It's all well that my first foray into skid row would connect me with a fellow filmmaker. Although he simply referes to himself as a "creator - an artist”.
What's your name? "Flako Siete 'Brian' last name on a need to know basis", one of the first thing he says in the VR interview I conducted with him last week in front of the Boyd Hotel on skid row in Los Angeles.
I was born and raised in Los Angeles - Downey, South Gate, and the San Fernando Valley and now I reside in Frogtown about 15 minute drive from Down Town LA. As a filmmaker I ran all over the world attending economic and climate summits, working for Disney in China, and chasing stories about marginalized people - covering topics such as mental health in Ghana or International human rights issues in Nicaragua. But right in my back yard, in LA, was a human rights issue that seemed to be getting more and more out of control.
As is the case with many Angelenos, my only expereince with Skid Row was a passive look down a dark street while on an evening out dinning and drinking on Spring street. But one night, with a buddy and his girlfriend, we ended up in Little Tokyo on the east side of town and decided we needed to make our way back to Main street. As we walked we noticed less and less lights and more and more tents. For me the walk seemed to last forever - but from what I would come to learn is that skid row isn't just one or two streets in downtown, but a full on square mile of tents and cardboard homes that line the sidewalks predominantly from 3rd and Alameda up to 7th and Los Angeles. That's not to mention the hundreds of other homeless encampments that pop up all over Los Angeles from Venice Beach to the San Fernando Valley and into Silver Lake.
But there is something unique about downtown's skid row experience. On a Friday night just a stones throw away from scantily-clad club-going-ladies and freshly waxed Bentleys you'll see countless people propped up against the side of a building huddling underneath blankets sleeping through all the noise that floods in from the DTLA active nightlife.
There's fights that break out, crack pipes being smoked, makeshift kitchens with live flames running inside a Colman tent, and hundreds more just trying to make it through the night. Each and every person on skid row has an interesting story that lead them to that sidewalk. Some have been there for years and others only a few months. Like Flako, who fortunately didn't end up in a tent, but was able to wheel-and-deal his way into a "hotel room" right above skid row.
It's a small little unit - single occupancy technically- but I didn't see one room in that building that wasn't occupied by less than 2 people. His room happened to have 4. About 150square feet of space with no kitchen or bathroom, he had made this little offering work for him.
I met him on the street just a block or so away from the Boyd Hotel when he asked if I had a charger for his phone. I did happen to have a power brick which I let him use for a few minutes as we started to talk. Standing right in front of the hotel he banged on the door every so often to get the attention of I don't know who. He didn't actually have a key to the place because he isn't officially a resident, just crashing with a friend. So we talked about where he came from, what he does with his time, and how he came to live right above skid row.
“I’ve been here ever since the strike”, he tells me. Just before Easter earlier in the year he had been attacked on the street, stabbed in the rib cage, and left for dead. He spent 5 days in the hospital where they cut him open to repair his lungs and internal organs that we sliced by the knife. He shows me the scars - a long one on his belly from the doctors and a short exact puncture on his left side bellow his bottom two ribs. He was subsequently evicted from his apartment loft on 5th street, stuff thrown out or sold to make payments to debts. With no place to go he crashed on a friends couch, and when that hospitality ran dry, he was offered a corner of this 150square foot room he was standing in front of.
The interview get’s interrupted by his friend, who finally came down the stairs to let him in and we continue the interview upstairs, which eventually diverts into his art.
He creates video art that he projects onto sides of buildings as a kind of protest. He says " I don't post it on YouTube because you don't get to choose when to watch my art. I take it out to the street and I say- here it is. Nowis when you can watch it".
And that's the kind of person Flako is. He lives on his terms. They're not lavish terms, but despite his situation he has a great deal of self worth. He believes he's going somewhere. He told me he had been approached by Vice to use some footage he shot years before featuring predominate players in the HipHop community. He claims they offered him $15,000 to use the footage. He turned them down. When I asked why he says, "I'm gold, I'm worth a hell of a lot more than that. That's my life on those tapes".
Flako was on the edge, he was a struggling artist before he was stabbed, but a 5 day stint in the ER turned him into a literal starving artist. " I'm still here. I might not have the same shit I had before..But am I going to fold? Am I going to let them tell me I can't do it? Negative! The only thing that never gave up on me was my art"
I see it a little differently: As we he walks me out of the building a woman in a wheel chair stops us to talk to Flako. Joking around with her, he walks away laughing then says to me "she saved me. Her and Erik (his roommate) saved me. I gotta take care of them. She can't leave, she can't go get food for the day. I gotta look out of them. It's only right".
As we walk down the street - me inquiring more about skid row and his experiences - he's waving hello, shouting at people across the street, joking with pan handlers, men making up their beds for the evening, all of these people are his friends. He's a people person. He connects and finds the good hearts all around him and tries his best to tie himself into his community. That's what saved him. He never gave up on himself.
I personally don't know what it takes to end up on skid row or more importantly what it takes to survive on skid row, but Flako does.