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Trading Places: Turkish and American Street Artists Celebrate Cultural Exchange

Completed mural in Istanbul by Levi Ponce and Kristy Sandoval. | Photo: Mehmet Naci Demirkol.
Completed mural in Istanbul by Levi Ponce and Kristy Sandoval. | Photo: Mehmet Naci Demirkol. 

A cross-cultural exchange that bypasses politics and international squabbles has been made possible through the unlikely medium of street art. Four street artists respectively from Los Angeles and Turkey visited one another's countries to paint a series of walls that celebrate an international exchange of style, substance, and education.

Walter Meyer, a former ad agency owner and Los Angeles resident, keeps a close eye on his community. An advocate of public art, he has noticed a growing interest and abundance of street art in Los Angeles as the movement has enjoyed great success inside and outside the professional art community.

The city of Istanbul also holds a special place for Meyer. "I lived in Istanbul for three years and had not visited until last December and I was amazed at the explosion of street art." Meyer was equally enamored by the political messages he saw on the walls of Istanbul: "I found it engaging because it was all over and the political phenomena of street art was quickly washed over by the government."

Pictured left to right: Kristy Sandoval, Wicx, Walter Meyer, Esk Reyn, Levi Ponce.
Pictured left to right: Kristy Sandoval, Wicx, Walter Meyer, Esk Reyn, Levi Ponce.   

Hiring a local guide, Meyer walked over five miles and saw hundreds of images on the walls of Istanbul as he toured the streets with some of the local experts. The abundance of censorship and political outrage in Turkey prompted many artists to take their messages to the street. Writing on public walls has historically been a method for the voices of the voiceless to be heard. These cries are unimpeded by galleries and represent views that often are frustrated. Meyer was quick to pick up on these themes.

Shortly after this experience Meyer "took courses at UCLA and one of the courses was about a street art explosion." He also read a cover story about murals in Pacoima in Ventura magazine with similar social issues. An art history buff, Meyer is equally drawn to Islamic art and in an attempt to connect these disparate points, he was prompted to organize a cross-cultural exchange that would place artists from each of these very different contexts in one-another's countries to create a rich tapestry of meaning made visible on the walls of L.A. and Istanbul.

[Click to enlarge] Completed mural in Istanbul by Levi Ponce and Kristy Sandoval. | Photo: Mehmet Naci Demirkol.
[Click to enlarge] Completed mural in Istanbul by Levi Ponce and Kristy Sandoval. | Photo: Mehmet Naci Demirkol.
Kristy Sandoval applies detail to mural in Istanbul. | Photo: Mehmet Naci Demirkol.
Kristy Sandoval applies detail to mural in Istanbul. | Photo: Mehmet Naci Demirkol.   

Meyer's idea grew into a formal proposal that was passed on to local government officials, consulates, and interested supporters that carried this idea forward: "Every step that I took led to a different connection. Within a few weeks the municipal government had approved it."

American artists Levi Ponce and Kristy Sandoval traveled to Turkey to collaborate on a mural at the 2015 Mural Istanbul Festival in Kadikoy. They are the first Americans to paint in the festival. Sandoval says of the trip: "Painting in Turkey was a great experience. Everyone was very welcoming and friendly and grateful for the public art we added to the landscape. [We] made friends with local artists and community who all came out to thank us for the work we were doing." Ponce and Sandoval's large mural in Turkey emphasized the uniqueness of humans. The symbolism of the crows represent elders, while the mother and child (a replica of the same subject on the dome of Hagia Sophia in Istanbul) symbolizes youth, joys and triumphs. Meyer shed light on the context: "The Gezi Park protests in Istanbul of 2013 sparked a lot of sloganeering and other graffiti, nearly all of it now painted over. While such political works continue to be immediately painted over by the municipal governments, these activities inspired an explosion in mural and graffiti art throughout Istanbul." Festivals and corporate clients have encouraged the growing interest in mural works, which has made the art form more palatable.

Pacoima mural in progress. | Photo: Walter Meyer.
Pacoima mural in progress. | Photo: Walter Meyer.

Istanbul based artists Wicx and Esk Reyn were invited to paint in Pacoima on Mural Mile -- a collection of impressive art works that have developed over the years. The first contribution to these walls by foreign artists, their piece joins a collection of 30+ murals by local artists. Their collaborative mural features humans in a natural environment in contrast to an urban setting. Juxtaposing these contexts creates a tension on what gives us support and energy for what makes us human.

Wicx states: "We had a good idea of what L.A. was going to be like, both the people and the place, from the many American films and television we've seen growing up. What we were most curious about was seeing the classic mural culture here that we'd seen on the Internet."

Esk Reyn explains: "In L.A., mural street art has been around for many years, and seems to reflect a lot of cultural influence that has come from South America, including Mexico, with the people who immigrated here. Istanbul, on the other hand, is really in its infancy as far as graffiti and street art are concerned."

Istanbul mural in progess. | Photo: Mehmet Naci Demirkol.
Istanbul mural in progess. | Photo: Mehmet Naci Demirkol

Another aspect of L.A. that may contribute to its long history of mural-making, Esk Reyn says, may be the city's physical characteristics too. "For us, compared to Istanbul, it doesn't feel as city-like or urban. Here there are many shorter buildings with walls just perfect for painting on, whereas the walls in Istanbul are primarily those of big apartment buildings and other very tall structures."

Here in L.A., Esk Reyn says, the street artists are very experienced in presenting a 'slice of life' from people's lives and cultures, using the walls as a vehicle for communication. "We Istanbul artists want to learn how to do that as well. After all, walls have been used to communicate such things since the days of the prehistoric cave paintings."

Meyer's experience with street art in Los Angeles and Istanbul fueled this unique exchange. While it was a cultural experience for the artists involved, it also offered a comparison between politically fueled work, creative styles, and the personal nature of street art in the United States and overseas. As street art moves further from guerilla issues and causes, and becomes more of an extension of medium for artists, one of the core aspects of street art that originated from graffiti is lost to the professional art world. Instead, cultural exchanges like this one redirect the energy and vitality of street art toward community and education. The emphasis on humanity by each set of artists emphasizes the importance of individuals and our collective relationship with urban and natural environments.

Levi Ponce painting in Istanbul. | Photo: Mehmet Naci Demirkol.
Levi Ponce painting in Istanbul. | Photo: Mehmet Naci Demirkol.

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Top image: Completed mural in Istanbul by Levi Ponce and Kristy Sandoval. | Photo: Mehmet Naci Demirkol.

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