Mike Bravo interviews muralist and Venice local Henry Lipkis, the muralist commissioned by VCHC to paint the beautiful mural at the apartments on Navy & Pacific.
So Henry, tell us about yourself real quick. What’s your background, where are you from and all that good stuff?
Yo thanks for the interview! I grew up around Venice and Lincoln in the shadows of the epic R Cronk murals all up and down the boardwalk. Started doing little bits of graffiti up and down Speedway and Pacific as a teenager, mostly drawing weird monsters and making more detailed ink drawings on those USPS stickers and slapping them up all around Venice. Eventually I got into painting murals but didn’t really start painting big walls until I left Venice at 18. I got to travel around the world for a few years with my mural practice and then ended up in New Orleans, where I paint walls, make giant puppets, paint Mardi Gras floats, and do a little tattooing.
It’s rare for me to see artists FROM Venice doing prominent work here. What are some of your thoughts/opinions on the art scene in Venice these days?
It’s really been awesome to come back home to paint a classic community oriented mural on a street corner that I spent a lot of time boppin around on as a youngster. As I don’t live here anymore and I don’t want to start any fires I’ll speak more generally about muralism in neighborhoods that are battling through different stages of gentrification. I think murals are often seen as neighborhood beautification by many people- regardless of the content of the piece. Not to say that every painting needs to be some deep down community oriented project because that aint it either, but when areas of a neighborhood are labeled by the powers that be as “in need of beautification” that’s some coded language that kicks off a process that inevitably leads to displacement. Murals can quickly change the visual landscape of a place, a painting of a pretty young girl here, a primary rainbow splash with a bird there, and boom you’ve got an “up and coming ” marketable neighborhood that looks identical to 10,000 others around the world. In Venice, we’ve got a real unique place that has been home to so many different communities throughout it’s whole history, I hope that artists can sit with that and keep it in mind while making work, especially in the public sphere.
Are there certain themes or messages in your art you’re inclined to?
When it comes to my mural themes, it all depends on where the piece is going up. I want the painting to be connected to its surroundings y’know, relevant to the people who are going to live with it and see it every day. So that can run the whole range content-wise but usually it’s focused on people just doing their thing. I always like to bring an element of magic into it though, some sort of abstraction that alludes to something bigger. That magic will usually appear as some mysterious element that isn’t clearly defined- but can be interpreted as transcendent beyond what is strictly physical and from that point it can be open to individual interpretation.
What type of work do you usually get commissioned for?
I make a lot of different types of work so I get commissioned in pretty different arenas. With murals, I like to do these large community focused pieces like the one here in Venice. Sometimes I get commissioned to make smaller pieces that are related to a certain mural, or on the other side of the spectrum of my style I paint a lot of swampy magical landscapes full of decay, fungus, and toads.
You come off as a sincere, socially conscious person. How does that play out in the commissions you seek out, accept, or don’t accept, etc.?
I do a lot of culturally focused work, which can be a very delicate process in a time where awareness around cultural appropriation, racial dynamics, and tokenism are being discussed very seriously. I have made mistakes on these issues, I will make more. When approaching a project I try to get input from different stakeholders of really varied backgrounds, suggestions of who or what could be included in the piece. At the end of the day I am making the decisions of what goes into my paintings, but getting material input from a broad range of people helps to spread the source of the content out beyond my own limited experience or imagination.
Your recent mural here in Venice off of Navy and Pacific, how did that commission come about?
This recent mural was commissioned by Venice Community Housing (VCH) and my godmother Deborah Daly connected me with the open call they put out for paintings on four of their properties. I was very grateful to be granted one of the buildings and wanted to do a painting of the drum circle! It was especially exciting to paint a mural for an organization which is actively fighting the displacement of long term Venice residents and providing very real and concrete solutions for people who may otherwise be homeless or pushed out of the neighborhood.
What was your intention and what were you trying to accomplish with that piece?
I wanted to do a depiction of the Venice drum circle for a few different reasons, primarily because there’s a real good cross-section of the different types of people living in this town. All types of backgrounds economically, racially, spiritually, generationally, and otherwise. Another great aspect of the circle is that it is a free event, every week, and it’s an opportunity for people to come together and get down. When I was growing up the drum circle was always the spot our group of friends would meet up. We weren’t exactly involved with the circle, but it’s where we would be and could reliably find each-other on a weekend afternoon. So much of my culturally oriented work is engaged with cultures that are not my own, so it felt extremely good to come back home and paint something I really came up around.
What aspects of that mural are extra special to you?
Something that is really important to me in this piece is that there’s nobody famous. Some people in there have varying levels of local notoriety, but there’s not a celebrity to be found, except for our beloved Treeman. I’m really proud to populate this wall with nothing but real ones, just good people who are from around here, been around here, and contribute by living their lives.
What upcoming projects do you have?
I’m trying to get back into the studio and make more protest banners. Since covid hit, and then even more since the uprisings sparked by George Floyd’s murder, I’ve been involved with some of the local organizers in New Orleans to create large paintings as marching banners. It doesn’t look like the country is calming down any time soon so I’m going to keep on hitting that and making work that goes directly into the hands of people fighting for justice.
How can people follow and stay up on your work?
Anything you’d like to express that we didn’t touch on?
This piece is the first substantial mural I’ve painted in the city and I hope it opens up the doors for more projects in the future! If the work really speaks to any readers here, please reach out and let me know.
Photo cred: Todd Von Hoffman