Mar Vista, a painting of a feathered Mardi Gras Indian hangs above the bar.
A utility box with whimsical portraits of musicians Billie Holiday, Fela Kuti, Esperanza Spalding and Miles Davis adds a dash of color to the corner of Venice and Grand View Boulevard.
Inside the Venice Grind coffee shop, a painting of a startled ingénue with a red strawberry between her plump lips greets you, while a devilish looking femme fatale with dark wings, exposed breasts and a black swan flying overheard bids adieu on the way out. Like a valediction, “Orquiola” is signed at the bottom in curvy black letters.
Around the neighborhood, Orquiola goes by many names. A local dry cleaner alternates between calling him “Gauguin,” “Cezanne” and “Toulouse.” Friends call him “Mitch” for short. Others have dubbed Orquiola the unofficial “Mayor of Mar Vista Art,” though he bristles at the title. Orquiola calls himself an “artist ninja” and wears the title emblazoned on a T-shirt.
But this ninja isn’t some Banksy-esque, fly-by-night, secret identity kind of creator who works under the cover of darkness and signs his paintings with a nom de plume.
Orquiola’s face is as widely known around town as his many names. One painting, one artistic collaboration and one conversation at a time, he’s become an unlikely community organizer.
By virtue of his enthusiasm, creativity and local connections, Orquiola is one of the driving forces behind the new Mar Vista Art Walk, an expression of the neighborhood’s increasing social and economic vitality.
The second installment of art walk brings live painting, music, street theater, spoken-word poetry and music to Venice Boulevard on Thursday, March 3. The first one happened on Dec. 3, and others are already on the calendar for June, September and December.
Mar Vista isn’t just Orquiola’s hood; it’s a canvas for meshing art into the fabric of local independent businesses that have been quick to embrace the creative spirit.
Art walk sponsor Demetrios Mavromichalis, a Mar Vista native, has been on a mission to invigorate Venice Boulevard through various entrepreneurial ventures since opening Venice Grind in 2005. He’s collaborated with Orquiola to put more art made in the neighborhood onto the walls of neighborhood businesses, and says Orquiola’s appreciation for creativity in all its forms is a catalyst for collaboration.
“Ice cream is an art, soap is an art … coffee-making is kind of like an art, and then you have chefs creating dishes, they’re works of art. Mitchelito comes in as an artist appreciating his neighbors’ craft and we kind of merge. We take his craft and put it on our walls,” says Mavromichalis. “He is the second chapter in the revitalization of Mar Vista by taking the arts to another level.”
It isn’t just his work. A longtime tenant of Grand View Fine Art Studios, Orquiola, 47, is also getting his studio neighbors’ work onto local restaurant walls and often co-creates canvases with emerging young artists.
Orquiola’s most frequent collaborator is Charlotte Vanhaecke (aka Chalavie). The 30-year-old French expat landed in Mar Vista five years ago, but it was only after joining forces with Orquiola last year that she began to realize her dream of making painting a full-time profession. The two often paint together as Babak, reacting to each other’s brushstrokes and completing canvases together without sharing a word.
Orquiola also collaborates with twentysomething painter Bethany Richards (aka Pink Riches), who’s day job is cutting hair at Floyd’s 99 Mar Vista. They’ve co-created some of the canvases at Venice Grind.
Trunk Gallery owner Ann Perich, an art walk collaborator who hosted an exhibit and live painting event for the Babak duo in October, says Orquiola’s eye for art and head for business have helped Mar Vista’s art community grow.
“By bringing the work of artists into businesses, Mitchelito has created a win-win situation in which the businesses get to have incredible art on their walls, while at the same time supporting artists with an opportunity to exhibit and sell,” Perich says. “It speaks to his work ethic, love of life and love of people. Mitch makes you realize that art is not just a thing, but a way of life.”
Louie’s of Mar Vista chef-owner John Atkinson, also sponsoring art walk, believes Orquiola is able to foster bonds between art and business because he makes himself known throughout the neighborhood.
“I see him every day. His face is in the neighborhood almost all the time,” Atkinson says. “He can talk to the city councilman or someone who could very well be homeless. He’s quite an ambassador for the neighborhood.”
An insomniac, Orquiola hardly sleeps but seems to draw from a boundless supply of energy. If he’s not painting, he’s meeting with business owners or hanging his art for public view. A break, if he squeezes one in, might consist of a smoke outside the studio or a bite at Louie’s.
On the afternoon we meet at Grand View Fine Arts Studios, Orquiola has been up since 5:30 a.m. and hasn’t stopped. The next day he pulls an all-nighter to finish a commissioned painting.
“My whole ambition in life is art,” he says.
Orquiola attributes his discipline and tireless work ethic to his first artistic pursuit: earning a black belt in karate. He traces his do-it-yourself spirt to the challenges he faced as a young, self-taught artist — namely that galleries wouldn’t accept his work.
“I had to go grassroots and basically push my art, myself,” Orquiola says.
He built up a fan base of collectors, kept on getting commissions through word of mouth and right before the recession hit was scheduled for commissions three years in advance. That was before the net. Now, if he’s not making a sale through a Mar Vista business, Orquiola sells his work on social media.
