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1992 Remembered: The Artist's Story

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This month Frying Pan News presents personal stories of L.A.’s April 29-May 4, 1992 explosion. These recollections do not represent the point of view of this blog or its sponsor, the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy. In this installment we interview painter Anthony Ausgang, one of the best-known proponents of Los Angeles’ Lowbrow art movement; his psychedelicized images of cartoon cats and rogue hot-rodders have become iconic staples of Southern California galleries.

In 1992 he was the property manager of an eight-unit block of storefront studios near the intersection of Vermont Avenue and Santa Monica Boulevard, an area near Los Angeles City College that would see much arson and looting. He lived in one of the units, which he still manages today; he and his companion, painter Marcy Watton, who lived next door, were taken off-guard by the violence that erupted after the Rodney King verdicts.

Frying Pan News: How did you prepare yourselves when you heard rioting had broken out?

Anthony Ausgang: We took out our firearms – I was on the roof with the 20-gauge and Marcy was down below with a 9mm pistol. We didn’t know what to expect – to us it was a natural disaster, like an earthquake, and so we went into earthquake mode. We filled up the bathtub and turned off the gas.

FPN: You felt personally threatened, then?

Ausgang: A riot was coming up the street. It struck me that it was all happening on Vermont – south on Vermont, but it didn’t seem that far away.

FPN: What happened when it reached you?

Ausgang: What I remember most is the look of joy on looters’ faces.  They trashed Circuit City but didn’t touch B. Dalton Books next door. They also tried to set [our] library on fire. There was a gas station where the MTA subway stop is now, but nothing happened to it.

FPN: And your immediate neighborhood?

Ausgang: The traffic was completely packed – people were pounding on the cars of drivers who were stuck. We heard a noise the first night – someone had crawled over the fence and stole a gas mower that didn’t work. It was absurd: I was walking around in urban camouflage, while also wearing a holster and carrying a skateboard. The cops drove by but didn’t protect the firemen.

The furthest I went on Santa Monica was between Vermont and Virgil. There was chaos in the streets but people were calmly lined up in 7-11 – the one that would sell small pieces of steel wool to crackheads, even though the clerks knew they were used to hold rocks in the crack pipes.

FPN: There were a lot of drugs on your street.

Ausgang: Madison and Willowbrook was the main crack-dealing center for Hollywood – before the riot there were plenty of empty buildings for dealing and using. The dealers came out with the riots and were swapping crack for loot.

FPN: You weren’t afraid?

Ausgang: I was younger and felt invincible. And I was an honorary ethnic because of my long hair. There was a sense of camaraderie on our street that transcended race but which evaporated after the riots. The thing about race was the riots’ democracy of menace. The violence could come from any direction – blacks or whites, Hispanics or Armenians.

FPN: It sounds as though you didn’t panic.

Ausgang: I felt a heightened awareness to what was around me – and I found it seductive. One had to focus completely on what was around you. It was an ecstatic involvement with your surroundings. I felt almost let down when they [the rioters] all left and it was only us.

FPN: Were you in touch with people in other parts of the city?

Ausgang: [Painter] Sandow Birk called from South America. For most people it was a TV event – they stayed home. People in Los Feliz were drinking champagne, feeling decadent, yet each column of smoke was a tragedy.

FPN: How did it end where you lived?

Ausgang: Simple fatigue ended the riots. The Guard showed up and then it became a spectating sport for me. They set up camp on Vermont and Santa Monica.

FPN: What was the immediate aftermath in your neighborhood?

Ausgang: The streets were filled with left-foot shoes and for weeks people were selling 15 sets of Sears ratchets at their garage sales. People took tours of [the damage on] Washington Boulevard, between the 110 and Alameda.

FPN: Can it happen again?

Ausgang: A lot of inequities and bad shit were going on that Rodney King blew the lid off. I’m surprised it doesn’t go off on a regular basis, given people’s low moral behavior. If it happens again it might be more organized with the Internet and [cell] phones.

FPN: Were there any lessons to retrieve from the debris?

Ausgang: The riots were responsible for a lot of security measures. Now minimalls have gates, because during the riots people drove their cars into stores to knock down doors. The thing I learned is that there were so many people with guns.  Liberals get all nervous when you talk about protecting yourself, but there are people out there with firepower and low morals. It’s everyone’s right to take advantage of the Second Amendment.

FPN: Anything you wished you’d done differently?

Ausgang: I only regret one thing. There was a drug dealer on our street — a mean, bad fucking dude. I could’ve shot that guy and nothing would’ve happened. I had the gun and the marksmanship to do it, but my moral code wouldn’t allow me. I regret that – he reigned for two years afterward. Then he disappeared.

 

Other 1992 Remembered Posts:

Mike Davis: A Tale of Two Riots
Lovell Estell III: Hold the Flak Vest
Judith Lewis Mernit: The Ecology of Riot
Ted Soqui: A Photographer Follows the Smoke

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