It’s hard to imagine today, given the explosive development the area has seen recently, but just five years ago Santa Barbara’s Funk Zone was still something of a no-man’s land, and property owners there were battling to manage urban blight rather than handle hipster foot traffic. At that time, the low-slung building at the corner of Mason and Helena streets, which will soon be demolished to make way for the La Entrada Hotel project, was an eyesore, afflicted with chronic broken windows and maintained with vigorous coats of white paint that ordinarily only lasted until the next graffiti artist rolled up and tagged it again.
This was the situation back in 2009 when Laura Inks, now Laura Inks Bodine, a tireless arts activist and community organizer, first encountered Ray Wicken, an executive with the investment group Mountain Funding. Wicken was in Santa Barbara checking on some distressed property that Mountain Funding had just acquired, and he was enjoying a beverage at the Boathouse restaurant, which at that time was the closest watering hole to Mason and Helena. Inks Bodine had been introduced to the Funk Zone by her artist husband, Clay Bodine, who had a studio at Mason and Helena. When she overheard Wicken’s conversation, she quickly introduced herself as someone who could help Mountain Funding keep the walls and windows of their building in better shape.
Thus began an iconic chapter in Santa Barbara’s public art history. For five years now, the Artists Making a Street Scene (AMASS) project has been offering independent creative people a very visible public canvas on which to present their work. Approximately every four months, the large horizontal mural spaces on the exterior wall along Mason Street “turn over,” meaning that a new set of artists is notified that their chance to work there has come. The turnover is a process that involves, as does the whole AMASS project, the personal touch of Laura Inks Bodine. Even though she’s now living in Cuenca, Ecuador, Inks Bodine has continued to coordinate these switches by email and on Facebook.
This weekend, beginning at 4 p.m. on Friday and lasting until the light fades on Sunday evening, the AMASS project will be having its last hurrah. According to the sources at the construction company handling the project, the building, which has long been slated for demolition, will finally be knocked down at the end of this month. In the meantime, Inks Bodine will be back in town to rally the artists of AMASS for one more round of street painting. In preparation for the event, she has procured materials and prepared the site, but she’s also collected the names of all the artists who have painted murals there since the project began.
Although these murals and others elsewhere in the neighborhood have become perhaps the most recognizable symbol of the new creative scene that’s arisen in the Funk Zone, the AMASS project was never defined by official grants or formal contracts. This may be part of the reason it’s been such a success, given all the restrictions that more formal arrangements typically involve. While Inks Bodine characterizes the AMASS mural gallery as a “renegade experiment,” the impact on the 150 artists whose work has been shown there has been quite tangible, especially if you factor in the magnifying and broadcasting effects of social media. From the beginning, AMASS has enjoyed serious popularity on Facebook, Instagram, and Tumblr, where street art now routinely reaches a global audience.
From Wallace Piatt’s oft-photographed and Roy Lichtenstein–inspired “LOOK, look what you’ve done to State Street” piece and onward, the Funk Zone has become the place to go for people looking to see something fresh on the streets of Santa Barbara. In the process, it has also become the spot where people go to have their picture taken hanging out on the coolest block in town. Whether it’s two high school students walking over from Hot Spots or a professional photographer’s team and a professional model arriving from LAX, street art has given picture-perfect Santa Barbara a jolt of social-media buzz. The S.B. street art scene spawned its first star in David Flores, who now routinely captures commissions that his pal Shepard Fairey would envy. Flores got his start as an artist hanging around at the Church of Skatan on Gutierrez Street, where he threw up some of his earliest big wall pieces, including the giant skateboarding Max from Where the Wild Things Are that got him noticed internationally. Today he’s constantly on the move, creating huge images for buildings in places like Tokyo. For an artist like Flores, what’s happening in the Funk Zone works better than a traditional gallery because it’s on the street and thus readily available for transmission by anyone with a camera or phone.
Although inevitably some will see the demolition of the building and the close of this chapter of AMASS as a dead end for art in the Funk Zone, as long as street artists keep finding walls in the area to paint, the legacy will continue. “The Funk Zone scene is presently frenetic, rife in promises kept and unkept,” said Alan Macy, a founding member of the Fishbon collective and a longtime observer of the culture that bubbles up between the train tracks and Cabrillo. What, if anything, the La Entrada project will do to keep this outdoor gallery going remains to be seen. But for Laura Inks Bodine and AMASS, the recognition keeps coming. As Santa Barbara County Arts commissioner Ginny Brush put it, “The AMASS Gallery is the brainchild of Laura Inks … . It has served as a model showcasing how public art and greater community engagement can combat blight and foster greater community pride. The AMASS Gallery has served as a model and a catalyst for the city’s recent increased support for temporary public art murals.” Now let’s spend this weekend painting and making the street scene one more time.