Bobby Ruiz and G. James Daichendt know they’re something of an odd pairing. On the surface, the two friends could not be more different. One is a heavily inked Chicano, best known as the CEO and co-founder of local clothing company Tribal Streetwear. The other is a more buttoned-down art history professor at Point Loma Nazarene University. To hear them tell it, however, the two bonded over a mutual appreciation of street art and graffiti.
“I’ve written books about Shepard Fairey and Kenny Sharp and L.A. street art, as well as a lot of academic articles,” says Daichendt, who moved to San Diego seven years ago. “When I moved here, I knew Bobby was central to the scene, not just in street art and graffiti, but lowriders, tattoos and Chicano culture. His name just kept coming up over and over again. I reached out to basically say hi, just a common courtesy call, and we hit it off as friends right away.”
Their friendship and shared love of an often misunderstood and misrepresented style of art has culminated in “Street Legacy: SoCal Style Masters,” a new exhibition at the California Center for the Arts, Escondido (CCAE). Working as co-curators, Ruiz and Daichendt have wrangled over 100 regional artists in myriad genres and mediums. Rather than focus on one area of street art culture — graffiti, for example — Ruiz says he and Daichendt opted to take a more all-encompassing approach to the exhibition to include skateboarding and surfing art, as well as tattoos and lowriders.
“Having worked with the majority of these artists through my clothing brand, as well as Jim’s network of artists, it’s kind of always been a vision to combine all these street artists — graffiti artists, Chicano artists, tattoo artists, all of them,” says Ruiz, who first began curating pop-up art shows and lowrider events over 30 years ago while he was at San Diego State University. “It’s exciting and something that was kind of meant to be.”
Ruiz hits home a more understated but nonetheless relevant point: That while street art and culture are now ubiquitous, having permeated nearly every aspect of the contemporary art and fashion worlds, it’s had a long road to becoming accepted by the public at large. Both Ruiz and Daichendt are old enough to remember the days when these cultures were seen as indecorous and even dangerous.
“It really is validating in a way,” Ruiz says. “It’s at the forefront now and you have graffiti writers that are selling paintings for hundreds of thousands of dollars. You’re seeing people like Banksy, Shepard Fairey or Mister Cartoon, or so many other artists that are in this show like Mear One and David Flores, that have just kind of taken over contemporary art, if you will.”
One of those artists, Dave “Persue” Ross, has been doing spray-painted murals in San Diego for nearly 20 years. Known for his signature BunnyKitty character, he’s seen his career go from doing secret late-night paintings in alleyways to being commissioned to do custom pieces on the sides of buildings in places such as Miami, Shanghai and New York City.
“It feels pretty cool to being doing a show like this especially in San Diego, which has historically been a conservative city and our artform, and the lifestyle we’re displaying, isn’t very ‘conservative,’ ” says Persue, who recently moved back to San Diego after living in New York City for a few years. “I think that these institutions, museums and galleries, the ones that might not have considered showing artists working in our genre, they are realizing there’s a gap between the art movements — that there’s a large demographic that they may not be reaching and that our art speaks to that demographic.”
This shift toward institutional embracement of street art and culture began in the mid-2000s, culminating locally with “Viva la Revolución: A Dialogue with the Urban Landscape,” a 2010 exhibition of street art at the downtown location of the Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego. While the museum tapped international names such as Fairey, Space Invader and JR to produce new works throughout the city, one need only look to cultural landmarks like Chicano Park, or to galleries such as Voz Alta, La Bodega and Visual gallery+design, to see how the city had come to embrace the varying mediums and movements that constitute street art. A 2021 study of social media hashtag and engagement data by the Singulart website revealed San Diego to be one of the top five “street art hotspots” in the United States.
“Graffiti and street art has very much entered the gallery and the museum space, and you can see that postmodern blur between the contemporary art world and those subject areas,” Daichendt says “We can go back to Keith Haring and (Jean-Michel) Basquiat that really paved that way.”
When Daichendt and Ruiz first began conceptualizing “Street Legacy” three years ago, they knew it was imperative to include legends in the scene such as Joker, Fairey and Mike Giant, but also wanted to include newer names like local artists Mr B Baby and Chikle. In addition to graffiti and murals, the multi-room exhibition will include works devoted to skateboarding and surfing, as well as tattoos, hip hop, breaking, punk, lowriders and custom car culture. Ruiz says the commingling and cross-pollinating of these cultures is one of the many things that made the SoCal scene unique.
“I always tell people across the whole world where I’m from and there’s always this fascination with Southern California,” Ruiz says. “And why is Southern California the way that it is? I think there’s several answers to that: We’re on the coast, we live by the beach, it’s got perfect weather, but there’s also the ethnicities and our neighborhoods. It’s more than just a melting pot — it’s that we’re all exposed to each other, because we live in these neighborhoods with so many cool things happening around us.”
What’s more, both Ruiz and Daichendt wanted to include art forms such as tattooing and lowrider culture, which they felt were still either misrepresented or misunderstood. One of the planned events for “Street Masters” is a lowrider car show on June 25 from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. at neighboring Grape Street Park in Escondido.
“It’s interesting to see these different stages of acceptance of low and high art, and how those lines are blurred, but also still separated,” Daichendt says. “I just love when those things can be broken down, and the more that we can help people look and reflect on these things carefully, they’re just going to enjoy so much more of what Southern California and San Diego has to offer visually and culturally. So, this is really a show that’s representative of that and of what we care about.”
‘Street Legacy: SoCal Style Masters’
When: 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. June 25-Aug. 28. Reception: 6 p.m. June 24.
Where: California Center for the Arts, Escondido, 340 N. Escondido Blvd., Escondido
Admission: Tickets for various events tied to this exhibition range from free to $20
Phone: (760) 839-4138
Combs is a freelance writer.