pete salcido

Culture Keeper

Pete Salcido's Flat Black Art Supply is leading the Coachella Valley's urban art movement.

Susan Myrland Arts & Entertainment, Current Digital

pete salcido
Pete Salcido has been part of the impetus to transform Westfield Palm Desert into a creative outlet for street artists.
PHOTOGRAPH BY KATE NAYLOR

Back when he was “bombing,” or scrawling his name on freeway overpasses, Pete Salcido didn’t foresee that one day he would be an entrepreneur with a retail store in a shopping mall. The space he calls Flat Black Art Supply used to be the security office, a sweet touch of irony for someone who ran from cops.

Today, Salcido is busy in totally different ways. The 37-year-old street artist’s phone buzzes every few minutes with another message related to one of his ventures. His team of six artists landed a commission to paint graffiti on an Airbnb near Pioneertown. He’s partnering with the management of Westfield Palm Desert to hold weekly Art Labs, where kids, teens, and adults create custom clothing and artwork using spray paint and markers. In tandem with his wife, Laura Salcido, he’s launched monthly Art Walks at the mall, where more than 30 artists and craftspeople display paintings, sculpture, woodworking, jewelry, and skincare. He’s bringing in new artists to add more murals inside and outside Westfield Palm Desert, and to refresh the extensive collection on the top floor of its parking garage.

VIDEO: Watch and learn about this unique Art Lab inside Westfield Palm Desert on Sunday afternoons.

Salcido and collaborator Aaron Hansen recently wrapped up a project for the Palm Springs Public Arts Commission, recruiting 20 artists to spruce up concrete footings at the site of the future Virgin Hotel in downtown Palm Springs, along with the surrounding construction fence. This month, the team will roll out more classes and workshops, including one on podcasting.

• See related story: Flat Black art supply Helps Bring Kids Back to Westfield Palm Desert

The headquarters for all this activity is what Salcido calls “the shop”: Flat Black, an almost 3,000-square-foot mix of art supply store, clothing boutique, gallery, and studio space. The name refers to Krylon’s Ultra Flat Black, a classic spray color favored by taggers. The shop is more than twice as big as Salcido’s previous location on the corner of Highway 111 and Panorama Drive in Palm Desert. Flat Black officially opened July 13 with a party that served as a record release for hip-hop musicians Provoked and WillDaBeast and a solo show for the painter Boise.

“There’s always been a scene here for what I do, but I think it’s been more on the underground,” Salcido says. “It’s not so out in the open as in Los Angeles or any big city where young people’s voices are a little louder.”

Salcido estimates that between 300 and 400 people attended the event. The laidback, eclectic crowd ranged in age from toddlers to grandparents. Leslie Malloy came from Rancho Mirage with a friend in tow. A recent convert to street art, the party’s vibe “made her feel 12 years younger” — a testament to the appeal of an art form that was once in the shadows.

“We didn’t start as street artists trying to sell art supplies,” Salcido says. “We started as graffiti writers trying to sell supplies to graffiti writers for vandalism.”

As street art continues to move into the mainstream, the dynamic between rebellion and respectability hangs in the air like a whiff of weed. Graffiti traces its lineage to the first marks made on a wall — the term derives from Italian and Greek words meaning to scratch or scribble — and street art exploded in sophistication in the 1970s and ’80s, when artists learned how to manipulate aerosols for eye-popping three-dimensional effects. Despite that, the genre didn’t receive full-fledged endorsement until 2011 when the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles hosted “Art in the Streets,” billed as the first major U.S. museum exhibition of graffiti and street art.

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PHOTOGRAPH BY KATE NAYLOR

Inside Flat Black art supply at Westfield Palm Desert there are art supplies for sale and examples of what creations can be made with them.

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La Quinta artist Gino Elorie created this sculpture using spray foam, fiberglass, and an empty paint can.

Eight years later, it’s still hard to shake questions of legality. The morning after Salcido and his team began painting the construction fence in downtown Palm Springs, a city subcontractor mistakenly “buffed,” or erased, the art, returning the fence to bland beige. The team had to redo almost four murals. They took it in stride. Salcido compares spots like downtown Palm Springs or the Westfield parking garage to “a revolving door.”

“Your art might be there for a year, but then it’s gone,” Salcido says. “That’s one of the things we’ve always faced. None of our art is permanent.” He notes, “This culture is always going to be here, regardless.”

Talk to artists and the lines between graffiti, street art, and murals are made clear. Those distinctions are often lost on the public. In San Francisco, sanctioned street art was defaced when it was associated with encroaching gentrification. In Austin and Miami, unsanctioned murals became beloved by the community, who fought to keep them. The difference often comes down to aesthetics, context, and intent.

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PHOTOGRAPHS COURTESY WESTFIELD PALM DESERT

Artwork enlivens the walls at Westfield Palm Desert.

With graffiti, “the concept is to put your name in as many places as you can in order to get recognition from society, basically leaving a stamp on society,” Salcido says. “That’s where I started, that’s where a lot of my friends started. If you want to, you grow into doing custom pieces or gallery stuff. But in my eyes, you have to earn that.”

Salcido honed his talent in L.A. alleys, and his burly forearms bear tattoos from crews that he ran with. A large one, “NBC,” stands for “No Brain Cells.” He started working at age 18, helping his dad deliver alternators around West L.A., and became a father himself that year.

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A selection by BirdO, street artist Jerry Rugg, out of Toronto.

It was an accelerated transition from youth to adult. As he moved up through a variety of jobs — hotel desk clerk, general manager of a taxicab company — his self-image changed. He saw that he had a future, one that didn’t involve jail time.

“There’s this misconception, when you’re young and you’re from a lower-income community,” he says, “Basically, that’s what you are.” Taking on responsibility put him “in a position of hope. I was definitely not used to that. I didn’t see anything further than the environment I was in. That’s just how it was.”

“I’m one of them, and they’re me. We earned the right to do this. We fought to do this. A lot of people that I know have paid fines and been to jail. To be able to do this for money and have someone admire it — it’s a blessing.”
— Pete Salcido on the work of street artists gaining public recognition
 petesalcidoflatblackartsupply

PHOTOGRAPH BY KATE NAYLOR

In 2006, while in the middle of a divorce, Salcido visited the Coachella Valley to relax. Expecting to find tumbleweeds and not much else, the desert surprised him. He stayed. Now, when he’s stocking the shop or planning a mural, he looks for artisans who tell their story of desert living — not poolside martinis and golf greens, but the way the pavement feels when it’s 106 degrees at night and the fierce pride of being a local in a town that loves its tourists.

Salcido aims for Flat Black to be a place where all artists are comfortable, regardless of style, experience, or background. He knows what it’s like to walk into a gallery and not feel welcome. He believes that if an artist is ready to move to the next level, they should be given the opportunity to prove themselves “just like anybody should.” As a result, Flat Black is more than a commercial venture; it’s a social hub, a nexus for the large network of artists in the valley.

“People take to this because they see a success story from someone who started right where they started,” Salcido says. “I’m one of them, and they’re me. We earned the right to do this. We fought to do this. A lot of people that I know have paid fines and been to jail. To be able to do this for money and have someone admire it — it’s a blessing.”

For more information, go to instagram.com/flat_black_shop.