Northeast Los Angeles has new gallery: Calavera Gallery on a strip of Cypress Ave that also houses the new bar from punk rock filmmaker Dave Travis who took over the Tops Club, keeping the interior intact adn renaming it Cafe NELA, at 1906 Cypress, conveniently located next to a taco joint–a dollar a taco! Perfect club food. NELA Cafe’s opening night was a benefit for artist/musician Victor Balogh, and on the way back to my car, my friend and I saw a huge mural inside brick-faced industrial building and heard people inside. We shouted politely through the security gate and the guys let us in. After looking at the art, I made an appointment for a formal visit, and brought along LA’s premier art world photographer Eric Mihn Swenson.
The gallery, Calavera is the home of Seaweed Calavera Batiz, a Los Angeles native who eschews using stencils and spray cans for his strong graphic murals, choosing instead to work with brushes. He art work shows a heavy L.A. Chicano influence–roses, skulls, bold lines, blocks of color. In places has tweaked the iconography: For one wall he has pulled the paisleys off a bandana, using the shapes to reflect back on a Tibetan style skull that breaths life in the faces of his children who he has painted with same tattoo he wears on the his right cheekbone. Pinstriping, skateboarding, and tattoo art also play a part in his work.
Seaweed began drawing as a child, his grandmother would give him tracing paper and he would trace over pictures of animals. He moved into drawing hot rods and doing letter graffiti, and customizing skate decks. Born in South Central, Seaweed fell away from art, until he took his car into get it pinstriped.
The guy wanted a lot of money, and I said “Oh hell, I can do this.” Well it was harder than I thought, and it took me some time to get it right and be able to take my car out. I was a closet pinstriper for a while.
After a time, Seaweed began working in the film industry, moving towards a career in editing, but with the 2008 writers’ strike, work stopped and he returned to art. He now designs jewelry for a major jeweler as well as painting and readying Calavera Gallery for its November 2nd opening–finishing murals and building moveable walls.
Seaweed takes his time with his mural art, drawing a piece over and over until he gets it right, then tracing it onto a transparency and projecting it on a wall. Then he begins the brush work. He also paints works on board and canvas, and true to the gallery’s name, much of the work features skulls.
Calavera Gallery and Travis’ Cafe NELA, are part of the changing face of urban Los Angeles. This section of Northeast LA, just off San Fernando Road wedged between Mt. Washington and Glendale, and known as Cypress Park, has yet to become as gentrified as Eagle Rock or Echo Park. For now these two culture-focused businesses–Travis screens punkrock videos on Thursday nights as well as hosting bands–are bringing people into the area for events, while serving the community. At the Balogh benefit some of the neighbors stopped in and mingled, swaying to the raucous music and seeming to dig the new vibe–the old business was also a bar, but one which catered to single guys looking for female companionship and the women who provided it; the punk rock aspect of of NELA Cafe is more open to all, well those 21 and over. And at Calavera, Seaweed plans set up art workshops for senior citizens:
My grandmother is 93, I’d love to have her painting and to do something for other seniors in the community.
Seaweed photos: Eric Minh Swenson/Thuvanarts, used by permission. Sign photo: Lisa Derrick/CARWHEEL. Cafe NELA photo: Cafe NELA