Since the early 1990s, I have been photographing hand-painted murals and signs throughout South Central Los Angeles. My ongoing concern is to record these street images, reflections of the local culture, before they disappear; indeed, many have faded or have been painted over or destroyed. I was particularly interested in the religious imagery—The Virgin of Guadalupe, patron saint of Los Angeles, and of the suffering Christ—and the tributes to historical figures who fought for social justice, such as Pancho Villa, Martin Luther King Jr., and the Black Panthers.
The street images I encounter also include likenesses of people who live there, representations of beliefs, memorials to the dead, gang graffiti, and pictures of products and services for sale. The latter resonated with me as traces of people’s struggles to make a living; many local enterprises, such as tub reglazing, hair braiding, retrieval of junk appliances to sell as scrap metal, and commercial sign-painting, require minimal capital. Signs also function to define different ethnic groups within American culture and to adapt to changing demographics. For example, Blacks shared their storefront churches with a rapidly growing Spanish-speaking population, and Latinos who wanted to attract Black customers painted portraits of MLK and Malcolm X on the facades of their bodegas and restaurants.
I have approached South Central as a Hispanic photographer and sociologist who documents poor, minority communities, including how in the last 30 years the population shifted from majority Black to Latino. In 1998 I put together an exhibition, “The Landscape of Latino LA,” that opened at the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C., and traveled to the Natural History Museum in Los Angeles in 2000. Hoping to make it easy for others to follow up on my images, I gave the location and the date of every sign that I photographed as well as the name of the artist and the sponsor, when available. In 2019, I included these images in my collection on the Library of Congress website and in my Museum of the Streets.
In the 1990s, I photographed a number of signs posted on fences enclosing empty lots, some of the lots replacing buildings that had been torched in 1992 after the Rodney King verdict. These fences were provided by the city and located along the busiest avenues of South Central. They constituted important space-makers as well as convenient places for struggling merchants to hang signs advertising their goods and services. The signs were bound to quickly disappear since competition for fence space was intense.
Among the eye-catching fence ads that jumped out at me as I traveled throughout South Central were the yellow, handmade, plywood signs for the braiding services of a hairdresser named Jade. (A single braid cost $75.) All the signs included variations on the bust of an aristocratic ancient Egyptian woman wearing triangular earrings. Sometimes she was shown with long braids, sometimes with Egyptian-style headdresses.
Intent on interviewing Jade, I called the phone number on these ads many times but failed to make contact. I wanted to know whether Jade had made the signs, or if they were the work of one of the many signboard painters in the area. Her signs became rare in 1997, when rebuilding of the burned blocks began. At that time, I photographed recipients of family assistance taking down signs on S. Broadway as part of a city clean-up work program.
Recently I learned that artist Lauren Halsey had included several of the Braids by Jade signs in her digital collages and installations. In a 2018 interview with Art in America, she said, “I’m inspired by the function of the hieroglyphs—especially pharaonic sculptures and reliefs—as permanent, magical and spiritual records. I’m obsessed with sampling and remixing ancient Egyptian iconography with my spin on aspirational funky monuments.”
My first encounter with Halsey’s work was in February, when I received an email from the David Kordansky Gallery asking for permission for her to use one of my photographs showing the fence signs, including one of Braids by Jade, in a digital collage. This prompted me to look up her work online.
Halsey’s family goes back four generations in South Central L.A., the place that she references throughout her “Black space making.” The Jade signs function in her works as South Central hieroglyphs, to use her term, amplifying Black culture. They relate to her interest, spurred by her father, in the Afro-Egyptian heritage of American Blacks, and the signs’ simple vernacular style clearly has aesthetic appeal. Sometimes she isolates the signs, or alternatively shows them on the fence, or paints replicas for her use, slightly changing their colors and size. She has also carved them on gypsum board.
In 2022 she described herself in a New York Times interview with Robin Pogrebin as “an obsessive collector of objects, of images—scanning the streets. … I’ve been collecting as long as I could breathe.” In a 2021 Gagosian Quarterly interview with Columbia University Professor and author Mabel Wilson, Halsey said: “I obsessively archive my neighborhood, and my favorite archives are the informal ones—the hood ephemera, the incense, the oils, the party flyers, the posters, the business cards, the graphic design that folks are making with their hands.” The Braids by Jade signs, though, were mostly gone by 1997, when Halsey was 10 years old. Possibly she remembered them when she came to make her signature works, but she must have gleaned some from my photographs.
Her success as an artist has led Halsey to become a significant booster of South Central (“the most creative place I have been in the world”), even shaping art critics’ view of the area. To support the neighborhoods, Halsey has combined her art with activism, establishing a food bank and planning after-school programs.
The Braids by Jade signs have been seen by visitors at MOCA, the Hammer Museum, the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, and numerous other institutions. Jade has entered the mainstream art world surreptitiously. Halsey’s installation, “the eastside of south central los angeles hieroglyph prototype architecture,” for the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s roof garden, will open on April 18. Meanwhile, I look forward to seeing whether Jade’s homegrown signs will be part of what a Met press release describes as “a full-scale architectural structure imbued with the collective energy and imagination of the South Central Los Angeles Community where she was born and continues to work.”
But what of Jade? Who is she? What became of her? It would be an amazing vision if Jade could attend the opening of the Met exhibition wearing her braids and head gear, walking to the sounds of Verdi’s Celeste Aida.
Featured image: Camilo José Vergara, S. Figueroa at Florence Avenue, 1996.