“I’m not handcuffed to a gallery,” says Orquiola, who counts Picasso and Basquiat among his influences and relishes his freedom as an independent artist. But there is one thing to which he is attached — Mar Vista.
The artist, whose family immigrated from the Philippines when he was four, grew up in Southern California and had studios in downtown L.A. and mid-Wilshire, but didn’t really feel connected to a community until finding his current studio in Mar Vista, where he could be close to his 11-year-old daughter and still be part of a vibrant neighborhood of artists and businesses.
“It was the very first time I embraced the community where my studio had been located,” says Orquiola, wearing a Mar Vista All-Stars T-shirt.
Orquiola knew that something special was happening in Mar Vista’s art scene when a customer at Venice Grind told him that he should take his artwork to Venice and set up shop there. Orquiola took the compliment but stood up for the street cred of his adopted home.
“I go, ‘Look, I have friends who are artists who are already holding it down in Venice. They don’t need my help. I’m an artist here in Mar Vista. I’m a Mar Vista artist,’” recounts Orquiola.
“Once that comes out of your mouth and you’re proclaiming it,” he explains, “then you got to back that shit up.”
With sponsorship from Louie’s of Mar Vista and Venice Grind, participation from the nonprofit Green Communications Initiative and the Mar Vista Community Council and additional support from L.A. City Councilman Mike Bonin, next Thursday’s art walk backs it up. Events include:
• Street theater scenes from Ovation Award-winning repertory company Fugitive Kind’s “Illyria Loses the Moon,” based on Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night.”
• A concert by the band Tropical Nasty at Timewarp Records, 12257 Venice Blvd.
• Spoken word at 826LA’sTime Travel Mart, 12515 Venice Blvd.
• Ceramic art by Cara Faye Earl on display at Full-Circle Pottery, 12023 Venice Blvd.
• Live music, art and fashion at Vanities, 12615 Venice Blvd.
• A display of midcentury modern curiosities and works by midcentury women painters at Surfing Cowboys, 12553 Venice Blvd.
• A painting, drawing, woodwork and photography session with live music at Atmosphere Café, 12034 Venice Blvd.
• A group exhibit, art talk and live music at Buckwild Gallery, 12804 Venice Blvd.
• Performances by School of Rock’s house band and music students at 12300 Venice Blvd.
• An art exhibit centered on a nine-foot bunny sculpture at Trunk Gallery, 12818 Venice Blvd.
• Open-mic performances at Grand View Market, 12210 Venice Blvd.
Aiming to break out of indoor spaces, this art walk also invites visitors to interact with numerous artists at work wherever they may encounter them on the night of the event, from sidewalks to alleyways and parking lots.
Orquiola sees the art walk as not just a one-night showcase of the arts in Mar Vista, but an opportunity to bring attention to the creative community that thrives in this neighborhood every day.
“Mar Vista doesn’t need a soul. Mar Vista doesn’t need a spirit. It’s already here,” Orquiola says.
“In essence, I’m trying to let our community know what is going on in our own community — letting them know that at Venice Grind on Sundays, they have an open mic night. At Grand View Market they have an open mic for comedians and musicians on Wednesdays and they have live music from local bands on Fridays. People don’t know that Timewarp Records has KXLU basically broadcasting a live podcast there on Fridays or Saturdays. They don’t know that Atmosphere Care is owned by a lovely French couple and one is an artist — the wife does an art event every month. This is why I’m trying to show them what we have.”
By spotlighting what Mar Vista already has — community owned and operated restaurants, art galleries and stores — Orquiola hopes that Mar Vista won’t go the way of Abbot Kinney Boulevard, which he sees as overtaken by national chains to the point that the artists who made it cool in the first place can’t afford to live, eat or shop there anymore.
As more people “discover” or “re-discover” Mar Vista as the Westside’s new hip neighborhood, that may be harder and harder to do. But Orquiola says he’s primed to be one of the neighborhood’s most ardent defenders against larger corporate interests — “vampires,” as he calls them — taking a bite out of Mar Vista’s soul, he says.
Atkinson believes Orquiola is up for the task because he’s seen the guy, all 5’6’’ of him, in action.
“There was this big creepy guy who had come to Louie’s a few times. And so one night he’s coming in really hammered and we’re like, ‘Dude, you can’t come in here.’… I couldn’t get this guy out of the restaurant, and Mitch just kind of came up to him and gave him this look. The guy, he left. Mitch was just able to do it with this little kind of look, like, ‘You don’t want to know what’s coming next.’ It was very impressive, man, I gotta tell ya … Mitch, he just handled the situation.”
The story of Orquiola’s evil eye might be the stuff of urban legend, but for now his gaze is trained lovingly on Mar Vista — the apple of his artistic eye.
“Steppin’ into Art: The 2nd Mar Vista Art Walk,” happens from 6 to 9 p.m. Thursday, March 3, along Venice Boulevard between Beethoven Street and Inglewood Boulevard. For more information, visit facebook.com/marvistaartwalk/.