Alchemy in Skid Row, Los Angeles: the Artwork of S.C. Mero

Our blog was created with the purpose of sharing hidden gems of Los Angeles. So far, we have talked about an old stone castle, the ruins of an old zoo, and shared stories of a siege within the Hollywood Hills and even LA’s “fountain of youth”. It all sounds like it’s straight out of a fairy tale. And why wouldn’t it? Los Angeles is a large and sprawling landscape. LA holds a remarkable amount of history and stories of discoveries and exploration. We don’t have tales of knights and princesses, but we have tales of alchemy. Living on the fringes of Downtown Los Angeles is an alchemist. A person who practices transformation on everyday objects. You may ask yourself why we’re talking about this person in particular, but it happened by chance that we found this person thanks to transit.

You see, before the pandemic I was a regular user of the Metro Gold line. I would take the train from East LA to Union Station and transfer onto the Red line to get to work. On really beautiful days when the sky was blue and there was no hint of our famous LA smog, I would love to get off at Little Tokyo Station and walk up First Street instead. Walking westward on First Street would take you past the Japanese American Museum, Little Tokyo village, City Hall, the old LA Times building, and the Walt Disney Concert Hall. If you head over to The Broad or MOCA once the pandemic is over, I recommend stretching your legs and taking this walk.

One morning as I waited to cross Alameda I noticed something different. There was a small golden square that looked like someone had made a window on the fence of the Metro construction site across the street. I approached the little window and upon closer inspection I realized that it was a golden frame. It was positioned so that the construction work below could be seen within its boundaries, like seeing a moving picture. I could see large pipes protruding from every direction and construction workers moving all sorts of materials. However, if you stooped a little lower, then you’d be able to see the LA skyline repositioning within the boundaries of the frame. I snapped a few pictures, and it wasn’t until later that day that I noticed the title and artist description on the frame. My curiosity led me to an Instagram account belonging to S.C. Mero.

S.C. Mero is one of many street artists residing in Los Angeles. What caught our attention about her art is its whimsical and interactive nature. After scrolling through her Instagram we became big fans of her work. We knew that at some point we wanted to write a post about her because we believe she contributes to the Los Angeles landscape. So, for this post we decided to try our luck and reach out and we are unbelievably grateful that she agreed to collaborate with us. We are excited to share her incredible work.

S.C. Mero identifies herself as an Underworld artist/Alchemist and when we spoke to her she explained that using the term “underworld” was a reference to underground art. As she put it, “Street art is a big umbrella. Street art is usually or traditionally two dimensional like murals and spray paint, but I tend to do work that can be removed or is temporary, for however long it lasts.” Mero works in the third dimension and identifies her practice as alchemy. She uses a lot of different chemicals and power tools to transform everyday objects into something beautiful, like turning thousands of pennies into a mosaic. “My philosophy is looking at mundane objects or things that might be overlooked and transforming them into something that could be thought of as art or something beautiful that somebody wouldn’t expect it to be.” And as I think about these words, I can’t help but wonder if she sees Skid Row through these eyes. Is Skid Row an ordinary location that, yes, is often overlooked but has the ability to be transformed?

I found Mero’s art by chance. A little street corner that I was familiar with and normally didn’t think about because it was a part of my morning commute. As an alchemist, Mero holds the ability to transform the mundane into something beautiful, something that you wouldn’t expect it to be. And if you wandered around Downtown, you would see what I mean. The frame that Mero and Wild Life installed in that street corner made me do a double take and appreciate a spot that I didn’t pay any attention to. They transform the landscape, bringing in a sense of wonder and beauty when you least expect it. And if you do happen to stumble upon their art, I recommend appreciating it while it’s there.

While street art is often known for its temporary nature, Mero’s art is particularly fleeting. Because these objects are three dimensional it is much easier for someone to take them. As a result, Mero will sometimes bring an artwork outdoors, take a few pictures and take it back into her studio while larger works will remain outside until someone decides to take them or the city decides to intervene. Mero is not bothered by this, it simply means that she can make repairs or place something new. When we asked her about one of her most recent works, a fire hydrant with a big mushroom-shaped spout of water, she laughed that someone had recently decided to take the mushroom top. “It still looks okay, it’s just a different artwork I guess.” And I love and appreciate this mentality because it doesn’t deter her from making any more art. In fact, it seems to push her to create more. “I love doing outdoor work or street art because the street and the neighborhood is something we all share. So when you make an art piece in it, it really resonates with people because it’s in an environment that we all share. So it’s something people tend to relate to more than if it were in a gallery that belongs to somebody else.”

