Hidden in the swirling lines of artist Keith Haring’s work is the tag LA II. Haring was an icon of the 1980s and 90s New York art world. He met Angel Ortiz in the early 1980s, and his work was never the same.
The collaboration between LA II, an established graffiti artist at the time, and Haring often gets overlooked. However, many of the intricate lines of Haring’s paintings contain another name, LA II.
We’ll spotlight the young man who inspired one of America’s most loved artists. LA II, we’re coming for you.
Let’s hit it!
The Story of Angel Ortiz
Born on the Lower East Side of New York in 1967, Angel Ortiz started tagging at 10. The child of Puerto Rican immigrants, Ortiz left his tag all over the legendary neighborhood in the early 1970s.
LA II, LA2, and LA ROCK (meaning “Little Angel”) appeared on walls and subway cars. Then something happened that changed his life forever.
In 1980, at 13, Ortiz heard from his friends that someone was looking for him. For Ortiz, that didn’t seem like a good thing.
Artist Keith Haring, a recent transplant from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, saw LA II tags and wanted to meet the artist. He didn’t expect to meet a scrappy thirteen-year-old who found him on a local basketball court.
Haring’s work appeared all over subway advertisements around this time. He jumped off the train and, using chalk, left images that are now an iconic stylistic language.
The images were simple line drawings that made extensive use of negative space. When Haring met Ortiz, all of that changed.
Haring and Ortiz collaborated on nearly all of Haring’s work in the early 1980s. With a career spanning a decade, Haring and Ortiz spent six of those years collaborating.
LA II’s tagging on the street was a swirl of lines creating tight turns and sweeping curves. He worked closely with Haring until Haring’s death in 1990 at the height of the AIDS crisis.
For the period that LA II and Haring worked together, Ortiz lived a lush life. He dropped out of school at 16 to pursue his art career and traveled the world. LA II saw his tag in fine art galleries and some top galleries and museums worldwide.
Collaborations between the two men sold for millions, and Ortiz saw compensation for his contributions. But after Haring died, the payments stopped.
Haring’s star continued to rise after his death; the art world all but forgot Little Angel. Ortiz struggled after the passing of his collaborator. In the early 1990s, he became addicted to heroin and spent eight months in prison for possession.
Then, in the mid-2000s, gallery owner and filmmaker Clayton Patterson helped LA II get the recognition he deserved. In honor of Haring’s 50th birthday, professional painters recreated his famous mural at Houston Street and the Bowery on the Lower East Side.
The painters even included the LA II tags embedded in the swirling lines. Ortiz made his mark on the mural by adding new tags all over the work.
“When I was painting that mural…I felt like it was Keith’s spirit in me,” he said in an interview. And the Keith Haring Foundation left the tags in place, a fitting tribute to the deceased artist.
What Inspired LA II?
During the 1980s and 1990s, life on the Lower East Side was hard. The rising crack epidemic, rampant heroin use, and crime-plagued streets made childhood a survival game.
When Ortiz began tagging, graffiti was part of the culture and a way to stand out. Young people like Little Angel used graffiti to gain street cred and leave something behind.
Later in life, Ortiz went on a tagging spree again, using his instantly recognizable tag, which led to three arrests in 2011. He later explained the death of his wife sent him back into the streets.
“I do what I do. The streets are my canvases,” Ortiz said in an interview with DNAinfo. It may be self-expression, but this artist found himself at Rikers Island for his trouble.
What Is the Controversy Surrounding LA II?
Despite his troubled past, the controversy around LA II isn’t about his law-breaking. When Haring discovered Ortiz’s work in 1980, he engaged in cultural appropriation.
For a young, white artist in New York, street cred mattered. Whether he meant to or not, Haring used the work of LA II to change his art in a way that set him apart. Ortiz traveled with Haring and appeared alongside him at shows.
