Louis Carreon Rises from the Heart of the Harbor to the Heights of Art World Acclaim
By Kym Cunningham, Contributing Writer
When Louis Carreon’s first solo show, no unsolicited submissions, opened May 18 at Hamilton-Selway Fine Art in West Hollywood, the graffiti-writer-turned-contemporary-artist suddenly joined an impressive list of creatives.
Hamilton-Selway frequently features the latest work by emerging contemporary and pop artists; the gallery has shown a variety of high-profile artists, such as Andy Warhol and Keith Haring.
However, it seems quite unlikely that the gallery would have ever cut a Warhol or a Haring in half, which is what Hamilton-Selway did to the centerpiece of Carreon’s art show Trap Supper, a hip-hop and Hollywood-inspired remake of Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper. Hamilton-Selway chopped off the bottom part of Carreon’s table, effectively throwing away the work’s negative space, as well as several symbols Carreon felt were integral to the piece.
“My work doesn’t start from the bottom; my work has room to breathe,” Carreon said. “That’s not the way I show my work.”
While this choice seems unconscionable to most artists and aficionados — including Carreon himself who contemplated cancelling his show at the eleventh hour — this decision betrays what Carreon called the greater “disconnect between the modern artists and the gallery.”
Indeed, modern art shows balance the artist’s vision for the audience with the gallery’s desires, namely, what the gallery thinks it might be able to sell. Carreon’s manager referred to many gallery owners as “real estate agents,” trying to sell displayed art so that they can move on to the next piece. As a result, galleries sometimes take liberties and make choices that they think are more marketable. In this situation, the person who ends up losing out is often the artist.
Carreon acutely felt this loss, similar to what he experienced as a young graffiti writer years ago when another crew had disrespectfully gone over his work.
“I grew up fighting people who went over my art,” Carreon said, his voice close to breaking. “Now people are cutting my art in half.”
Harbor Born and Raised
Born in Harbor City, Carreon comes from a line of longshoremen. Carreon’s family moved throughout the Harbor Area before settling a little farther south in Seal Beach. Carreon’s father wanted his son to have a chance at a better education than he felt was available in his hometown of Wilmington, but Carreon had other plans.
“By ninth grade, I [had] already dropped out of school and [was] heading back to the hood to try to be around cats who were doing cooler shit than playing baseball,” Carreon said. “They were listening to hip-hop, tagging, doing graffiti, break-dancing and freestyle battling: all of the stuff that I didn’t have at my predominately white school.”
Carreon hooked up with a local graffiti crew out of Long Beach named KBH, or Krown By Honor.
“It was pretty much like an art gang,” Carreon admitted. “I was the kid who lived in Seal Beach — the privileged kid. I was automatically the punk out of the crew, so I had to work really, really hard…. Graffiti became everything to me…. It was just about getting respect from your peers.”
During this time, Carreon and his crew stole paint, hip-hop CDs and cassettes and hung out at backyard parties, where Sublime would play.
“Long Beach was on fire,” Carreon remembered. “There was not a care in the world.”
Fighting for Art
Occasionally, Carreon and KBH would “battle” with other crews or taggers, who he really only knew by their tagging names.
“We battled with spray cans to start but usually ended up fighting,” Carreon said. “I threw fists. I have scars on my face from graffiti. But that’s punk rock.”
Around 2000, Carreon got a car. That is when he said his life as a graffiti writer really took off.
“We started mobbing the freeways heavy, like hard,” Carreon said. “We were bombing [tagging] freeways five nights a week, from the 110 all the way through Pedro all through the bridges — downtown, 110, 605, 91. We were rocking billboards, heavens [graffiti pieces painted in hard-to-reach places], rooftops.”
More than anything, his time in KBH has taught him a code of respect for other people’s artwork. Now, when he is commissioned to paint a wall in another country — the Philippines or South Africa — Carreon tries his best to make sure that he contacts any artist whose work he paints over.
“That’s where I come from,” Carreon said. “Unless [the other artist] is dead, I need to reach out to this guy and let him know you’re paying me to paint a mural here.”
He said that this code is part of the reason why he is so frustrated with the younger generation of self-titled street artists, whose numbers seem to grow every day courtesy of Instagram and who have no qualms about painting over another artist’s work.
“We were just vandals — street art didn’t exist,” Carreon said. “We didn’t know anything [about art] except what the art teachers taught us in history and most of us weren’t listening to that shit anyway.”
The Real Meaning of Street
About 10 years ago, so-called street art became popularized throughout Los Angeles galleries. Many galleries — or sometimes even the artists themselves — would label these works as graffiti. Yet many “old school” graffiti artists like Carreon see a clear, black-and-white delineation between street and graffiti artists.
