Category Archives: Venice Beach People

These posts include video and written interviews with the people who make Venice Beach California interesting!

Venice Graffiti Artist Paints New Life After Time In Jail

Graffiti artist Narrator was recently hired to paint a mural at Great Western Steak and Hoagie Company (pictured above) at 1720 Lincoln Blvd., Venice. The mural is not his first nor will it be his last, but it wasn’t always the case that his art has been a welcome commission in the City of Los Angeles.

In 2009 while studying fine arts at Santa Monica College, Narrator was offered a place in a mentorship program and was planning to transfer to another college. However, an early morning painting session on a wall of the 405 Freeway changed all that.

“It was 3 am and me and one of my crew were just finishing up covering a 20 foot wall on the 405,” he said. “We had done this huge block letter piece. Next thing, we saw lights flashing. We knew it was the cops so we took off up the embankment. Then the helicopter was coming down on us.”

By the time Narrator and his accomplice had made it back to their car the police had them surrounded.

“There was about six to eight squad cars, maybe 30 cops, and they had Tasers pointed at us so we kind of had to surrender,” he said. “I missed my first art show because I was in jail.”

After jail, with a felony against his name, Narrator could no longer qualify for financial aid and could not afford to continue college.

He also had debts to pay.

“I copped a hefty fine and was locked up in the same cell as murderers,” he said. “It changed my perspective. I decided it was better to get paid instead of having to pay to do what I wanted to do because I was doing it illegally.”

This is when he began holding his own art shows and doing art direction for music videos – this led to private commissions for murals.

His murals are now all around Los Angeles, at 5418 West Adams Blvd. across from Delicious Pizza, in downtown Los Angeles at a recycling center, and at recording studios in Marina del Rey and Miracle Mile.

As tough as it was doing time for his art, jail was not the worst graffiti connected incident for Narrator.

“You’re drawing on walls and you’re in these neighborhoods and they’re supposedly some gang’s territory and if these gangs see your stuff up, sometimes they’ll hunt for you,” he said. “For instance they saw one of my homies and then randomly at a party they shot him for graffiti, he claimed his crew and his name, and they just shot him point blank.”

Narrator feels graffiti artists today are akin to rappers, and the poets that came before them.

“In the beginning people don’t really like it because they don’t understand it, then in the end everybody loves it,” he said.

The artist said his works have evolved into something more positive over the years.

“Now I get a thrill and a rush when I’m doing a huge wall for the community; it’s a bigger thing,” he said. “It’s not just about me, it’s for everyone else now.”

Busking in Venice Beach

With 14 million tourists gawking through our inviting free speech zone of Venice Beach each year, we are a magnet for buskers – aka street performers – looking to reach new audiences and make a few bucks with their talents. But just because all of the world is a stage doesn’t mean you should be on it!

There are only a small handful of tolerable musicians on the boardwalk, and fewer that deserve mention.

The Piano Man, as I call him, is a soulful musician with a savant’ style. Each morning he wheels out a grand piano from his apartment and sets up shop in front of The Sidewalk Cafe.

He elicits standing ovations and tears from the crowd with his folkloric renditions, such as Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone.” That song being performed, on that boardwalk, by those guys, it is so grimy and raw. It’s about as real as it gets.

Local Love: We have performers in the neighborhood that are major assets to the community, like Vinnie Caggiano, eclectic guitarist and local Venetian for 20 plus years. His electro classical remixes of songs like “Strawberry Fields Forever,” will put one into a surreal, OMG! I live in the coolest place on the planet kinda’ mood.

Vinnie Caggiano, a Venetian of more than 20 years, says he would rather busk outside a café on Westminster for less money than deal with the craziness of the Boardwalk. Photos by Gabrielle Lee
Vinnie Caggiano, a Venetian of more than 20 years, says he would rather busk outside a café on Westminster for less money than deal with the craziness of the Boardwalk. Photos by Gabrielle Lee

“I’m not a mercenary,” says Vinnie. “I sat here yesterday and made $10 when I could have made $80 on the Boardwalk! There is no way I’m gonna put my self through that!”

Instead, he plays outside side of a jumpin’ cafe on Westminster. With CDs for sale and his business cards on a little table, it’s a way to promote himself as a teacher and performer. He gave me a mini lesson on the spot. His eyes lit up from behind red sunglasses as his soul oozed love of guitar, teaching and sharing his gift. This is what its all about!

Exceptional talent like Vinnie would be the rule if the Venice Beach community were to have our way.

“I’d really like to see the caliber of the talent on the boardwalk go up,” says Vinnie. “I laughed thinking back to earlier in the week when I was speaking with some non-local street performers who were trying to hustle up a quick buck.”

Talent Pit Stop: “Am I in the right spot? What time do the crowds come?” The un-initiated have a steep learning curve. The Venice Boardwalk just chews them up and spits them right out. It is an intense river of energy that can be daunting for non-local and unsuspecting visitor who is more likely to have their valuables ripped off than they are to make bank while here…and that can happen within their first five minutes of setting up!

