MAIN STREET — “Hey dude, if you can bomb a shirt, you can get paid, not arrested.”
That’s what Jonathan Mooney, a Santa Monica resident and nationally-recognized speaker, told kids he found spraypainting private property at 3 a.m. when he was trying to put together the first cohort of students for his new program “Streetcraft L.A.”
For those that need translation, to “bomb” in this case is to tag or spraypaint a wall, not drop an explosive object, although a case could be made that getting caught with a spray can in your hand could be a blow to your future.
Mooney and his team, however, saw opportunity and created Streetcraft L.A., a nonprofit that provides at-risk youth a chance to learn how to make, market and ultimately profit from their otherwise illegal craft.
Although Streetcraft L.A. has had a retail location in the South Bay for some time, Mooney and Emmet Ashford-Trotter opened up the organization’s first pop-up location in Santa Monica on Main Street, just in time for the busy Christmas shopping season.
It doesn’t look like much from the outside with a “For Lease” sign still prominently displayed in the window — they use it to project video when the light’s right — but the interior is an industrial zone reminiscent of high-end street fashion shops you might find in the Downtown.
For the experimental, it also holds the only legal tagging wall in the city set far back in the store.
Unlike the South Bay shop, which primarily sells art supplies and provides production space, the Santa Monica store allows passersby to stop in and check out products created by the artists, including wall paintings, shirts, hats and skateboard decks.
The artists keep much of the profits, and the rest goes toward keeping the rent paid and the doors open.
At present, the store is carrying the work of six artists, including Bobby Rodriguez, a tall guy from the South Bay that has found his way to the wrong side of a few walls in the past.
Rodriguez first discovered “the rebellious arts,” as he calls them, when he was 19. He made a name for himself and when Streetcraft L.A. opened up in his area roughly a year ago, rival artists shepherded him toward the project.
It made a lot of sense, Rodriguez said.
“It turned vandalism into a livelihood,” he said.
Since starting with Streetcraft L.A., Rodriguez has been able to open up legal walls in other places and even get paid to put up murals for people.
Artists involved with Streetcraft L.A. get help making their goods, but they also get a primer in the business of marketing both their products and themselves to the outside world, Ashford-Trotter said.
All of the items sold in the store were selected internally and they track what sells and adjust the inventory accordingly.
So far, the store is in the black, Ashford-Trotter said.
“We wanted to do something more rigorous,” he said.
And now is the time.
Graffiti artists are widely recognized in Los Angeles, with work showing up in galleries and even museums.
Banksy and Shepard Fairey are household names these days, and graffiti artist duo Risk and Retna painted exterior panels on a house in Santa Monica in vivid shades of blue, purple and green as a way to bring awareness to the plight of the oceans for local nonprofit Heal the Bay.
“The zeitgeist is ready for this,” Ashford-Trotter said.
The program has one critical requirement. Its artists must be engaged in some kind of education, be it getting their high school diploma or taking art classes or getting a degree at a local college.
That kind of engagement, both with traditional schooling and the experiential learning of the business, is important to at-risk youth, said Marty Duckenfield, the public information director for the National Dropout Prevention Center.
Success in the business world or creative outlet builds a quality experts call “resilience” which strengthens young people against other negative aspects in their lives and helps them persevere through academics.
“It gives motivation and purpose in life,” Duckenfield said. “That’s another strong way to develop resilience and connect what you’re doing with why you might need an education.”
By their nature, pop-up shops are transitory, rarely lasting more than a few months. This one recently signed a lease that will keep it open at least through the end of January.