But promoters and gallery owners left LA II off the promotional materials. He was a curiosity, much like the relationship between Andy Warhol and Basquiat. And while he paid Ortiz for his contributions at the time, things changed after his death.
Black and brown appropriation and erasure in the art world are commonplace. LA II still hasn’t seen the kind of recognition that Haring enjoys. Friends like Clayton Patterson are helping to ensure that Ortiz stays part of Haring’s legacy.
In interviews, Keith Haring Foundation chairperson Julia Gruen clarified that they don’t feel any responsibility to help Ortiz or his career. “We recognize his work…he was compensated for all the work he did by Keith Haring during his lifetime (Village Sun, 2020).”
Has LA II Ever Been Arrested?
Between 1987 and 2002, LA II got caught on the wrong side of the law nine times. Since then, he’s been arrested or in jail four more times.
The last offense, in 2016, was the most severe. Charged with two felonies, robbery, criminal possession of a weapon, menacing, and petit larceny, Ortiz faced between two and seven years in prison.
The story goes that he stole a phone, smashed it, and then stole a knife and waved it around. One version of the knife story includes a piece of fruit, possibly the motive for the knife theft.
However, he never ended up spending time in prison for this offense and seems to have mellowed out since then.
What Are Some of LA II’s Art Pieces?
Here are some pieces typical of LA II’s style. Check out these pieces and pick one or two up if you can.
Fresh Kids-LA Rock-CBS
Covered in swirling black and silver paint, Fresh Kids comes to you straight from our personal collection. The green background sets off the tags “LA Rock,” “Fresh Kidds,” and “CBS,” along with an LA2.
LA II creates a sense of movement and vibrancy with this piece painted on wood. Fresh Kids is from the 1990s, after his affiliation with Haring ended.
One Of A Kind Violin
This functional violin takes on a new purpose in One Of A Kind Violin. Using his signature lines and tags, Ortiz follows the lines of the violin to create something unique.
Green, silver, pink, yellow, and black lines pack tightly on this piece. LA II finds some negative space here as well, perhaps a nod to Haring, in a figure along the left side of the instrument.
The art of graffiti sometimes involves remixing a piece that already exists. In Pegasus, Ortiz takes a classic Mobil Oil sign and makes it his own.
Covering the red Pegasus and white background with silver and black swirls, the piece becomes an original. The large sign crawls with ornamentation under Ortiz’s pen in what looks like intricate embroidery.
Where Can I See LA II’s Art?
These days, LA II is seeing a resurgence in popularity, and you can find his art online and in person. Of course, you can see his collaborations with Haring all over as well, but let’s focus just on LA II.
Van Der Plas Gallery
The Van Der Plas Gallery in New York City closed an exhibit of LA II’s work. However, you can still view a 3D walkthrough of the exhibition and an extensive write-up of the artist on their website.
Over 25 of Ortiz’s original works are in this exhibit. The online version of the gallery is engaging and fun to look through.
Like his collaborator, Ortiz makes bold statements in big ways. If you can find murals by Ortiz around New York, count yourself lucky.
This piece on the Lower East Side is fantastic. Located on East 11th Street, the swirling and colorful mural adds to Ortiz’s legacy. Some may say it looks too much like Haring, but the argument could go both ways.
You can also find LA II in our collection, among a growing list of Outsider and Folk artists. Outsider Folk Gallery exists to amplify the voices of Outsider artists, including Native American artists, black artists, indigenous artists, and working mothers.
Our gallery exists as a physical installation, an Instagram gallery, and our website. We hope to include pop-up shows and work with small galleries in the future.
Giving Credit Where It’s Due
Street art in the late 1970s and early 1980s represented a shift in Outsider art. Instead of objects, artists like LA II used the streets as their canvas.
LA II may have inspired an iconic style in the work of Keith Haring. But we can’t overlook his legacy as a collaborator and artist in his own right.
Have you seen Ortiz’s iconic tags? Tell us about it in the comments.