LOS ANGELES — Jose “Prime” Reza was 11 or 12 when he first met Carmelo Alvarez. The fledgling graffiti artist was working on a piece in an alley late one night in 1983 in the Pico-Union neighborhood of Los Angeles when a man driving a Volkswagen bus pulled up. Reza thought he was a police officer or a vigilante, so he started running down the alley.

“He was painting a Scooby Doo on Venice Boulevard near Union,” Alvarez recalled. “I said, ‘I like your work.’”

Reza stopped running. “My name’s Carmelo, I run Radiotron. I want you to keep doing what you’re doing,” Reza remembers him saying. Radiotron, or the Youth Break Center, Inc., as it was officially named, was located just off MacArthur Park in LA’s Westlake neighborhood. It was a place where kids could practice the nascent art forms of graffiti and breakdancing. Although it was only open from 1983–1985, it had a major influence on the emergence of hip-hop culture in Los Angeles.

“I went a week later. It was pretty exciting for a kid,” Reza said. “It was a safe haven, an alternative for kids who were on the streets. Schools weren’t encouraging you to do graffiti and programs had been taken away.”

GRAFFITINSPIRE, an exhibition curated by Alvarez celebrating the center’s vibrant legacy, opened earlier this month at the Goethe-Institut Project Space just blocks from Radiotron’s former location at 715 South Park View Street. (The original building no longer exists, having been replaced by a strip mall in quintessential LA fashion.) At the opening on May 12, street artists and breakdancers who got their start at Radiotron as teens, now in their 50s, mingled with a younger generation who have followed in their wake as classic hip-hop beats flowed from the DJ’s turntables.

Installation view of Graffitinspire at the Goethe-Institut Los Angeles (photo Matt Stromberg/Hyperallergic)

Dozens of paintings created over the past 40 years by Radiotron attendees and other graffiti practitioners are hung salon-style alongside archival photographs and ephemera. A diverse range of art is on view, from typographical explorations and portraits to colorful abstractions by both established and up-and-coming graffiti artists including Reza, Hex, Shandu, Crime, Defer, Zender, Phantom Street Arti$t, and Heaven. Adults and children sat drawing at a long table set up in the back while veteran breakdancer Bboy Wilpower of Airforce Crew and others took over the center of the gallery with their fancy footwork, giving a glimpse of Radiotron’s infectious energy.

An anti-graffiti street sign (photo by Khalid Farquharson, courtesy Goethe-Institut Los Angeles)

At first glance, the Los Angeles outpost of an institution dedicated to German culture and language might seem like an odd fit for a deep dive into LA’s hip-hop culture. But ever since the Goethe-Institut moved to MacArthur Park from its previous Miracle Mile location on Wilshire Boulevard in the fall of 2021, programming that is responsive to the surrounding community has been central to its mission. “We’re only good at what we do if we’re connected to the local scene,” Lien Heidenreich-Seleme, director of the Goethe-Institut Los Angeles, told Hyperallergic.

The exhibition is part of the Neighborhood Interpretive Center, a Goethe initiative that issues calls for programming proposals that have significance for residents of MacArthur Park/Westlake. A selection committee composed of art professionals and community leaders then chooses which projects to bring to life. Five projects were selected in the inaugural year, while three were chosen for 2023, including GRAFFITINSPIRE.

Despite its near-mythical status in the development of hip hop in LA, Alvarez had initially intended to open a more traditional performing arts academy. As a teenager growing up in Westlake in the early 1970s, he attended the Barnsdall Junior Art Center, where he says a fateful meeting with Chester Whitmore changed his life’s trajectory. “Chester gave me a choice: gang or tap. I chose tap,” Alvarez recalled. Thus began his dance career, first in tap and then in ballet. 

After a sojourn in New York where he opened a youth center, he returned to LA, where the building he found for his academy already had a pivotal place in early West Coast hip hop.

“Before it was Radiotron, it was Radio Club. We went there for breakdancing … I was 13 or 14,” Defer said. Artists such as Ice-T would perform there, and Madonna could be seen partying inside. It was the location of the 1983 documentary Breakin’ ‘N’ Enterin’ and the 1984 film Breakin’. (Both films featured breakdancer and actor Shabba Doo, who died in 2020. The exhibition includes a memorial portrait by Thundr.) According to Alvarez, artists painted “Radiotron” above the stage for the movie.

A mannequin wearing a jacket painted by HEX (photo by Khalid Farquharson, courtesy Goethe-Institut Los Angeles)

He quickly pivoted to hip hop, with breakdancing downstairs and graffiti upstairs. “That was the tag room. You could tag anywhere: the walls, ceiling, tables,” Alvarez said. “I had two rules: no crossing anyone out and no gang writing.” Some of LA’s first graffiti crews like K2S (Kill to Succeed) and the LA Bomb Squad perfected their craft at Radiotron.

At the time, LA graffiti was characterized by rigid block letters and a monochromatic palette known as “Cholo Style.” Then, Angeleno street artists started seeing a new style emerging from the New York City subways. Before the internet, they had to rely on films like Style Wars (1983) and Wild Style (1983) to get an idea of what was happening in New York, as well as photos brought back from trips that they would share at Radiotron.

“All of a sudden you get glimpses of color, bubbles, sparkles, and cartoon characters,” said Hex. “Wait, they’re using yellow, orange, purple?! I didn’t even know they had those colors!” LA artists began to merge their style with what they saw coming out of New York, forming a new West Coast hybrid style.

At the opening, artists and breakdancers who got their start at Radiotron mingled with a younger generation. (photo Matt Stromberg/Hyperallergic)

After two years and despite a vocal campaign to save it, the club was demolished and replaced with a strip mall. Alvarez moved the center to the MacArthur Park bandshell before going on to form several other youth centers over the ensuing decades. With the arrival of crack cocaine in the mid-1980s and a rise in gang violence, graffiti became associated with crime and authorities began to clamp down on the art form more intensely. But for a brief moment in the early ’80s, a creative burst of color and movement took hold of the streets, offering an uplifting vision of a better world.

“The aggression of society against all these minorities was very apparent,” said Hex. “When hip hop arrived, I could become a master popper, a king of graffiti, an MC, a DJ, or a beatboxer. Kids left what they were born into, and they entered this whole new arena. That’s what Radiotron represented.”

Matt Stromberg is a freelance visual arts writer based in Los Angeles. In addition to Hyperallergic, he has contributed to the Los Angeles Times, CARLA, Apollo, ARTNews, and other publications.