This is going to stick with me.
I have had the pleasure of becoming Lydia Emily’s assistant, or “art monkey” as she dubs it. Lydia Emily is an extremely talented artist who has been oil and mural painting for many years. Her work is political; always with a greater message. She founded The Karma Underground, a non-profit that raises awareness for the plight of the Tibetan people and hosts art fundraisers for the Tibet House U.S. Currently, her work depicts the beautiful faces of the Massai Tribe in Kenya and of Haiti.
I have wanted to learn from an established artist, and I couldn’t imagine anyone more perfect than Lydia Emily. Being a creative activist myself, her activism inspires and uplifts me. She is engrained in the Downtown Los Angeles art and mural scene, which I know nothing about, but am soaking up the newfound knowledge like a sponge. I am very grateful for this opportunity. Our recent project hailed from Skid Row, the poorest and most neglected section of Downtown Los Angeles. Lydia Emily works with LA Freewalls, a project headed by Daniel Lahoda focused on securing walls for mural artists. This mural was part of the Skid Row Beautification Project. Her plan was to paint a Massai Tribe woman in her traditional beads and headdress with Kenyan birds and a Tibetan prayer for peace.
Our home base for the weekend was San Pedro and 5th, right in the heart of it all. We began early Friday morning with the heat of the sun beating down at 90 degrees already at 7:00am. Progress was slow, impeded by the cleaning and washing of the wall and sidewalk. We were grateful when the sun dipped behind the wall around 1:00pm, but our progress halted at the reaction of a very aggressive man named “General” Jeff. Our presence and our painting of a wall that belongs to his Skid Row artists angered him. He claimed we made no effort to involve the community and instead, swooped in on the wall like vultures. His ranting grew more alarming when he began stopping cars on the street to rally a greater front. We packed up and left.
The decision to return was tough. Our safety was threatened. Daniel convinced us that with city officials on our side, greater security, and the involvement of a Skid Row artist named Crushow, we could finish the mural. We got to work brainstorming ways to make the mural more conducive to the community. The Tibetan Peace Prayer became “Peace is Yours” and the birds were transformed from aggressive beings to offerings of peace. We began day two with Wendell Blassingame’s blessing, a city representative for Skid Row.
General Jeff showed up many times the second day, but his ranting was subdued by the many compliments and support that we received from the neighborhood. Though while up on the ladders painting insults were thrown up at us at a consistent basis, for every two discontents, there were 20 in full support of the work we were doing. One woman proclaimed, “She’s [Lydia Emily] paying an honor to the African American queen. She’s paying an honor to me.” Another woman whispered up in my ear, “It’s so great to see women out here doing things that many believe men only do and women are incapable of.”
We were relieved and excited to step back from the wall on the final day. For Lydia Emily, this was the most tasking mural yet. She overcame the intense heat, discrimination, and hatred to bring the community a beautiful message of peace. I was honored to be able to work by her side. While taking the last of our pictures in front of the wall, a gun shot rang out so close that it sent us all scattering: a scary finale to a project full of challenges and accomplishments.
I can confidently say that I have many exciting opportunities to look forward to with Lydia Emily. With the Los Angeles Mural Ordinance passing, the murals will not stop. Thank you to the artist Crushow, for being the glue between us and the Skid Row community, Daniel Lahoda for believing in us, Magaret Leahy for assisting, all of our supporters and fans, and the community members who welcomed us amidst it all.