I met Andre, a 20-year-old guitarist, on Rose Ave. earlier this week.

Amidst his homelessness, Andre toggles back and forth between St. Joes shelter at night and the Boardwalk during the day.

“You either play for God or money,” Andre says. “I play for God.”

However, when asked if I could take his picture for Yo! Venice, he wanted money.

In my opinion, performers like Andre are not assets, just ass wipes. This city has to take you in, not you force yourself on us!

Email Gabrielle at yo@yovenice.com.

Is LAPD Chief Charlie Beck A Climate-Change Denier?

Columnist Mark Ryavec.
Columnist Mark Ryavec.

By Mark Ryavec

This might appear to be an odd question, but it has significant implications for the safety of residents and visitors in Venice.

Anyone who has lived here for the last three decades, as I have, knows that the weather we have been having is bizarre. Cool and rainy is the historical weather in winter and early spring. But since Jan. 1 we have had 18 days above 77 degrees and 10 days above 84 degrees. We hit 93 on March 14.

These conditions draw many of Los Angeles County’s 10 million residents to the beach to cool off, and a good proportion of them come to Venice. Estimates range from 11 to 16 million visitors annually. This causes a severe strain on public safety, one that is apparently not understood at the highest levels of the Los Angeles Police Department. It appears that Chief Charlie Beck and his management team do not accept that climate patterns have changed and that visitor flow to Venice has increased with it.

Two LAPD officers recently told me that on these very hot days they are “slammed” and cannot keep up with the situation. The huge increase in visitors requires that they focus on gang suppression, traffic violations, accidents, an increase in crime, more radio calls, etc.

This distracts them from enforcing quality-of-life ordinances that are important to residents, like the ban on open alcohol containers in public, harassment of residents, trespass on private property, public defecation and urination, drug dealing, illegal camping along Venice Beach and total blockage of sidewalks by transient encampments, a violation of the American with Disabilities Act. This is because enforcing these laws will usually take two officers off the beach for at least half a day to transport and book the offenders. The Beach Detail commander and officers have told me that officers cannot in good conscience be absent from Venice when the visitor numbers skyrocket.

The LAPD focus on visitors has other ramifications. For example, a plan to fully enforce the 12-5 am Beach Curfew and the ban on camping in the Venice Beach Recreation Area – including an LAPD presence in the Venice Beach Recreation Area (VBRA) at 4 am – is on hold due to the diversion of staffing to daytime hours. The result is that the VBRA continues to be a powerful magnet for transients from across the nation, including a percentage of criminals, mentally ill and the drug-addled. On a recent stroll along Venice Beach at
5 am I counted at least 26 people camping in tents, lean-tos or out in the open in sleeping bags. (Due to the poor lighting there may have been many more that I could not see.) It only takes one of these disaffected transients in a drugged-out state to lose it and someone gets hurt or killed, as we saw with the vehicle assault that left Italian newlywed Alice Gruppioni dead and 16 people injured on the Boardwalk less than two years ago. And as we witnessed just recently when a transient bit off the tip of the finger of Clabe Harley, the owner of the Cow’s End restaurant on Washington Boulevard. The transient had been harassing Harley’s customers. When Harley moved in to defend his customers, the transient attacked him – with his teeth.

As many Venetians know, Venice receives a summer compliment of about 35 additional officers starting with Memorial Day. (Some years ago, when there were several incidents of gang-related violence on the Boardwalk, the number was higher). The purpose of the additional officers is to cope with the huge increase in visitors drawn by warmer weather and school vacations. And to prevent gang conflicts that can quickly careen out of control and cause harm to innocent bystanders.

With the very hot temperatures we’ve been seeing, the LAPD should have followed the crowds and implemented demand staffing that automatically put additional officers in Venice when the temperature is predicted to go over 74 degrees.

Captain Nicole Alberca, the new commander of Pacific Division, told me recently that she had requested additional staffing for hot days but been told by LAPD headquarters to find the officers by reassigning within Pacific Division. But the visitors are largely from other parts of Los Angeles or the County’s other 87 cities, not from just Pacific Division.

If the increased summer staffing is to address the increase in visitors than logically Venice deserves the increase whenever the temps go over 74 degrees. There is even a good argument that County sheriffs should also be posted here since a large number of visitors are not from the City of Los Angeles but rather from other cities in the County of Los Angeles or from points farther away.

Captain Alberca acknowledged that when thousands of our inland neighbors seek relief in Venice from extreme temperatures, the LAPD presence is very thin in comparison with the size of the crowds and that attention to resident concerns suffers.

We have long passed the time that City and County leaders should have realized that Venice is the most popular, free recreational destination in Southern California and that it requires significantly more police resources from both the City and County whenever temperatures go up, which is now happening more frequently due to climate change.

