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Discovering Los Angeles Street Art on the Run

BlacklistLA combines late-night running with urban art in the heart of Los Angeles.

Out on the impeccably neat plaza of the Walt Disney Concert Hall in downtown Los Angeles, home to one of the world’s finest orchestras, hip-hop is booming out of a nearby speaker. A few runners are here, doing those things runners do while they wait: stretch, sip water, sit around, adjust their phone holders. It’s about the only thing going on as far as you can see—by 9:30 p.m., this corner of downtown in this famously car-choked city is dead still. But every minute, dozens of more runners keep materializing like a flash mob: sometimes alone, sometimes in pairs or groups.

Soon there will be hundreds here on this warm spring Monday night, all here to run together through a sleeping city.

This is not a race, but there is a destination: a very, very large mural a couple miles away. It’s the two things this running group that calls itself BlacklistLA was founded upon—running and street art—and it’s caught fire.

Two years ago, there were 11 people on the group’s first run. Tonight there are easily 200. Some of the weekly Monday evening runs draw more than 300. It’s not hard to see why: This urban running adventure gives people a reason to look forward to Mondays, to meet other people, and to explore the many hidden corners of this massive city on foot.

“We always say that they show up for the art, but they stay and continue to show up for the community,” says Erik Valiente, the friendly, cherubic-faced founder of BlacklistLA, who rides up on a 10-speed with a messenger backpack from which hangs a big camera with a giant flash. In addition to the thrill of running together at night, it’s the evening timing—with less traffic and many people off of work—that makes such a large gathering possible.

As group running with a social bent continues to grow around all kinds of lifestyle pursuits—beer, tourism, dating—art may at first seem like an unlikely pairing. But it’s not. “It’s part of the experience of an urban runner,” says renowned art dealer Jeffrey Deitch, an avid runner himself, about street art. “Often, this is people’s first experience with ambitious artwork.”

And as running groups go, BlacklistLA seems to do everything right to cater to a 21st century runner’s needs and desires: It turns exercise into a shared experience; offers a chance to explore the city, with great Instagram opportunities; plus Valiente posts a bunch of ready-to-share photos of runners by the time they wake up on Tuesday. It seems to touch on many of the Millennial generation’s stereotypes.

But the hundreds that show up aren’t all in their 20s. There are people of all colors, males and females (though far more guys), newbie runners and chiseled marathoners. Even the dogs, maybe 10 or so brought along by their owners, are diverse—from silky-furred lap dogs to eager-looking pit bulls. And while Valiente and his co-founders are Los Angeles natives, I meet a guy from Canada who just moved to the city today. He’s out here tonight to meet people.

In fact, for Valiente, this is the entire point of BlacklistLA: A chance for Angelenos to better know their city, as well as each other.

Valiente used to drive to his job as a teller at a Chase bank. While it paid the bills, he was left unsatisfied with the experience—at least the thought of doing it for the rest of his life. He was already running, having signed up for and completing the LA Marathon in 2007 for the first time on a bet (he’s run it every year since then). He tried to start a running club in his neighborhood of Harvard Heights, just west of downtown, but without some kind of hook beyond exercise to draw people out every week, it didn’t last long. But he had the desire to build a community. “The only way I knew how to do that was through running,” he says.

And so he landed a job at Nike’s running store at The Grove, where he spent some of that time as a coordinator for the Swoosh’s nascent Nike+ Run Club program.

“Erik was really successful at that,” says Jerome Rideaux, Valiente’s former co-worker at Nike. “He had so many ideas and wanted to do so many different things. But when you’re under Nike you’ve got to get it past them, and he just wanted to do his own thing.”

Rideaux remembers having dinner with his Nike store co-workers when Valiente unveiled his plan for a new running group. By then Valiente had ditched his car and was getting around the city on bike, and with this freedom he started taking a bigger interest in all the street art around L.A.—and now he could freely take photos of it all. People who followed him on Instagram always wanted to know where all this artwork was. He didn’t want to just tell them where to go, because where’s the fun in that? So his initial plan was to show people around via bike tours, but that quickly fizzled out when he realized that many of his friends didn’t have bicycles.

“Then a light bulb popped into my head,” Valiente says. “I thought, why don’t we just run?”

And so they did. There were 11 people. “We all fit in the photo,” Rideaux says with a laugh. Valiente called this group “Blacklist” in honor of street artists, because their work is often blacklisted and eventually painted over. In fact, the art’s impermanence also gave the group’s runs an immediacy. But the true genius was Valiente’s photo duties: He would take photos of everyone on the run then send everyone a Dropbox link to these photos later that night. Word about BlacklistLA soon spread through social media.

Before Valiente knew it, he started arriving each week to several hundred people, as there are tonight, all amped up on music for a collective run through the city. The group’s Instagram feed now has more than 16,000 followers.

“It’s growing so quickly and so fast that, you know when they say be careful what you wish for?” Valiente says, half joking. “Now it’s like, oh shit, OK … we’re doing this! That keeps me up at night, but these are good problems.”

He quickly realized the need for help in keeping even a cheerful crowd lawful and under control, and so BlacklistLA cultivated a small volunteer army of pacers. They’re known as PulseKeepers, and each is outfitted with a glowing wrist or ankle bracelet and a handheld boom box to identify themselves and add a bit of ambiance.

Several minutes before 10 p.m., as the big stereo keeps on playing and everyone else is stretching or talking inside this now full plaza, Valiente is in a corner, huddling in a circle with the PulseKeepers, going over the route and any dangerous sections, sharing info about the artist in case runners ask, congratulating certain volunteers for particular jobs well done and going over BlacklistLA’s other events for the week.

What does it feel like to run together with several hundred people through a city at night? It’s obviously fun. But it’s also powerful. It’s intoxicating.

