This is a story about Underground Los Angeles. Not the underground music scene — the underground art scene. The subway art scene.
Yes, there is a subway in L.A. Even some Angelenos don’t know about it, and most have never used it. But a system of subways and light rail was started in the early 1990s, and it’s steadily expanding.
Depending on where you live, the subway’s an efficient way to get downtown, which has become more of a destination in recent years, what with the Music Center with its plays, concerts, ballets and operas; fine museums; a funky, lively boho arts district; the Frank Gehry-designed Disney Concert Hall; the relatively new Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels. Plus the old attractions: Chinatown, Little Tokyo, Olvera Street’s cheesy but charming Mexican street fair, and such architectural gems as Union Station and the Bradbury Building, featured in “Blade Runner.”
Unlike some other urban transit systems used by a wide swath of economic and social classes, the L.A. subway — except for those who use it for their downtown work commute or to go to ballgames and cultural events — caters mostly to those who don’t have other transportation options.
I have a car, but sometimes I travel by subway because it puts me cheek-by-jowl with people I might not otherwise come into contact with. On the subway, I’ve sat next to a guy who had a large tattoo — the F-word — in Gothic script on his neck. I’ve stood next to a silver-haired middle-aged guy who’d taken the cowboy motif way too far: Stetson, bandanna, chaps, filigree, fancy boots that clacked when he walked. I’ve watched an immigrant student painstakingly translate a medical textbook, word for word. And listened to a busker doing a pretty good Johnny Cash imitation — and given him a buck for his efforts.
All par for the course on the Red Line. If that array of humanity doesn’t appeal to you, consider this: Going by subway is ecologically sound, you know when the train will arrive, and you don’t have to worry about parking when you get there.
But if you use it only as a means of transportation, you miss a lot of the fun. Every station on the Red Line is decorated with fascinating artwork, in several cases as a counterpoint to — or an ironic commentary on — the area where the station’s located.
Don’t try to catch a quick glimpse of the art from inside the subway car during the few seconds you’re in each station. Red Line art may not be part of the normal tourist route, but it’s worth a morning or an afternoon. You need to get off the train at some of the 14 stations, wander around the platform, go up to a higher level to get a broad view. Explore both sides of the turnstiles. Once you’ve seen the art at one station, take the train in the same direction to the next station and enjoy the artwork there.
The best place to start a Red Line art tour is at the North Hollywood terminus. Going down the steps or escalator, you see three wide ceramic layers. The topmost layer depicts the 1950s San Fernando Valley: pickup trucks and tract houses. The middle layer is the Valley in the early 19th century: Catholic missions and rancheros. The lowest layer is the Valley in the era of Native Americans, before Europeans arrived, and it depicts their remnants: baskets, petroglyphs and bones.
The history lesson is clear: Each era is built on top of previous ones. As you pass these three strata and go deep into the bowels of the subway, it might feel as if the below-ground world you’re entering is one with a different view of life and history than the one that prevails aboveground. As you’ll see, that feeling is accurate.
The stop after NoHo is Universal City, serving popular tourist sites Universal Studios and CityWalk. The aboveground narrative is a bust-out celebration of movies and music — a city proud of its entertainment achievements.
The below-ground narrative is different. At the Universal City Red Line platform, there are four massive rectangular columns decorated with handmade ceramics on all four sides. In English and Spanish, the tiles tell a story of the difficulties faced by native peoples and black settlers, and of their unrecognized contributions. It’s Southern California history with a progressive edge.
Aboveground, it’s all fun and games and diversions from daily life. Below, it’s a stark story of 19th-century exploitation, war, strife and thorny racial relations.
Margaret Garcia’s artwork (construction designed by Kate Diamond) has a harsh beauty. It’s deliberately rough-hewn and naive, a hodgepodge of hand-lettered text and portraits, the spaces between filled by ceramic depictions of cannons, guns, hands, flowers, bones, acorns and cut-off legs. The four massive columns, with their garish colors and their message of justice for those who were denied it in California in the 1800s, produce a searing effect, artistically and emotionally.
