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Check Out Thomas Johnson’s Story

Today we’d like to introduce you to Thomas Johnson.

Hi Thomas, can you start by introducing yourself? We’d love to learn more about how you got to where you are today?
I moved to Los Angeles at the end of 2015 and felt completely naïve to the city. I found that the ideas held in the national imagination about LA were not in keeping with the city I began to appreciate. Because of its vast geographic expanse and history of migration, LA requires a nuanced and thoughtful study. The disparity between my nascent ideas and my experiences and observations provoked a curiosity to learn more about my new home. I didn’t own a car and commuted by bike, bus, and metro, which happily afforded me a more intimate view of the city, the people, and their neighborhoods. Most profoundly, I was struck by the ubiquity and diversity of public art. Early engagement with the extant murals of the Chicano movement in particular provoked a strong interest in seeing and documenting the city in general. Los Angeles has such a storied history of muralism, and I could see that murals became community touchstones of shared identity. Great murals are often documents of their times and speak to the shared experiences of the people in their local communities. Great murals are so contextual to their settings that they are unique. You can ascertain a great deal about a community and its history by studying the content of the mural art. I also came to appreciate LA as a city of letters and calligraphy. LA graffiti in its totality features a preponderance of styles, colors, techniques, content and spans mediums. Pico Union where I live is a neighborhood that factors prominently in the history of LA writing styles and has influenced graffiti art around the world. So, it is in part a point of civic pride that I have more recently begun documenting spray can art, in addition to the appreciation I have developed for the technical and artistic expertise that’s required to pull off a great piece.

Can you talk to us a bit about the challenges and lessons you’ve learned along the way. Looking back would you say it’s been easy or smooth in retrospect?
Public art is always accessible. It’s very democratic in that way; an observer need only be in the right place. In that sense, documenting the art has been very straightforward. My greatest challenge is to find and capture pieces in detail before they are defaced, damaged, or whitewashed. Most public artwork lacks value for conservators and so very little value is placed on its preservation. In addition, the communities where pieces exist experience turnover and change over time, and so what exists today could easily be gone tomorrow. There are many high-profile cases in the media of masterpieces of mural art that have been eliminated as communities gentrify; therefore, the need to document and archive works takes on an urgency. My greatest fear is that pieces of great cultural and historical value will disappear without adequate documentation. Art advances in part by building on what has already been done, and the reception of these murals and public art pieces will hopefully, usefully inform the perspectives of the future. I do not want posterity to be bereft simply because we don’t always have the vision to see what is important or transformative. I am luckily not alone in this work. There are many other amateurs and hobbyists like me who undertake the effort of finding pieces and ensuring artist’s attributions are correct and sharing them over Instagram and other platforms.

Can you tell our readers more about what you do and what you think sets you apart from others?
I think what sets my work apart is my editorial point of view and the sometimes-painstaking efforts I go through to ensure I have captured as much detail as I can with the tools that I have. My process continues to develop, but I usually approach documenting pieces by photographing them in segments, then stitching them together in Photoshop. I am careful to color correct, eliminate distortions, and adjust proportions of the final panoramas to ensure the final product is as near a digital facsimile of the original as possible. What appears in the final photo is how the piece looked to my eye at the moment I photographed it. The panoramas are often larger than the original and provide very granular detail so you can zoom in and interrogate these pieces. My friend and artist, Israel Campos, suggested that I also include some of the surrounding building or location in these panoramas to ground them in a local context, and I have been doing so ever since. I view what I do as a continuation of the careful work of Robin Dunitz, who for decades visited the neighborhoods of LA to document mural art that culminated in her book “Street Gallery: Guide to 1000 Los Angeles Murals.” Robin carefully noted details regarding the location, materials, artist, and year of creation of the murals. I am lucky to inherit all the careful work Robin and others undertook and seek to build on their documentation with modern tools and publish the photos. Finally, I am most interested in the pieces that have shaped LA life but have been neglected by more mainstream audiences, and that is my editorial point of view. The bulk of the pieces I spend time documenting can be found in the communities south and east of downtown.

In terms of your work and the industry, what are some of the changes you are expecting to see over the next five to ten years?
Instagram has made everyone a photographer, and we are fortunate to see so many talented individuals use the platform to share public art. We have so much more information at our disposal, often from the artists directly that we would not have decades ago. At the same time, interest in public art has grown and now commands a great deal of attention. I see those trends continuing. Public art has also become more dynamic in its content, mediums, and styles and I also expect the greater society will reappraise the value of these pieces and greater attention will be paid to their preservation.

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