Art As Activism: Skid Robot Draws Attention to L.A.’s Homeless Crisis
Evolving art to be part of the solution
All images courtesy of Skid Robot
At the heart of downtown Los Angeles — just within walking distance of City Hall and some of the metropolis’ proudest civic institutions — festers a home-grown social health crisis. This is “Skid Row,” the single largest concentration of homeless people in the nation. Every day, across the area’s 54-block spread, thousands of individuals and families sleep on the sidewalk. They take refuge under makeshift tarps and inside tents. All but blocks from elected officials and the flow of proverbial milk and honey.
Bunked up with them each night are the assumptions widely-held by the surrounding community as to what brought them here. “They are all mentally ill.” “Living on the streets is a choice.” “They’ve done it to themselves.” With each of these myths, the gulf between “us” and “them” widens, leaving the connection of our shared humanity to short-circuit. We find ourselves at only the ground floor of common understanding, yet no closer to realistic solutions.
How do we house an estimated 50,000+ people? What is the most plausible housing solution? No matter the responses bantered about, art and design are not likely to appear as part of the fix. Unless, you are Skid Robot.
Born and bred in L.A., the activist-as-artist has found his creative voice in advocating for those caught in the squalor of Skid Row. What began as spray-painting thought bubbles, dream homes, and beachscapes on the walls of Skid Row has morphed into true friendship with the community and a personal calling to be part of the solution. The anonymous artist has linked up with a like-minded network of advocates, such as Elvis Summers of My Tiny House Project LA, and ASHLA. The mission? To raise the funds to purchase vacant lots zoned for housing and to use pre-fabricated container homes to provide shelter to the homeless. Aptly coined The Living Art Project, the housing units would be painted with murals by artists from all over the world turning, each container into a work of art.
We caught up with Skid Robot to learn more.
Mass Appeal: As you’ve experienced it, what aspects of this crisis do you feel are missing from the ongoing dialogue on homelessness?
Skid Robot: What’s missing from the dialogue is the truth of the matter. The truth being that it actually costs tax payers more money to have people homeless than it does to provide a basic standard of living for them. These numbers don’t lie. One particular aspect of the crisis is the lack of executive action from elected officials nationwide. From City Hall to the Oval Office, simply not enough is being done. Instead of offering a solution to the problem, they’d rather make being a homeless a crime. Putting a law into place that makes being homeless a crime only serves the prison-for-profit industry and has no positive effect whatsoever on resolving the issue. It only makes the situation worse.
What’s also missing from the ongoing dialogue is the actual solution to the problem. The social illness of homelessness is very complex, but solving the problem is fairly simple. The answer is the Housing First model (an approach that immediately moves a homeless person or family from the streets into their own apartment). Homeless people need homes. It’s self-explanatory.
How is it that we as a collective community have accepted an out-of-sight-out-of-mind policy with homelessness?
In my opinion, we, as a collective community, have been taught to believe that homeless people make a conscious choice to live that way. This is how people justify an out-of-sight, out-of-mind mentality, by viewing those who are living on the street as being sub-human and having no value whatsoever.
Hollywood has constantly projected stereotypes of the homeless creating a bias and distorted perception of them, and because of that, people are more inclined to criticize and be judgmental rather than empathetic. Everyone has a story to tell, and they all have different reasons for being homeless. The general perception of the homeless though is that they’re all alcoholics and addicts, which frankly isn’t true.
In a sense, does there have to be a demystifying of who is homeless? People don’t always get that it can so easily be any of us. You sort of zero in on that through your work by focusing on the commonalities—the hopes, the dreams, the humanity.
One of the elements of my work is to focus on the humanity of the individuals I meet. By sharing their stories, people can make the human connection and begin to develop a sense of compassion and deeper understanding towards the homeless issue. You never know who suffered a traumatic event which caused them to lose control of their life and eventually their minds. This story relates to a lot of the homeless people who are impaired by their mental disabilities and that have no one to care or provide for them. They’re the discarded and the abandoned. Every human life is sacred and, unfortunately, we have lost complete sight of this. With my art, I hope to help bring back of sense of humanity to people.
How did your journey become entwined in the stories of Skid Row?
As the saying goes, “From humble beginnings come great things.” I can’t help but think back to where it all started. Who would’ve thought that so much would come about from a can of spray paint? My journey became more entwined with each and every piece I painted. Every troubled soul I met who shared their story with me was an influence to continue with this project. I felt compelled to help them all, and to use my art as the means to make a difference. I am a human being and feel that housing should be a human right. It bothers me deeply to see so many people living in such terrible conditions, not only on Skid Row, but around the world. I have traveled to other countries and have witnessed extreme poverty at its worst. This is a global issue that’s plaguing our world.
Was activism always a thread of your life and art practice?