As a former museum employee I know how people interact with art. When you visit a museum, your mind is preordained to think a specific way. You may not be aware of it, but when you step into a cultural institution your mind is automatically following a set of rules. You’re thinking cognitively, channeling the “scholar” and thinking along the lines of the institution. With this in mind, I had to ask Mero her thoughts about exhibiting in a gallery. I shared that I love seeing her work outside of the context of a museum because it removes the four walls and brings in the landscape and the environment. “I think it’s something I’m trying to do, removing that fourth wall. It’s almost four dimensional in a way. A sculpture is three dimensional, but when placed in an environment that everyone shares, it has a fourth dimension. It’s a part of that person’s life, or it’s a part of them in a way that you can’t do in a museum or a gallery”. She added, “The art world is always going to be for a certain group of people who consider themselves artistic. The average person or a lot of people don’t view themselves in that way… But when you can put your art outside and they can enjoy it… that to me means more than anything.” For the most part, Mero’s viewers are residents of Skid Row so it’s no surprise that she is considering them when she thinks about this.

Skid Row has a negative reputation in LA, but if you familiarize yourself with it you would know that the people who live there are the ones most in need. Residing in Skid Row, Mero shares her observations, “I really love Downtown Los Angeles as a whole and Skid Row is a part of that… It’s gotten neglected and people in the past didn’t want to acknowledge that, they just wanted it to go away, but it is a neighborhood.” The neighborhood consists of people running small businesses, artists and activists, people without homes and many who identify themselves as artists. The reality is that Skid Row has been transforming to become more arts-oriented. There are affordable studios for our struggling creatives, artist collectives and organizations that encourage art making. Skid Row is a community of Los Angeles and it’s time to acknowledge it.

In 2015, S.C. Mero and street artist Wild Life collaborated to present BOOM!, a public art installation on 4th and Broadway as a response to urban development. For years, the City of Los Angeles has been trying to transform Broadway by luring expensive brands, restoring old facades, and building luxury lofts and hotels. In conjunction with The Broad’s opening in 2015, Mero and Wild Life collaborated to create this installation at a time they believed the building was scheduled for demolition.

The installation consisted of a series of materials that added to the impression that this building was going to be demolished. If you were standing across the street you would see about five large bundles of dynamite strapped around the sides of the building, red plywood signs reading BOOM!, and a lever reading “danger TNT” sitting on top of the scaffolds above the intersection. The description for the project reads, “This project is a collaboration between the artists and Urban Decline Consulting, experts in showcasing the beauty of urban blight through the preservation of dilapidated structures. The installation allows the viewer to take pause and reflect upon the many layers of decay, neglect, and vandalism – and to appreciate the inherent beauty in the subtleties of the decomposing facade.”

At first glance the installation appears to be a joke, but it brings to light the ongoing changes on Broadway and throughout Los Angeles. We asked Mero about her thoughts on the developments on Broadway. “It’s interesting to see the changes. Obviously you’re always wondering how it’s going to impact everybody in the neighborhood that is already here. I guess at the time we all felt, really, that it wasn’t being built for the people who are already here, it was for the people they wanted to attract.” Artists and people who are familiar with Downtown will see projects like these and know that it wasn’t meant for them and it wasn’t meant to let them stay. We’ve had decades of promises to help the homeless population and while these projects look beautiful and extravagant to some, they are only contributing to homelessness and displacement. So, what do you do when the community you call home pushes you out? What do you do to make people think about the implications of these changes?

Mero’s playfulness shows up in her other works. In early 2018 she installed Monster Meter, an 13ft tall parking meter on the corner of Rose and 3rd in the Arts District. The giant parking meter was expected to be destroyed by natural causes. Instead, the sculpture survived for two years collecting memories like selfies, sticker slaps and graffiti. When we went to see this artwork for ourselves we were well aware that the meter would tower above us, but its sheer presence still managed to impress us. The work triggered a sense of curiosity and childishness. I wanted to climb on the pole and insert a coin simply for the fun interactive aspect of it. Mero actually decided to take down Monster Meter earlier in May this year, but no need to be disappointed, as her fire hydrant has taken its place.

