"Tarfest" Celebrates Los Angeles Culture at the La Brea Tar Pits

On what seemed like just another weekend in Miracle Mile, a small neighborhood encompassing Los Angeles’ Museum Row, pedestrians entered the La Brea Tar Pits expecting an ordinary visit. Walking in further, various dancers, DJs, and artists filled the grassy field just outside the museum. This was no random gathering; It was the 17th annual installation of Tarfest.

Tarfest is a reoccurring music and arts festival that celebrates the “past, present, and future” of Los Angeles. This year, Tarfest took place on Sept. 14. The event was co-presented by Launch LA — a non-profit organization which aims to strengthen the community through arts and culture programs and events — and National Public Radio (NPR) member station KCRW. According to Launch LA founder James Panozzo, Tarfest strives to preserve the best of Los Angeles’ arts and culture while providing fuel for new cultural developments. 

Los Angeles’ “past” was represented through interactive booths hosted by representatives from the La Brea Tar Pits and the Natural History Museums of Los Angeles County (NHMLAC). Replicas of bones from ice-age animals like sloth bears and dire wolves stretched across entire tables for people to touch and observe.

In four corners of the festival, artists stood with paintbrushes and spray paint cans in hand as they brought their own paintings to life in real-time. Michelle Ruby, known as Mrbbaby, spray-painted her own rendition of Grant Wood’s American Gothic painting, replacing the couple with cheeky animal motifs in bright blue and red hues.

Other artists placed sculptures on view, letting the work speak for itself. A life-sized ox formed out of green, white, and blue plastic stood on the grass where people pet it as if it was a real animal. Created by artist Cynthia Minet, this sculpture utilized recycled plastic to bring about a larger conversation about sustainability.

“Plastic is everywhere, unfortunately," said Marco Minet, Cynthia Minet's husband. "The medium is plastic, mostly leftovers from toys or what’s found on the street… but [Cynthia] puts them together in a beautiful fashion. It’s a combination of beauty and [something] thought-provoking.”

Artist Johnny “KMNDZ” Rodriguez came to Tarfest for his fourth year, creating a ten-foot canvas painting of a bomb blooming into a birdhouse. As a recurring artist at Tarfest, Rodriguez admires the individuality of the attendees that come every year.

“Every time I come here, it’s always so eclectic and different … you just don’t get this anywhere else,” said Rodriguez. “You might get pockets of it in San Francisco or New York … but it’s so rare to have artists, DJs, perform for the community. It’s such an LA thing … we have to take advantage of that.”

The festivities didn’t stop there. As KCRW DJs Raul Campos, Jeremy Soe, and DJ Valida kept the energy up with disco beats and eclectic hits, adults made their way out of the biergarten to dance to the music. Young children learned breakdancing moves in a workshop offered by JUiCE Hip Hop. Members from the Japan Foundation hosted calligraphy lessons at their booth, demonstrating live mural painting on a large canvas for all to see.

“I like that there’s everyone from all walks of life here,” said attendee Demitria Smith. “We’re just doing whatever the wind tells us to do. We just wanted to see the tar pits … but we ended up here and I’m glad we did.”