I’ve always been passionate about social justice issues. The music I listened to growing up played a major part in shaping how I would view politics and the world we live in. Bands like Rage Against the Machine. Their music videos sparked my interest in all things revolutionary. I would read books on Che, Subcomandante Marcos, and Zapata. The Autobiography of Malcolm X had the most profound effect on me too. It was all their stories that made me believe that one person can really change the world, and in turn, gave me the belief that I can change the world with my art.
Was there a tipping point for you, where the need to try to implement solutions for the homeless community became a calling?
The tipping point was when I realized that there was only so much I can do with a spray can and had to evolve the art to be part of the actual solution. My first step in this direction was the living room installation for The Birdman. It was bringing the art into the 3rd dimension by actually providing a real living room for my homeless friend who lived under the 101 freeway. It had a profound effect on him and was the catalyst for change. The Birdman cut his hair and shaved his beard for the first time in decades, and shortly after that, he applied for low-income housing through a non-profit that assists the elderly. Now, he is living comfortably in a nice apartment near MacArthur Park.
How did you come to collaborate with Elvis Summers? How was The Living Art Project born? Is it almost like a coalition of organizations and artist-activists?
I got a call from a friend in Arizona who happened to be hanging with Elvis, and he mentioned that he knew me. He connected us and we got to talking on the phone. We began discussing ideas on how we could collaborate, and immediately it like felt we were going to make some serious noise working together.
The Living Art Project was born out a vision that the social illness of homelessness can be solved through the power of art and design. Art can change a human’s perception of reality, and with this, we can change the world we live in.
The project is definitely cross-pollinating with other activist and organizations to bring a housing solution into reality. The network continues to expand, and it’s been uplifting to work with so many inspiring individuals.
The project’s direct aim is solutions. This is not some a-portion-of-the-proceeds type stuff. It aims to provide actual temporary shelter to individuals. Can you elaborate on the viable solutions the project has mapped out?
A viable solution that has been envisioned is using pre-fabricated container homes as alternative housing for both individuals and families. They start at $25,000 for a 8×20 unit that comes with all the amenities of a studio apartment. They are primarily used for the military and would be ideal for an immediate housing solution for homeless veterans. The larger models start at $150,000, and could be used to house a small family. The containers would be painted with a wonderful mural from well-known artist, turning wherever these homes are placed into an outdoor art gallery that the community can appreciate. We’ll invite artists, both local and international, to paint a unique container, and at the same time, it’ll be providing someone a place to live. This is what makes it “living art.” The next step is raising the capital to buy property that is zoned for housing, and then purchasing one container. We plan to start on the micro-level in order to set the example in hopes of taking this nationwide.
Are there long-term goals of taking the project globally?
Definitely. It’s a global issue. This corrupted system of poverty-by-design must be destroyed worldwide. The larger the project grows, the more we’ll connect with others across the globe to create a worldwide movement demanding the right to shelter for all human beings.
While there has been a push—even at the federal level—for the homeless crisis to be approached as a social health issue, not a criminal one, the L.A. community has been facing new sweeps ordinances. The police have been impounding and destroying several of the “tiny houses” that Elvis Summers built through the Tiny House Huge Purpose project, while still providing no alternative housing. What’s been going on? Where does that project stand? Is there legal recourse for such actions?
As far as the project stands in regards to the tiny houses, there isn’t much that can be done at the moment. We can continue building them, however, the city is keen to destroying them, so it would be a waste. What would help would be a piece of property where some of these tiny houses could be placed until a more permanent solution is brought about. As far as the legal matters go, the tiny houses were technically property of my associate Elvis Summers, and for what I understand he will be taking legal action.
Do you think there needs to be a shift of thinking within the culture of the LAPD too, away from viewing these encampments as crime rings?
I think the LAPD handles the situation the best they can. The reality is that there is a criminal element that exists when dealing with the homeless encampments. Some of these tents can sometimes be used for stashing, selling dope, and slamming dope, and as makeshift hotels for prostitution. Not everyone is involved with these type of activities however. But, by just being in the environment makes them a suspect. Officer Deon Joseph of the Skid Row Division sets a great example on how all officers should be dealing with the issue—by treating the homeless with respect and getting involved to help fix the situation on a humanitarian level. If we had more officers like him, we’d be making a lot more ground on alleviating the human tragedy that is going down in Skid Row.
What can we, as individuals, do to be part of the necessary change—in L.A. and in our own communities?
Individuals can take personal action in their own communities by working with others who are fighting the same battle. Find the battlefield that you want to be on. You can give some time to a shelter or advocacy group, make food and clothing donations, attend public meetings about homelessness, or take it to the streets with art and protesting. With enough people taking matters into their own hands, it will cause a ripple effect of positive actions that can truly bring about some unity among all people. It will be the driving force for a real change in L.A. and nationwide.
To learn more, please visit The Living Art Project’s GoFundMe page here.