the i-D guide to los angeles
From relaxing to juicing, drugs to supermarkets, and yes, tacos and driving, lose yourself in the hyperreal beauty and surreal fantasy of Los Angeles.
Photography Isaac Marley Morgan
This article originally appeared in i-D's The Acting Up Issue, no. 349, Fall 2017.
Arriving Make sure to arrive after dark, and choose a window seat on the right side of the plane. Seen from the night air there is no more beautiful city than Los Angeles. It sprawls as far as the eye can see in a vast grid from the ocean to the mountains and beyond. The descent into LAX is a wonder of the modern world. Just before landing the city flattens into a color field of oranges, lemons, apples, purples, and pinks and fills your vision with sparkling light. From the ground L.A. is mostly quite ugly. But there is also a kind of beauty in its ugliness. A pleasure to be had in the artificiality of a Tuscan McMansion in the Hills or in the feel of the curve of a particularly complicated freeway interchange. If you're interested in the latter you might prepare for your trip by watching Reyner Banham's classic BBC documentary, Reyner Banham Loves Los Angeles. If you're interested in the former, curl up on the sofa with a good season of Keeping Up With The Kardashians or, just as appropriately, Curb Your Enthusiasm.
Juicing If you made sure to arrive at night then your first stop should probably be a Korean spa. But if you're arriving under the baking sun, go straight to the Beverly Hills Juice Club to refresh. It is a compact (roughly the size of a small walk-in wardrobe) and strange business with an intense atmosphere and a series of unwritten rules that should not be broken. Don't crowd the space. If it's crowded, wait in line outside with the door closed. Don't speak on the phone or make a lot of noise or anything like that. Just walk in and order a delicious banana manna shake mixed with a juice of your choice. This is really the only time you should speak. On my last visit I was rather surprised to note that, under her spotless white apron, the cashier was wearing a black T-shirt promoting the (allegedly) Nazi-sympathising British neofolk band Death In June. I don't think anything was meant by this, and of course I refrained from commenting upon it.
Relaxing A great way to unwind after a long flight is by going to one of the many 24-hour Korean spas, the most famous of which is Wi Spa, which is huge and empyrean and half-price on Tuesdays. It's a nice place to spend a couple of hours completely naked (those are the rules) with your friends. This is particularly beneficial for men, I think, because in Britain and much of America there isn't much of a culture of hanging out naked, but it's really relaxing and makes for closer friendships. In Los Angeles, which is the western capital of cosmetic surgery, working out and wellness culture, physicality is valued over style and many people are more interested in their bodies than in their clothes, so the spa is a good place to start looking after your body. It's also just interesting to see a load of naked strangers in a non-confrontational setting, because it shows that underneath our clothes we're all the same really; aside from our penises, which are all wildly different. Once you're done with the men's or women's floors and dressed in shorts and a T-shirt, head up to the mixed jimjilbang floor at the top of the building where you'll find a cafeteria, a series of jade, clay, pink salt, and ice saunas, a manga library and some robotic massage chairs that only cost a couple of dollars. These are great, and surprisingly brutally unnerving at times.
"The descent into LAX is a wonder of the modern world. Just before landing the city flattens into a color field of oranges, lemons, apples, purples, and pinks and fills your vision with sparkling light."
Cooling down If you're interested in pursuing wellness to more of an extreme, you can have yourself frozen in Beverly Hills for around $50. Lindsay Lohan (one of many celebrity devotees of the unforgiving cold) has attributed this process of whole-body cryotherapy, in concert with ayahuasca sessions and transcendental meditation, with having helped turn her life around. This is a genuine Angeleno experience for anyone seeking redemption. And most people coming to Los Angeles are hoping to be redeemed, or else utterly corrupted. Inside the cryo-machines the temperature is minus 284 degrees Fahrenheit and the chambers are thick with swirling frosty smoke and pop music (when I was in there they were playing Fetty Wap). A speaking clock counts down how long you have left in intervals; if it's your first time, the limit is two minutes. Before going in I asked the owner what was going to happen and he told me, "Your body thinks you're going to die, and were you in there for about half an hour, that would be the case." The premise is that your body, preparing for death, increases the circulation of blood to your organs, raises your metabolism and releases endorphins, and that perhaps this is good for you somehow. When you step back outside into the sunshine you'll feel euphoric. Or at least pleased to no longer be confronting your immediate mortality inside a cryo-chamber while Trap Queen blares out over the radio.