The 19th century psychologist Gustave Le Bon, often recognized as the father of crowd theory, wrote in The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind that “an individual immersed for some length of time in a crowd soon finds himself … in a special state, which much resembles the state of fascination in which the hypnotized individual finds himself in the hands of the hypnotizer.”

Joining a crowd is, in some sense, a surrender of the self. It’s there in the language: “People” is plural; “a crowd” is a singular entity. After all, we’re not racing. And when we all take off down the hill, music blaring from those portable boom boxes that the pacers are carrying, everyone is excited, almost under a kind of spell. We are all moving together in the dead of night, like shock troops invading a city to a soundtrack of hip-hop and EDM. There’s also a cheap thrill to this: If everyone is staying on the sidewalk (which they mostly are) it’s a lawful gathering—but in any case, this certainly isn’t sanctioned.

The run starts, people are whooping, and we make it all of two blocks before being stopped at a crosswalk. Everyone is giddy and full of adrenaline, practically twitchy at being held up like this. Then we get stopped at the next light. And at the following block too. The tension is palpable. As soon as that final crosswalk signal beckons, the runners at the front are off, and the group strings out. We’ve been let loose into the night; a PulseKeeper is usually nearby, but otherwise all anyone’s got is the person in front of him or her to know where to go.

We dogleg into Little Tokyo, where we see signs of life. A few awestruck pedestrians; a driver stuck in a driveway for the foreseeable future, wearing a look of resignation as dozens of runners stream past his idling car; outdoor dining furniture that requires some agile maneuvering around. Then onto a straight, mile-long industrial stretch, following a pair of disused train tracks over a mix of sidewalk, gravel, dust and scattered trash as we pass warehouses, homeless people sound asleep on loading docks, concertina-wire fences and massive bus yards. Every so often you see Valiente for a split second as you run past—or at least you see the flash of his camera. He’s continually leapfrogging the group, taking pictures then sprinting ahead on his road bike.

A guy in the group running with a dog is feeling it; he’s shouting “Blacklist, yeah YEAH!” over and over, in a call and response, and a few people join in. The PulseKeeper nearby is feeling it. When we stop at a red light, she’s effusive with compliments and generous with fist bumps. Of all the things one could be doing past 10 o’clock on a Monday night, most don’t compare to this.

A little farther, past a major intersection, and we’ve reached our destination: a giant black and white, abstract-expressionist mural by an L.A. artist of some renown named RETNA. It stretches eight stories high on American Apparel’s antique factory building, covering basically every surface that’s not a window. Phones are out. People are taking a breather, texting, ’gramming, sitting on the curb, chatting with the person next to them. Runners continue to trickle in. Valiente is across the street with a megaphone. After a few minutes and shooting some more shots, he gets on the bullhorn and gives a brief bio about the artist, reminding the group to tag him on social media. Everyone mills around a bit longer, then poses for a group photo.

Then it’s back more or less the way we came, but on parallel streets. The group is far more strung out. The final 10 blocks or so are straight and uphill. When we finally reach the curb onto the Walt Disney Concert Hall plaza, several waiting hands are offering high-fives. The giant amp is still playing music. As everyone comes in—minus those who headed straight for their car or the Metro station—there’s a group photo, then a postgame group huddle and chant of “1, 2, 3 … Blacklist!” Some people stick around and mingle; others head their separate ways. Most will likely be back the following Monday, and no doubt some new faces as well.

After a run, Valiente’s night isn’t over. He’s usually up until 3:30 a.m. sorting through the night’s photos and uploading the selects to his photo-sharing website. This, along with planning tonight’s run and others throughout the week, plus the half-marathon training that BlacklistLA now offers, adds up to full-time work for him. But he’s not getting paid.

“Hopefully this year is the first year I actually get some kind of money for this, because I’ve been living on fumes for two years!” he says.

To that end, BlacklistLA recently became organized as a nonprofit—and Valiente is officially the founder and executive director. There are seven other people involved ranging from photographers and social media folks to finance experts, plus five seats on the steering committee. To make ends meet, Valiente is seeking funding from local grants and foundations to support what he feels is charitable work benefitting the city of Los Angeles. Major athletic brands have also shown an interest—Lululemon recently collaborated on a street-art project—and Valiente is open to the right kind of authentic partnership. Preferably a financial arrangement that supports BlacklistLA’s training programs and its annual 5K—not free shoes and gear, for example.

It’s no coincidence that a movement like this has taken such hold in Los Angeles of all places. Thousands of young people move here every year; meanwhile it’s a city that is most often viewed from inside a car, despite having some of the best weather anywhere in the world. People are looking for a connection to the city, and a group like BlacklistLA provides that—connections not only with other people, but also a street-level connection to the city’s many neighborhoods.

“If you’re from here you feel like there is community because you probably have a group of friends,” Valiente says. “But if you’re coming from another city, you don’t feel welcome because you probably land in Hollywood or places like what they show on TV. So you feel lonely and you give yourself a timeframe.

“But you’re not giving L.A. a chance—you’re not putting yourself out there. But L.A. also wasn’t putting itself out there. It wasn’t welcoming either. If you need to travel 7 miles to go get lunch, how many communities do you pass on the way there? Who’s connecting those? Through art and running, we’re connecting each community.”

The big picture always for Valiente, though, is Los Angeles as a whole. Last year on the city’s birthday, at the spot where it was officially founded, BlacklistLA organized a race called HBD LA 5K and passed out balloons to runners. The organization is expanding into all facets of running almost as quickly as it has grown. But it’s clear that the inspiration will always be the city in which it’s based.

“I’m super down for L.A.,” Valiente says. “I love L.A. It’s my city. When I think of L.A., I just think there are endless possibilities in the land of sunshine and dreams. The land where you can make anything happen.”