Two stops beyond Universal City is the Hollywood/Vine station. Once you get off the train, you see ceilings covered with thousands of film-reel holders. The walls of the station represent film stock.
Up a level, there’s a metal railing with five horizontal rails, like a musical staff. Soldered onto the handrail-cum-musical-staff are a large steel clef and the musical notes of the song “Hooray for Hollywood.”
Most of the artwork at this station — dozens of tongue-in-cheek variations on what “star” might mean — was created by Gilbert “Magu” Lujan: tile fantasies of different sizes, some placed in out-of-the-way corners, ready to be discovered.
Lujan’s takes on “star” include a 1948 Chevy souped up so that it rides low to the ground — “Low-Rider Star” — and an anthropomorphic animal (a dog?) standing with each of its back paws inside a small car, each of which is atop a star — “Flying with Stars.”
“Skidding Star” shows a large five-pointed star wearing a red bikini. The two lower points of the star are “legs” covered in tar or grime, skidding on a downslope lined with palm trees and stars. The idea that a star can skid downward is the mordantly comic underside of the Hollywood dream.
Above, at street level, is the sleaze and glitz of tourist Hollywood: the sidewalk with stars’ names inscribed inside stars; well-known theaters; actors dressed as superheroes.
But below ground is Lujan’s art, which gives “Hooray for Hollywood” a dark meaning. In one piece, a 1950s car with three passengers emerges with musical notes out of a landscape of mountains and houses and stars, all framed by an odd-looking Hollywood sign. But “Hooray” is spelled “Hurray,” like a carny huckster urging the marks to hurry in: a sardonic view of Hollywood.
Several stops later, you get to the Westlake/MacArthur Park station. Go up the steps and you find 13 lovely ceramic depictions of scenes in and around the park. Some are night scenes (in blue) and some are daytime (in rose). One of the most striking shows two middle-aged men talking and eating at Langer’s Deli (a half-block away).
Even though these ceramics were done by Sonia Romero in 2010, for the most part they show scenes either from a MacArthur Park that no longer exists — one with elegant couples boating in the lake — or if in present time, they show an idealized park, not the one you see when you go up and walk across the street.
Except for a stop at Langer’s (at Seventh and Alvarado; go for the world-class pastrami on rye), MacArthur Park is not a recommended tourist site. It’s seedy, full of trash, somewhat dangerous. The boathouse has a caved-in roof, smells of urine and has been taken over by feral cats. And yet Romero’s artwork — just across the street and down a flight of stairs — makes the park seem idyllic. Again, a sharp contrast between what goes on aboveground and what’s depicted below.
Each station on the Red Line boasts artwork worth seeing. Here are a few examples: At the Wilshire/Vermont stop, artist Bob Zoell, using large typographic symbols on tiled columns, created outlines that look both human and mechanical. The Civic Center station features Jonathan Borofsky’s soft mannequins flying overhead. The Pershing Square station has spectacular neon pieces crafted by Stephen Antonakos.
Most amazing of all is the Hollywood/Highland station. The art piece is the entire station, designed by Sheila Klein and built by Dworsky Associates. Named “Underground Girl,” it’s meant, perhaps, to be an abstract prone female.
I don’t see it that way. When I look at the station from above, I feel as if I’m inside the belly of a whale. Or maybe in a spaceship hangar that’s part of a high-budget sci-fi movie. It’s beautiful and breathtaking in its ambition and execution.
Still, as interesting as Red Line art is, most Angelenos wouldn’t dream of getting on the subway. They prefer their personal bubbles — their cars.
Change, however, is in the wind. As L.A.’s downtown continues to blossom, as pricier condos and lofts are built there, as more eco-consciousness takes over, the subway clientele will probably gentrify.
I just hope that the change doesn’t happen too quickly. I like the Red Line the way it is. Unless I’m on the subway, I’d never rub elbows with a Gothic-script-tattooed guy or a Buffalo Bill wannabe.
And that’s as much a part of the Red Line’s raffish charm as its artwork.
Loiederman is a freelance writer who lives in the San Fernando Valley and often uses the Red Line.