Drugs Los Angeles is a healthy place but there are stoners everywhere. Weed is legal and a cloud of it floats over the city at all times. Somebody is always smoking a blunt, or eating a small bag of weed cookies, or inhaling from a little pocket vaporizer before going to yoga. You can choose from a menu of hundreds of different strains and have them delivered to your door in under an hour; none of which is surprising, because Southern California is really the spiritual home of stoners. One time, my stoner roommate walked into the living room with her face painted in an avocado and honey facemask. "It's not easy being green," she observed, then slumped onto the sofa and started eating her facemask. These kinds of things happen all the time. There are more unusual drugs on offer too, such as mango-and-coconut-flavored cocaine. Some locals attend ayahuasca circles. Going on a mystical journey with your spirit animal and confronting your most profound fears while vomiting up acrid bile in a room full of strangers is considered a completely reasonable way to spend a weekday night in L.A. But because I am not at peace with my subconscious, and remain at heart a fearful and anti-psychedelic Englishman, I have stayed well away from these circles. I did once go to the resplendent mansion of a Beverly Hills shaman. It was a Monday morning. He told me that he frequently performed spells to help out clients who'd come to Hollywood to become famous or to have sex with beautiful people, and that he was married to a German magician, and that he often carried a mandrake root around in a special harness, like a baby, so that it could be close to his heart. He was very intense. He sat in front of an ottoman covered in ceremonial daggers and magic wands. I was coming down from a weekend of taking mango-and-coconut-flavoured cocaine and found the whole experience distressing. Don't do drugs in Los Angeles. But if you are doing drugs then you might want to try microdosing. The idea is to regularly take small quantities of mushrooms, acid, or MDMA (all of these options seem insane to be honest) every day. Quantities should be so small that you don't feel high but still experience some positive effects on your mood, creativity, and productivity. The most common mistake is taking too much. Everyone I know who has tried it has done this. My stoner roommate used to drink mushroom tea from breakfast onwards and walk around the house laughing at things I could not see or understand. Sometimes she would ask if she seemed high. Yes, I would say, you seem very high.
Tacos By now you're probably stoned and you're hungry (and maybe also recovering from a transcendental journey of self-discovery) and you're in Los Angeles: you need a taco like the desert needs the rain. The most famous taco in the city is the Al Pastor from Leo's Taco Truck, on an otherwise unremarkable strip of South La Brea Avenue. You can stand in a parking lot and watch chefs make the tacos of your dreams. Los Angeles is surely the greatest city of all for having the munchies in. Also, if you ever see a fruit cart roaming the streets of the Eastside under a rainbow-coloured umbrella, stop and buy a bag of fresh fruit: more pineapple, different melons, papaya, cucumber and mango chopped up in front of you and garnished with fresh lime juice and spicy Mexican seasoning. Nothing tastes better on a hot day.
"If Jean Baudrillard were alive today, this is where he would be buying his iced coffees and slices of cheesecake."
Supermarkets L.A. has excellent supermarkets. It also has a weird and compelling supermarket culture. The most popular ones are like nightclubs: places to go and hang and check out one another's bodies, and baskets, and sit at the side of the room people-watching and maybe even fall in love. Some have bars and DJs (but not very good DJs), so you can go on dates in them. A painter once told me that the gigantic Whole Foods in Venice was the sexiest place he's ever been because it's where the healthiest and most blonde, and tanned, and vain people in the world go to have their post-workout juices and flirt across the hot bar and the help-yourself salad islands. However, beware of sleazy supermarket pickup artists and other confidence tricksters. They're everywhere. One of their many plays is to hang around with a punnet of tempting, glistening organic cherries and, like a snake in the Garden of Eden, offer them to passing hippy girls, stoner twinks, and micro-dosing fitness models while saying something along the lines of, "Hey I love your outfit are you a yoga instructor?"
Shopping If you've been to a Westfield Shopping City you're likely to have experienced everything the traditional late-20th century American mall has to offer. But in Southern California property developers are dreaming up the next generation of malls that, depending on the sort of person you are, are likely to be your own vision of paradise or hell; and the greatest of these is The Grove. Here you'll find a make-believe Disney Main Street simulacrum of 20s Art Deco Los Angeles with shops, restaurants, cinemas, fountains, statues, and even a small train. If you want to sit outside and just take in the grand theatre of life, of friends hugging and families laughing and shiny, happy people everywhere, this is the place to come. The Grove has one of the most vibrant street scenes in Los Angeles and it's not even a real street, only a sweet, comforting hyperreality. If Jean Baudrillard were alive today, this is where he would be buying his iced coffees and slices of cheesecake. Nobody really does much shopping here. Rather it's more of a place for hanging around and parading yourself in front of the crowds and taking in the spectacle. There are wild birds fluttering overhead, the fountains are dancing an intricate choreography and all along the avenue the trees are singing Frank Sinatra love songs to you. Everything feels alive in the new American mall. But the best thing of all: if you go in the winter after sunset there's a pretend snow storm on the hour, every hour, and a warm tempest blows over 1st Street and the air is rich with smells of nutmeg and gingerbread and it's a miracle, like the ending of every Christmas movie you ever watched as a child.
Driving Reyner Banham once said, "I learned to drive in order to read Los Angeles in the original." He's right, because the greatest thing about L.A. is just driving around in the middle of the night with your friends, swooping across the overpasses and listening to rap. There's no better feeling. For the authentic experience try listening to Migos (who you're most likely to bump into at the 7-Eleven by Echo Park) or Chief Keef (I'm told he often spends a lot of time wandering around the Whole Foods in Encino, not buying anything, just looking at things in a haze) or Drake (he likes Nobu in Malibu) and go on the 4th of July, just after sunset, when there are hundreds of backyard fireworks displays and block parties scattered across the sprawl and thousands of fireworks blooming like flowers along the freeway.