Once known as the graffiti artist Sel, Marcel Blanco now makes a name for himself painting fine art canvases and legit street murals
By Michael Aushenker
In the mid-1980s, one could identify the work of artist Marcel Blanco by his tag names “Vice 67” and “Sel.” That was back when he ran around as a member of the storied graffiti crews WCA and K2S with “Rev” (Adam Siegel, who also played guitar in Excel and Infectious Grooves), “Rival” (Nathan Sedowsky) and “Risk” (Kelly Graval).
Last weekend, Blanco was one of the featured artists at Santa Monica gallery P32’s booth at the Ink ‘N’ Iron convention in Long Beach, alongside former graffiti cronies such as Risk and Nathan Ota. Blanco is one-third of the artists — alongside childhood friends Richard Abagon and Edward Michael Doran —comprising P32’s current exhibit, titled “3 From the Street: L.A. Perspectives.”
“’3 From the Street’ is a unique perspective of our city viewed by three longtime friends through different lenses,” says P32 owner Howard Spunt. “Marcel the street artist, who puts his spin L.A.’s landscape thru bold colors and dramatic backdrops; Ed, whose iconic buildings are viewed through a wide angle from multiple directions; and Richard’s ability to capture the moment in real time using light and subject matter to frame the scene.”
“Marcel has come a long way since drawing punk rock flyers at Uni High,” Graval said. “Marcel has always evolved and pushed limits breaking his own personal boundaries as an artist. His work is refined yet spontaneous.”
Today, Blanco and many of his fellow graffiti artists are full-fledged fine artists appearing at galleries and trade shows all over California.
“It’s ironic now. We get contracted to do murals,” Blanco says, cracking a grin.
Case in point: Blanco’s mural on the Rock Paper Scissors building at Cloverfield Boulevard and Broadway in Santa Monica. On Saturday, Blanco begins crafting a South L.A. mural (featuring Billie Holiday, Miles Davis and Pancho Sanchez) for the Santa Monica-based arts nonprofit Beautify Earth.
Ota, who currently teaches painting in the digital arts department at Otis College of Art and Design in Westchester, has known Blanco since their Webster Junior High and University High days.
“Our friendship started more after we reconnected in 2010,” Ota says, referring to a West Coast art exhibit at the Getty Center assembled by Risk.
Laid-back and even-tempered, Blanco seems a million miles away from a lifestyle that, for a while, led to him battling some insecurities and demons. Ota sees a much different Blanco than in the wild days of their youth.
“He’s matured as an artist,” Ota says. “When he saw what I was doing, he wanted to get back into traditional art. He’s come by a lot and asked me a lot of questions.”
As multicultural as L.A. itself, the P32 show reflects three strong and ethnically diverse viewpoints. Doran’s heritage is Scottish, Abagon is Filipino, and Blanco is of Chilean heritage on his mother’s side and Columbian on his father’s.
One of Blanco’s works in the show is a Hollywood view of downtown Los Angeles through a fence, falcons cutting through the sky.
“The fences represent obstacles,” Blanco explains. “They’re actually not that hard to get over, but you hold yourself back. There’s fear.”
The work employs both acrylic and spray paint to create a canvas covered in tags, drips and streaks, with self-affirming words such as “Believe” and “Strength” peeking through the fog of urban iconography.
What you’re getting with “3 From the Street” are three distinct views of Los Angeles from the streets up: Abagon’s through artsy black-and-white photography; Blanco’s through mixed-media paintings; and Doran through paintings of such Westside landmarks as the Hinano Café in Venice as if seen through the distortion of a fish-eyed lens.
“It’s a reminder of where we came from,” says Blanco, who grew up “where the 10 meets the 405” and ran with a diverse group of friends while attending L.A. public schools.
Blanco still enjoys living on the Westside, but “in Santa Monica, the traffic is getting a little crazy, and Venice is not what it used to be,” he says. “I’m all for fixing up the neighborhood, but push more of the old people out to bring in hipsters and you lose the character of the place.”
Just as diverse as his upbringing is the music Blanco listens to while creating his paintings: punk (Bad Brains, The Descendants), alternative (TV on the Radio, Deadmouse), hip-hop (Eric B. & Rakim, Jurassic 5, Kendrick Lamar) and reggae (Black Uhuru, Steel Pulse, Sidestepper).
If Blanco’s knowledgeable about this realm of the arts, that’s because until 2010 music was his long-running twin aspiration. He played bass in the punk band Beer Nuts, night-crawling at long-gone venues such as the Anti-Club in Hollywood and Gazzarri’s on the Sunset Strip.
Until recently, Blanco sustained himself as a graphic designer for CMH Records, EMI/Capitol, Activision and Night Netwerk Productions. For the Marina del Rey-based Jewel Box Platinum, he put together art for the record sales certification plaques presented to such artists as Eminem (“Recovery”) and Nicki Minaj (“Pink Friday”).
However, the streets are where his heart is, so Blanco now devotes himself to making a full-time living painting what he calls “urban fantasy.”
Although evincing very different styles, the three friends involved in the P32 exhibit produce compatible works. Sometimes they even inspire each other. One of Blanco’s pieces, “Urban Bike,” is riffing on Abagon’s photograph “Lil Whip” (also in the show).
Even though Ota missed Blanco’s musician period, they later realized they’d attended many of the same concerts — shows by the likes of Black Flag, the Misfits and Public Enemy.
“He was practically at every gig that I went to,” Ota says.
With Ota now well-placed as a fine artist and instructor and graffiti continuing to gain strength as an art-world subgenre, that 2010 Getty Center exhibit was the perfect place for he and Blanco to reconnect.
“The reason I stepped out of the graffiti thing is that people thought I was a thug,” Ota says. “My intention as an artist was to be an artist. Back then, graffiti had such a negative connotation — you’re in a gang — and that’s all false.”
“Some of the art world still fights and resists it,” Blanco says.
Ota considers what his old bud is doing now “the right fit”: “When he learns he gets excited. As an instructor in general, it’s nice to see someone take things seriously. He definitely has the talent.”
In fact, Blanco and his former bandito buds were among 150 L.A. graffiti artists to make a 2012 book in the Getty’s archive library.
So does Blanco feel validated?
He breaks into an easy, satisfied grin: “Absolutely.”
“3 From the Streets” runs through June 28 at P32 Gallery, 3129 Pico Blvd., Santa Monica. Call (310) 457-0619 or visit p32gallery.com.