“Just because you use a spray can, doesn’t make you graffiti,” Carreon said.
Carreon described the learning process required of graffiti artists, who he said needed to know the tagging alphabet by studying scripts like bubble bottom letters or New Yorks.
“I come from a place where I don’t even think you should say the word street … whether you paint the fucking street or not,” Carreon said. “If the people from the street don’t know you, you ain’t street…. The street implies community. If the community doesn’t know who you are, you ain’t shit.”
The Road to Success
But Carreon has progressed vastly from the young graffiti artist who secretly mobbed freeways in the middle of the night. Around two decades ago, Carreon moved from Long Beach to West Hollywood, leaving most of his old crew behind. For the next decade, Carreon struggled with addiction before finally landing in prison for two years on drug-related charges.
“I was a lowlife,” Carreon said. “I did nothing but ruin people’s lives and ruin my own.”
Unlike most inmates, Carreon seemed to thrive in prison, as the penitentiary afforded him the time and solitude to get sober and practice his art, which had mostly fallen by the wayside during his drug-addled years. Carreon drew art for tattoos in prison, using mostly bold, simple lines which can be found in some of his earlier post-prison artwork.
In many ways, Carreon viewed art as his redemption, giving him a clear path for what he wanted to do with his life.
But Carreon has not necessarily left his old lifestyle behind. Although sober, he also works as a club promoter and part owner of the clubs Bootsy Bellows and Poppy.
“I own some of the best nightclubs here so I’ve become pretty deep into pop culture and Hollywood,” Carreon said. “I know pretty much everybody.”
Carreon admitted that he has been lucky in this venture, and perhaps in life in general, as his integration into the Hollywood scene seems to have led to the seed money to jumpstart his career as an artist. Other members of Carreon’s old crew, some of whom he admitted are just as good if not better artists, have not been so lucky.
“They didn’t move up to Hollywood and they didn’t do what I did and I’m the one catching some light,” Carreon said. “But I’m also running a business.”
The Art Businessman
Now, Carreon is an artist with large, sophisticated narratives behind his pieces, which he completes in his studio in West Hollywood called, The Drip Factory.
Around two years ago, Carreon recognized that the communication of this knowledge and the historical resonance of his pieces were necessary in order to have success in the art world.
“Now, I’m studying art, I’m learning how to explain my pieces,” Carreon said. “It has completely changed for me from the kid that was just defacing stuff.”
Indeed, now Carreon is commissioned to create art around the world by institutions as diverse as Autism Speaks and the Chicago Blackhawks. In 2015, he painted a private jet for Art Basel, an homage to the AIDS-related death of renowned artist Keith Haring.
But in many ways, Carreon seems conflicted, torn between this “authorized” art and the vandalism still in heart. He joked about the fact that driving down La Cienega Boulevard in downtown Los Angeles, a commissioned billboard sits just a few blocks away from one of the billboards he recently vandalized. Indeed, this fluidity seems to have become ingrained within his art itself, as he now prefers blurred lines in his paintings to the clear lines reminiscent of prison tattoos. For Carreon, definitions seem to have become blurrier with 40 years, as he has realized that life is so infrequently black and white. In this way, the dynamism of graffiti as a medium still suits him, as the transient nature of the art replicates the in-the-moment lifestyle of modern society.
Evolving from the Streets
Carreon said that he is not as influenced by other artists as he is by life, a street-centric view that is possibly a holdover from the tagging of his youth.
“You can find inspiration anywhere,” Carreon said. “I could walk into Kmart, see something interesting … talk to a homeless guy, read something on Facebook … nightclubs. I find inspiration listening to music, watching people function.”
Carreon said that he often feels trapped when he spends too much time looking at other people’s art; if he studies other artists for too long, he tries to replicate what they are doing, only to end up deeply frustrated.
“I don’t like being influenced by other artists,” Carreon said. “I prefer freestyle. I’d rather be stuck in my head. It takes me a long time to paint some of this shit. I can’t move fast enough. My brain won’t let me…. I’m not even that good at art. I’m just free.”
This freedom has allowed him to pursue his pet project, creating what he calls international symbols of travel that he paints on walls worldwide, including the outside of The Drip Factory.
“They’re kind of like a little story that you can look at,” Carreon said. “Every time I paint it, I see it differently and I add characters. It’s evolving, just like myself.”
This evolution of character is perhaps the most quintessential aspect of Carreon as an artist, and even as a human being. Carreon credited much of his past as intrinsically shaping his artwork.
“I did get into a lot of trouble and I did take a lot of wrong streets, but it all was a culmination to get me to where I am now,” Carreon said. “I’m still on the grind and still learning about everything, including myself.”