Stash Maleski, director of ICU Art, the curator of the Venice Art Walls, is confident the program will be able to carry on under new management of two local groups. Photo by Vince Echavaria

Venice Art Walls avoid closure with help of non-profits

By Vince Echavaria

They have become as much a part of the Venice Beach backdrop as the eclectic street performers, basketball courts, skate park and Muscle Beach workout pit.

Standing just west of the beach bicycle path and south of the skate park are walls and cone structures covered from end to end with colorful, distinctive designs. This is the place where graffiti artists from across Los Angeles, the U.S. and even internationally have found a home to make their visions take shape.

For years the beachfront site – remnants of the old Venice Pavilion – has enabled graffiti artists to express themselves legally through a program curated by In Creative Unity (ICU) Art. In 2007, regulations took effect for the Venice Art Walls, opening the area to painting by artists with permits during daylight hours on weekends and holidays only.

“This is basically the only graffiti art program in the city and one of the most well known and unique graffiti art programs in the country,” said Stash Maleski, director of ICU Art, which has curated the walls since 2000.

In recent years, funding for the permit program has come from ICU and the office of Councilman Bill Rosendahl. But with a lack of funding from the city this year due to its ongoing budget struggles, the art walls initiative faced an uncertain future and was left on the brink of having to shut down, Maleski said.

That was until two nonprofit organizations affiliated with the graffiti art industry saw the need to assist the highly popular street art venue and stepped up to take on the oversight of the walls, Maleski said. The STP (Setting the Pace) Foundation and Canlove have offered to take the helm of the program and help ensure that one of the most recognizable features of the boardwalk can continue, where artists can paint murals for free, Maleski said.

The news came as a relief to Maleski, who feared that the project he was involved with for more than a decade may have had to end without extra funds. ICU held a live painting event Sept. 2 with some well-known artists in response to the potential closure.

“I feel really good about it,” Maleski, who will stay on as an adviser, said of the nonprofit takeover. “We are very happy that the STP Foundation and Canlove are ready and willing to take over the program. I’m excited to see the new energy and ideas come in.”

The primary costs of running the walls are related to paying the on-site supervisors and Maleski said it was frustrating that a loss of funds from the city could have spelled the end for the spraypainting site.

Jeanna Penn, program coordinator and Maleski’s wife, said ICU considered every option available to keep the effort going, but she feels fortunate that the two non-profits jumped aboard.

“We believe it’s their mission to put as much love and enthusiasm into the project as we did,” she said. “They’re coming from this culture and understand the people who are involved in it. I think it’s important that (the program) can be passed on to other people who have the same passion for the project, and I think it will be a good transition.”

STP Foundation, a Los Angeles-based organization that has worked on murals and community restoration projects for 25 years, will assume management of the program and organize the staffing of volunteers.

“We are extremely honored to have the opportunity to continue to build on Stash’s vision,” said Bruno Hernandez, STP executive director. “Everyone we’ve met with has been extremely supportive and understands how important it is to keep the Venice Art Wall program running, not only for the city of Los Angeles but for the entire art community and generations of artists to come.”

Venice-based Canlove, which has worked with ICU in the past and recycles used spraypaint cans to transform them into art, will partner with STP to co-curate the walls. The non-profit has been well aware of the significance of the art walls to graffiti culture and was proud to help out, said Paul Ramirez, co-creator of Canlove.

“These walls are considered to be one of the Meccas of open-air, open-mural graffiti. It’s a very special place,” said Ramirez, noting that another renowned painting area is in Long Island City, NY. “What better place to paint than by the beach? It has an amazing ambiance and there’s a lot of history there too.”

Ramirez said Canlove was inspired to take action because it is “intertwined” in the culture and wanted to see the project continue.

“We fundamentally believe in public art and public expression and to be able to share that with the community,” said Ramirez, adding that his group will also assist with site maintenance.

Mike Bonin, chief of staff for Rosendahl, who has been receiving treatment for cancer, agreed that the walls are one of the few places in L.A. and across the country where street artists have an opportunity to express themselves in a publicly supportive forum. “The art walls have become a very iconic thing about Venice Beach and one of the things people love about Venice Beach,” said Bonin, who has worked with the permit program since its inception.

While funding for the program was depleted as the city’s fiscal crisis worsened, Rosendahl’s office negotiated the new management plan with STP and the Department of Recreation and Parks, Bonin said. Many people from throughout the city and other parts of the country have expressed a fondness for the art structures, said Bonin, adding that the artists who paint on them “are real talents.”

“There is something very ‘Los Angeles’ about this form of art,” he said. “To see the level of enthusiasm about this project has really been encouraging, heart warming and inspiring.”

Penn called the art walls an important landmark both with graffiti art and Venice Beach cultures. She believes that since the regulations were implemented five years ago, the quality of designs has improved and more civility has come to the area. The permit system was put in place after concerns from the local community about graffiti tagging occurring in surrounding neighborhoods.

Bonin concurred with the improvements, saying the permit process has created a sense of order and because some works finished on Sundays get to stay exposed until the following week, artists have more of an incentive to produce quality work.

Maleski said he wanted to ensure that when the program continued, artists would not be charged to paint and that they would be able to retain the intellectual property rights to their work.

The ICU director noted that the walls have become a serious tourist draw and a vibrant resource for film crews. “I think they’ve provided a lot of identity for Venice in a positive way by reinforcing that Venice is a community that’s artistic and also tolerant,” he said.

As the walls move forward with new management, Maleski expressed confidence that the project will prosper and he is proud of the contributions ICU has made to its progress.

“This is a really important art movement and L.A. is pretty much the world center right now,” he said. “I’d like to think that this area helped bring prominence to that art.” ¤

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