As a loose affiliation of street art-oriented artists begins to make waves in Santa Cruz, Made Fresh Crew reflects a big new moment in the local arts scene. An exhibit at downtown’s Curated By The Sea gallery introduces us to the artists behind the work.
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On a wall overlooking a once-boring downtown Santa Cruz parking lot reserved for Metro buses, a giant mermaid looms, maybe 30 feet tall. But this is no sweetly benign children’s-book mermaid. She’s grimacing, like a warrior charging into battle. Her skin in translucent — you can see her bones and internal organs — and she’s fighting for her life against demented eel-like creatures that glow with radioactive malice. Imagine Disney’s Ariel newly released from decades of captivity at Chernobyl and transformed into Medusa.
It’s not exactly the kind of imagery you’d expect in a public setting but Santa Cruz these days has dozens of such stark, attention-getting murals. In fact, the nightmare mermaid shares her wall with another enormous mural, this one a shark swimming through giant California poppies.
Each mural is marked with the stamp that’s becoming a more and more common sight around town: “Made Fresh Crew.” Yes, it sounds a bit like one of those home-cooking meal kits that were all the rage a few years ago. But Made Fresh Crew reflects a big new moment in the Santa Cruz arts scene, with an emphasis on “Fresh.”
MFC is a brand, it’s a movement, it’s a collective of Santa Cruz artists ready to announce their presence. It’s also the subject of a bracing new art show at Curated By the Sea on Front Street, next to the Museum of Art & History, the outside wall of which is the latest site for a MFC mural.
The mermaid mural and more than a dozen others, equally striking in their eye-grabbing power, are the results of the ambitious “Sea Walls” project which, in the fall of 2021, transformed Santa Cruz into a city of murals overnight — technically, about a week of overnights.
“Sea Walls” was not strictly a local enterprise — the artist behind the translucent mermaid is the famed Austrian muralist Nychos — but it did happen under the organization and direction of Made Fresh Crew. “Sea Walls” can best be understood as a kind of partnership between local and out-of-town artists to depict the danger facing the world’s ocean through vivid, unforgettable artistic imagery. (Here’s a map of the 19 “Sea Walls” murals, most of which are within Santa Cruz city limits.)
Curated By the Sea’s “Street Smarts” show is more about the individual artists behind Made Fresh Crew. It’s an opportunity to see the other artistic endeavors and interests of the artists who worked together on the mural project.
The first among equals in the group is muralist Taylor Reinhold, aka Tay Lion. Reinhold describes Made Fresh Crew as a network. “There’s a core group of us that’s been together for a long time,” he said. “And then there are other artists who get inspired and want to work with us, and there’s resident artists we call on when we need help. It’s really like a big family of artists.”
Curated’s new show focuses on 10 of the artists affiliated with MFC. It’s not quite right to refer to the Crew as “young” artists. Some are under 30, but others are not. But they do represent relatively new names on the Santa Cruz visual arts scene, often with artistic orientations coming from graffiti, street art, industrial art, and skate/surf culture.
Other than Reinhold, “Street Smarts” features the work of artists Abi Mustapha, Alex Wong, Caia Koopman, Elijah Pfotenhauer, Erika Rosendale, Jasper Marino, Kurt Smiley, Scotty Greathouse and Tom Watson. The show underscores that Made Fresh Crew is more of an affiliation than a specific aesthetic. These are 10 individual artists who are as different from each other as they are similar.
Reinhold’s own paintings have a kind of “Blade Runner” mystique. They are stunning evocations of hallucinatory images, arresting themes of Asian calligraphy and wild creatures. One piece is a swirl of intricate line drawings — chimp faces crashing into street graffiti bumping into exotic ocean fish — all presented inside a giant stainless steel shark’s mouth.
The shark pops up again prominently in the art of Smiley, who is represented here by a scrap metal hammerhead shark, made from a helicopter rotor (its teeth are pointed screws). Smiley also has on display a couple of tables and chairs made from pliers, ratchets, screwdrivers and other garage tools. Wong’s beautifully designed woodwork, featuring layers of colored wood in various mesmerizing patterns, is all the more impressive when you learn they are made of mostly recycled skateboards. There are even collaborative pieces between the artists.
Reinhold said that there is no formal membership in the collective, that it is mostly Santa Cruz artists, but there are artists from all over the world who have honorary membership. He said that there’s a “core” group of about 30 artists, with another 100 or so in the outer circles of the loose association of artists.
He said that there is no dominant aesthetic with Made Fresh Crew, but there could be a common background. “We were mostly raised on skateboarding and inspired by graffiti art and the Phillips family,” he said, in reference to father-and-son Santa Cruz graphic artists Jim and Jimbo Phillips, each enormously successful figures in skateboard art.
“We all kind of grew up on the streets, whether that was coming from broken homes, or whether we had skateboards in our hands, and we just lived on the streets and found inspiration from abandoned buildings and drainage ditches and these urban spots that we would have to find to be able to skateboard in or be able to paint in.”
Reinhold, 34, already had created big public art in Santa Cruz before the “Sea Walls” project, including the large ocean-conservation mural at Mission and Bay streets on the Westside and the bold blue Annieglass building in Watsonville (Reinhold is the son of Annieglass founder and Santa Cruz Artist of the Year Ann Morhauser). He’s also created murals at sites all over the world.
The “Sea Walls” project has rapidly expanded the public art in Santa Cruz, and changed the look of the city. Many of the artists associated with the “Street Smarts” show and others in Made Fresh Crew have contributed to that new look, which draws from street forms of art that aren’t always popular. Some of the “Sea Walls” murals, like the translucent mermaid, are provocative, and challenge the idea of safe or nice or “beautiful” art. It’s edgy and rambunctious in the same way that outlaw forms of art, like graffiti, are edgy and rambunctious.
“Some people like it and some people hate it,” said Reinhold of the general reaction to the “Sea Walls” murals. “Most people do like it, but when you see letters without lines, and fades and colors and gradients, people start to say they don’t understand. There’s no education about what graffiti art is. And graffiti is associated with vandalism and vandalism is bad. Therefore, a lot of people don’t want to see this kind of art.”
As for Made Fresh Crew, it’s more like a movement that anyone can join, rather than a club restricted to those who meet some criteria.
“There’s a ton of different approaches and styles that people have taken,” said Reinhold. “I think the majority of what people recognize us for are the street art and graffiti art-inspired kind of themes and the the murals that we do, but there’s so many artists that are doing other work as well that don’t really get as much recognition because they’re not in the public eye as much as they’re in their studios.
“And the stuff that we’re doing is pretty, you know, it’s like big and powerful and a lot of energy. But I think the overwhelming theme is just creativity, it’s like if you’re pushing and promoting your art in any form, then we want to support that and help however we can.”
“Street Smarts,” the art of Made Fresh Crew, is on display now at Curated By the Sea, 703 Front St., Santa Cruz, through June 11.