By: Derek K.
Date: March 22, 2021

A way of life and set of attitudes opposed to or at variance with the prevailing social norm.”
-- Oxford Dictionary
Abbot Kinney’s vision for Venice-of-America was that of a new age Renaissance town in Southern California. That never came to fruition, but in some poetic way Venice has had counterculture “renaissances” that Kinney couldn’t have imagined. Creative movements have blossomed and blended to form a fully-fledged community with music, art, theater, writing, and alternative sports at its core.

From its genesis, Venice has showcased music and dancing at its forefront. The amusement piers that lined the Venice beaches had dance halls and ballrooms that featured enormous Big Bands and orchestras. While the swing, ragtime, and popular tunes the Big Bands played was mainstream to a T, there were smaller music venues on the piers and along the beach front that encouraged more avant-garde subgenres of jazz and swing. These small, free-wheeling enclaves were where musicians from the Big Bands could really try out new styles and techniques, when they weren’t fulfilling their mainstream obligations.
One of Venice’s more legendary venues is The Del Monte speakeasy, which operated as a watering hole out of the basement of Menotti’s Grocery Store, featuring live jazz music during prohibition. Now called Townhouse Venice, this venue is the oldest bar in Venice and to this day you can still go check out live music there.
Interestingly, the Aragon Ballroom on the Lick Pier (another influential venue of the Big Band Era) transitioned into a prominent Rock N’ Roll venue called The Cheetah Club in the 1960’s, ushering in a new era of music with iconic performances from The Doors, Pink Floyd, and Buffalo Springfield. The Rock music lore runs deep in Venice! The Doors’ Jim Morrison and Ray Manzarek famously made a pact to start a rock band that would change the world right on Venice Beach!
Street Art
There has been a vibrant street art community and movement in Venice since the early 1990’s. Street art reflects altruistic purposes like artistic expression and social commentary, as well as purely decorative and commercial/marketing functions. There was a period of time from 2003 to 2013 when street art was restricted, but Venice and its community saw the light and reversed the moratorium to allow for the art form to flourish once again.
World famous artists such as Jonas Never, Rip Cronk, The Art of Chase, Isabelle Alford Lago, Jules Muck, Emily Winters and Greg Mike have graced the walls, underpasses and nooks of the Venice streetscape. This wonderful form of expression has inspired two great community organizations whose purpose is to foster the next generations of artists: SPARC and Serve the Public. (starting clockwise, the murals are painted by Jules Muck, Isabelle Alford Lago, Rip Cronk and Jonas Never)
Beat Poetry
When people think of Beatniks, visions of dark, smoky cafes and bars in Greenwich Village and San Francisco often come to mind. But Venice, CA had its own, very unique beat poetry movement. In the 1930’s and 40’s, Venice fell on hard times because it was seen as outdated, lacked an auto-centric design and was overrun by oil companies drilling incessantly. The primarily African American neighborhood of Oakwood was directly in the middle of Venice, attracting individuals who wanted a multi-cultural surrounding. Cheap rents, a diverse community and, yes, the beauty of the ocean brought flocks of artists to the neighborhood, many of whom would form the artistic base of Venice’s beat poetry movement.
In large part, the beat poetry movement was a reaction to the WWII era and its socio-political norms that the Beatniks railed against. In the 1950’s, Venice’s poets started meeting on the beaches, in bars and cafes, and in their private homes to read poetry and reflect on much needed changes in society. There were two very different sects of poets: academics and those who were self-taught, and Venice’s writers were primarily of the self-taught variety. They were non-conformists who didn’t care about becoming well-known and, in fact, were suspicious of the popular writer.

There was a common ritual that typified the Venice beat poetry movement. Poets and artists were known to come together on Venice Beach, read their poetry aloud and, after doing so, burn the poems! Their form of expression was not focused on spreading their work for notoriety or critique, but rather sharing their work with fellow artists and moving on to the next experience, without leaving a trace.

Skate Culture

Venice - in conjunction with Huntington Beach and other beach cities - was a beacon for California’s iconic surf and beach culture, which has been called “one of Southern California’s greatest international exports,” and has given way to a myriad of famously contrarian cultural offshoots since. In fact, the birth of Venice’s now legendary skating culture can be directly attributed to surfing history. When the sport first came onto the scene, it was often referred to as “sidewalk surfing.” In the 1970’s, surf shop owners started working with local Venice teens from troubled homes to start skateboard teams. They developed techniques on the pot-holed streets and in swimming pools empty from droughts that would gain them world recognition at skateboard championships. Skating has influenced fashion, music, film and so much more that is inextricably linked to Venice.
One of the fascinating juxtapositions about counterculture movements is that they burn with a fierce passion which often makes them cool and hip, and eventually turns them mainstream. That doesn’t change the fact that Venice will always be a creative incubator where fresh ideas and new forms come to life!
Join us on a walk of the Venice Boardwalk & Canals when you’re in town to learn more!
* Cover photo: Pixabay