If you decide to visit this intersection, keep an eye out. Rose, Third, and Traction Ave. create a triangular island in the middle of the Arts District. When we went to look at the parking meter, we were surprised to see that this island exhibited several other artworks. We saw a pinata petting zoo, sticker and graffiti art, and one block south of the intersection the Mero Mailbox. In an interview with the LA Times Mero shared, “A lot of people see it as silly, a giant mailbox, but to me it has serious undertones because it’s a mailbox that wouldn’t be in a city. It’s a rural style. Those style of mailboxes come with owning a house — and nobody really owns anything in this area. That’s something out of reach. All the graffiti that gets added to it, I think really adds to it. Real mailboxes get hit with graffiti and damaged, so it takes on some authenticity.” Mero Mailbox replaced a previous work, a red location pin that also sat suspended on top of the street pole. The red location pin would often get recognized as a lolly pop, but after weathering out it was time for a change.

But how does Mero decide where and what to place outdoors? And how much does the location inform the artwork? Does she scout or create to start with? As it turns out, “Sometimes it’s a little bit of both. Like sometimes you walk by a tree stump and you’re like ‘Oh my god I’ve got an idea!’ and other times like the pigeon lady, she’s been in my mind for several years. So I made her and went out looking for the ideas I had… Sometimes it’s the art piece and you think about the location and other times the location gives you the idea.”

Disobedient Citizens is a fun series, Mero describes the theme as a fairy tale with a grim lesson. “They all have a little story, like it was a person who did something wrong and they were converted into that, like a type of purgatory… They are in purgatory because they weren’t good citizens. Like the cigarette guy threw his cigarette butts on the ground so now he is one.” We’ve heard myths of beasts like the Minotaur, born out of human wrongdoing. However, Mero’s hybrid citizens have been punished and transformed for their own misdeeds. Be aware, works like these will only be on view for a couple of hours.

Mero will photograph the sculptures and see how the neighborhood responds and interacts with them before taking them back into her studio. In some cases the community will fall in love with the artwork and do what they can to engage with it or even protect it. For example, if you look up the artwork 9th Street Jazz on her Instagram, you’ll see multiple posts of an ongoing saga with the work. Mero would invite a friend to perform on the built stage, random citizens would take the mannequin’s fedora, but something surprising Mero mentioned was that nearby business owners would come out and protect the work from being tampered with. She also shared other moments when the City and even Metro employees would help her preserve an artwork, whether it was intentional or not.

There are so many things that I learned after talking with Mero. Something that really resonates is her process in showing these works. I love thinking that we stumbled upon her art by chance, and in a sense, their presence is also by chance. Mero explores Downtown Los Angeles by foot, so it makes sense that she will be inspired by the neighborhood and the landscape. When asked about locations she would recommend, she mentioned Grand Central Market, Angel’s Flight, the Bradbury Building, and the Last Bookstore. If you browse through her previous posts you’ll notice that some of these locations have served as places to exhibit artwork. When the City of Los Angeles issued the “Safer at Home” order, Mero discussed that she felt selfish making art while everyone else was stuck indoors. After some time she realized she needed to continue her practice, “I want to keep making art because most people don’t have that other outlet. They can’t go out to galleries or museums. This is the time I want to keep making as much outdoor work as I can.”

I hope that you take these words into consideration and explore throughout the Arts District and Downtown on your spare time. Explore our magical realm, in the Arts District you’ll be shrunk in size with Mero Mailbox towering over you. In Skid Row you’ll find a Phoenix residing in a fire station, once boasting with grandiose flames and now sitting in ashes. Keep an eye out, you may even find our alchemist roaming the streets with a hybrid creature. Whether you are a Los Angeles native, tourist, or transplant these works were intended to be explored by you, welcoming any passerby to engage with them and add their own narrative.

We hope we were able to transform the landscape by bringing S.C. Mero into your life. Please share pictures with Mero and us when you stumble upon her art. Follow Mero’s Instagram account for updates on removals and recent installations.

3 thoughts on “Alchemy in Skid Row, Los Angeles: the Artwork of S.C. Mero

  1. Mero’s artistic interventions are at once critical and comedic! It is the perfect blend of aesthetics and social commentary. She’s indeed an alchemist for making the ordinary a lot more extraordinary, which is especially cathartic in these times. Thanks for the introduction to her work!

    Liked by 1 person

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