Los Angeles Underground

Far beyond the polish and respectability of Disney Hall and the Huntington lies a vibrant subculture of performance art, drag nights, and bondage and body modification events. Photographer Safi Alia Shabaik is there to capture it all.

Drag queen and burlesque performer Violet Chachki mid–lip sync.
Drag queen and burlesque performer Violet Chachki mid–lip sync.
© SAFI ALIA SHABAIK. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

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.”

L.A.-based acid jazz beat poet Toledo Diamond silhouetted with a cigarette and a mic in hand in Santa Monica.
L.A.-based acid jazz beat poet Toledo Diamond silhouetted with a cigarette and a mic in hand in Santa Monica.
© SAFI ALIA SHABAIK. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

Abhora pulls down on a friend’s choker necklace at a DragCon after-party at Precinct in Los Angeles.
Abhora pulls down on a friend’s choker necklace at a DragCon after-party at Precinct in Los Angeles.
© SAFI ALIA SHABAIK. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

Peaches performs as Heino’s arm sneaks through her legs for a selfie shot.
Peaches performs as Heino’s arm sneaks through her legs for a selfie shot.
© SAFI ALIA SHABAIK. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

Performance artist and musician Geneva Jacuzzi shines a flashlight into her face.
Performance artist and musician Geneva Jacuzzi shines a flashlight into her face.
© SAFI ALIA SHABAIK. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

Drag queen Kunda F. Couture as Tranimal.
Drag queen Kunda F. Couture as Tranimal.
© SAFI ALIA SHABAIK. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

Transmedia sensation Neon Music covers Bauhaus’s “Bela Lugosi’s Dead” at the Lucha VaVoom Halloween spectacular.
Transmedia sensation Neon Music covers Bauhaus’s “Bela Lugosi’s Dead” at the Lucha VaVoom Halloween spectacular.
© SAFI ALIA SHABAIK. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

Tosca, after releasing her double whips, during a performance at Lucha VaVoom in Los Angeles.
Tosca, after releasing her double whips, during a performance at Lucha VaVoom in Los Angeles.
© SAFI ALIA SHABAIK. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

Performance art at the Charlie Factory in Los Angeles.
Performance art at the Charlie Factory in Los Angeles.
© SAFI ALIA SHABAIK. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

Genderfluid club-goers at Precinct.
Genderfluid club-goers at Precinct.
© SAFI ALIA SHABAIK. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

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