Mark Ryavec is president of the Venice Stakeholders Association (venicestakeholdersassociation.org).

Yo! Always Remember That I Had A Great life! – Bret Haller (8.9.1968 – 4.9.2014)

By Gi & Eric Haller

Had it not been for Bret’s wishes to “Keep it light!”, many of us would have been wrapped in the darkness of tears when we gathered together at Windward Beach for his memorial April 29, 2014.

He had insisted we gather together not to mourn, but to celebrate good times and memories.

As today, April 9, is the one-year anniversary of his passing, and a celebration of a milestone in the growth of one of his life works with the launch of Yo! Venice’s print version, we share a few memories of the man who became known to many in Venice simply as “Yo!”

Bret spent many of his formative years traveling to movie locations with the family, he attended schools in various states and countries, and developed friendships that bridged many wide cultural, economic, and social divides.

From the beginning, Bret’s life had a bit of a circus quality to it, but he loved the adventure and the ever-changing cast of characters.
One-day years ago at the one-room K-8 Pine Creek School in Paradise Valley, Montana, the children were put in lockdown. It wasn’t a bomb scare or campus shooter. It was spring and the fermenting apples in the orchard adjacent the school were a magnet for Yellowstone bears, who had gorged themselves and were now loitering outside the school, stone drunk.

Bret learned a couple of life lessons.

One, you never want to mix it up with drunk bears. And two, friendships, loyalty, and shared memories are always to be valued. Lorca Hjortsberg, who shared her crayons with him in the school’s basement on that day in Montana, was here decades later to pay respects at the memorial in Venice.

High school brought less traveling, more studying, and typical southern California teen activities: garage bands, skateboards, bicycles, motorcycles, cars, burritos, beaches, and babes.

Bret, a cellist in his early years, switched over to playing the electric bass in Middle School. After college, Bret worked on films, raced cars and bikes, rebuilt a few houses, traveled a lot, and played and recorded with several bands.

He usually opted out of the spotlight, choosing instead to anchor the music as few can with his driving bass lines. So many around Venice said they connected with Bret through his avid support of music, and wherever he is, he is surely smiling about that.

The birth of Yo! came about when Bret and his friend Keri were looking online for good restaurant suggestions, and in particular for Bret’s favorite, a club sandwich.

Finding a lack of quality information, they launched a community-centered site that encouraged reader participation. Keri later decided to move in order to continue her Veterinarian studies, leaving Bret as the Yo! ringleader. Clearly Bret’s somewhat minimalistic approach resonated with the community because the site grew quickly as a source of information and soundboard for discussing the rapid changes that were affecting Venice.

Bret strongly believed in the voices of the people being heard, and the circus-like quality of his youth probably prepared him for herding cats in the rich diversity of personalities and opinions that is a Venice community forum.

There were lots of contentious exchanges throughout the years, even a few drunken bears (or were those drunken trolls?). Strong loyal friendships were forged. There were cool bands, tragic stories, awesome art openings, beautiful photos, helicopter sightings, new businesses, business shutterings, charity events, school activities, art walks, historical preservation efforts, skate parks, great meals, seemingly intractable social problems, cold drinks, laughs, tears.
In short, everything life has to offer, Venice offers in spades, and Bret dove in and brought it to us. He tried to keep a degree of anonymity, to stay out of the spotlight, but throughout he was the anchor that kept it all together.

Mike Halle, an old friend from high school, observed that, when Bret visited for a few months in Telluride, Colorado, he became the “unofficial mayor”.

Venice of course doesn’t have a mayor, but sometimes walking Venetian streets or the canals with him, you got the sense Bret might be in the running if there were ever a race. You couldn’t walk a block without someone waving at him and needing to tell or ask about something, or Bret saying, “hold on a sec, I gotta stop in here to talk with these people”. He was a “super connector”, always connecting dots between people who might otherwise not have seen a connection. Occasionally he was insistent when people were hesitant, pushing them to reach out, “trust me, you gotta talk to this dude. Here, he’s on the line, talk to him”. Most often, he was right.

In the final months of his life, even as he lay on gurneys in pre-op for various procedures, or sat in a recliner in his oncologist’s clinic with a bag of chemo pumping into his vein, Bret was never without the laptop, working on posts for Yo!, messaging with people or calling friends to find out what was going on back in Venice. He was taking photos in the hospital during his last week alive. The day before he died he was joking around and high-fiving the nurses at Cedars-Sinai.

Fifteen minutes before he died, he had raised his doctors’ and family’s spirits with the remarkable recovery he seemed to have made. And then, when everyone had left the room, he quietly slipped off.

To this day, the facial recognition on his best friend Paul’s Xbox occasionally inexplicably sees Bret on the couch where he often sat during the last few years of his life, and it automatically logs him in. He may not be logging on to Yo! to post anymore, but he lives on through the vast and deep network of connections he created in this community and beyond, and today those connections continue to grow.