L.A.’s Downtown Arts District
The 1970s brought a wave of artists into this former industrial area in Downtown Los Angeles. They sparked a fuse of creative imagination that burned for years. Up-and-coming creators took advantage of the then-low rents and built a foundation for the creative mecca that exists here today.
In its infancy, L.A.’s Downtown Arts District came to life behind-the-scenes, with artists mostly working in closed studios. Today, the art has spilled onto the streets in the form of colorful murals, attractive gallery spaces, and stylish storefronts. But the curious explorer can still find literal and figurative traces of the ‘70s. In addition to the more historic spots that remain, a creative, entrepreneurial spirit abounds.
Places To Explore
Begin your day at the Arts District’s southernmost edge. Downtown L.A. was once the epicenter of Los Angeles’ legendary punk scene, and the Descontrol punk shop is a precious relic from this era.
Black as a void aside from a red awning that proudly proclaims the store’s merch (“PUNK SHOP/LEATHER WORKS”), the space might seem intimidating. But the purists who keep this shop open seven days a week are friendly and knowledgeable. Looking for a rare VHS tape, cassette, sticker, patch, or T-shirt? Descontrol offers an array of bric-a-brac of the pre-internet, analog variety. Even if your knowledge of punk history or music in general is iffy, pay the shop a visit and treat it like a museum filled with artifacts from a particular time and place. As an added bonus, the prices reflect a punk lifestyle and ethos: a graphic tee will cost you about $20.
1725 E 7th St C, Los Angeles, CA 90021
2. Two Bit Circus
Next, make your way to a space that gracefully blends 1970s and ‘80s nostalgia with the future at Two Bit Circus, a “micro-amusement park” that makes use of cutting-edge technology.
Sidle up to the bar to be served by Gearmo del Pouro, a robot bartender affectionately nicknamed after the horror-fantasy filmmaker Guillermo del Toro. Drink in hand, you’re now free to choose from a wide menu of amusements. If your tastes skew more traditional, there are classic options, including pinball, arcade games, and four-player air hockey tables. The more adventurous can try their hand at virtual reality games, such as PING! (a multiplayer version of the classic ’70s arcade game Pong) and Birdly (a full-body VR experience that makes you feel like a bird in flight). If you prefer to eschew technology altogether, there are also a number of escape room-style communal mind games that can be booked for groups in advance.
634 Mateo St, Los Angeles, CA 90021
3. Peter Lai’s Workspace
Head north, nearly reaching Little Tokyo, where a magical space awaits inside a nondescript warehouse.
Be sure to make an appointment before you visit the Japanese Cultural Village, a 5,000-square-foot home, loft, and workspace belonging to the fashion designer Peter Lai. It’s filled with Japanese objects that he’s collected over the course of three decades. An effervescent guide, Lai will offer you tea while you tour the space. The “Village” includes a traditional tea garden, Buddhist temple, design studio, and an infinite assortment of ceramics, statues, costumes, and ephemera.
The highlight is a fully functional Kabuki theater, a space where Lai himself occasionally performs for guests (a long-standing hobby of his that once put him on the same bill as Yoko Ono). The theater even has a “backstage,” where his collection of priceless Kabuki wigs and masks are on display.
454 Seaton St., #2 (Second floor), Los Angeles, CA 90013
4. A+D Museum
The A+D Museum is a too-often overlooked institution devoted to innovation in architecture, and the myriad ways that design affects everyday lives. With a mission centered on promoting progressive architecture, you might be surprised to learn that this hyper-modern museum first opened its doors in the circa 19th-century Bradbury Building in 2001.
Since its move to the Arts District in 2015, the A+D now offers rotating exhibitions that boggle the brain in a variety of ways. Recent shows include the “Disgusting Food Museum,” an exhibit showcasing unusual delicacies such as fried tarantula and sheep’s eyeball juice, and “The Mars Pavilion,” which posed the question: “What if robots built our buildings alongside humans?”
900 E 4th St, Los Angeles, CA 90013
5. Hennessey + Ingalls
With an open-air entrance, concrete floors, and a minimalist approach to display, Hennessey + Ingalls resembles a contemporary gallery. Art lovers will feel right at home inside this book store specializing in art, architecture, and design.
Though the pricey periodicals and swoon–worthy coffee table books are fun to browse, the massive space is also filled with more esoteric volumes. Students, scholars, and obsessive aesthetes can rely on Hennessey + Ingalls for volumes ranging in subject from body art and tattooing to product design and color theory. If you’re interested in a souvenir, you’re also spoiled here for books that explore L.A. history.
300 S Santa Fe Ave M, Los Angeles, CA 90013