There is an underground Los Angeles that most of us don’t see. This wildly creative universe just beneath the city’s sleek surface pulses with performance art, drag nights, and bondage and body modification events. In all its boundary-pushing glory, it’s a world that photographer Safi Alia Shabaik wants to share and, in whatever way she can, connect us with.
Born and raised in Los Angeles, Shabaik is the child of an Egyptian and a Texan, an interracial pair who met in Berkeley in the late 1960s. It’s those unusual roots, Shabaik suspects, that inform her work with L.A.’s subculture scenes.
“I never saw difference as anything other than beautiful,” she says.
Shabaik, whose work has been featured in the New York Times and Artillery Magazine, is one of the founding members of the Los Angeles Street Collective and a teaching assistant at the Los Angeles Center of Photography. She counts famed photographer Catherine Opie as a mentor. But photography hasn’t always been Shabaik’s career. Initially a celebrity stylist, she eventually became a documentarian, personal assistant, stylist, and confidant to performer Grace Jones. Later, Shabaik worked as a licensed mortician.
These days, the photographer can be found blending in with the audiences at Mexican wrestling matches and smoky burlesque performances, seeking out those, she says, who are “pushing these borders of cultural expectations.”
“Hopefully, exploring this subject matter and sharing it with people can bring to light that underneath it all, we’re all human. When we feel connected,” says Shabaik, “we have a greater capacity for understanding and love.”