Why A Small-Scale Artist Is Rebuilding Tiny Versions Of Iconic LA Buildings, Including This Eastside Burrito Joint
At his apartment in Miracle Mile, Kieran Wright can visit some of Los Angeles’ most beloved buildings from the comfort of his couch.
As a small-scale artist, the 29-year-old’s shelves and walls boast miniatures of famous L.A. structures so finely detailed that it’s possible to read the micro signs in the window and see tiny leaves piled up on the sidewalks.
While Wright moved from New Zealand to L.A. five years ago, his art has made him feel like a local because it helps him explore the city. The history buff has shrunken more than 20 sites, and his selections are based in iconicism and legend — Dodger Stadium, the Troubadour in West Hollywood, the hot dog-shaped Tail o’ the Pup in Beverly Grove, The Black Cat in Silver Lake. But Wright is also keenly aware that the places Angelenos love typically aren’t large tourist attractions.
That’s why his latest creation took him east with Al & Bea’s Mexican Food, a small restaurant wedged between two buildings on First Street in Boyle Heights. Al & Bea’s is sought after for its gooey and cheesy bean burritos and has been open since 1966 with recipes from Chihuahua and Mexico City. The late restaurant critic Jonathan Gold even touted the family-owned business as one of the best places to get a burrito.
Wright receives a lot of requests from supporters to create scaled-down models of real-world places. His work has been featured in “The World According to Jeff Goldblum,” and A-list stars have commissioned him. While it’s “gratifying and humbling” to create special pieces for Issa Rae and J.J. Abrams, Al & Bea’s was both a widely requested and personal selection. He sees it as a “mascot” in the Eastside community. And, of course, the food is “mind-blowing.”
“You might move away from L.A., and come back 30 years later, but Al & Bea’s are still there serving burritos,” he said. “It makes people feel like home. And I think that's really cool.”
While Wright doesn’t let owners know about a piece until it’s done, Ryan Carreon at Al & Bea’s has shown Instagram photos of the miniature to staff. He’s the grandson of the restaurant’s founders and its current manager.
Carreon says the traditions at Al & Bea’s come from his grandmother’s recipes and nothing’s been changed. Their famous beans still take about 20 hours to cook because “if it’s not broke, don’t fix it.”
“We're blessed to have this place,” Carreon said. “I was blown away [by the miniature]. When I saw it, I couldn’t believe it. I'm glad that he chose ours.”
Starting a new building is a painstaking process for Wright. He prefers to build at 1:24 scale, meaning every 24 feet of the original building equates to one foot. The miniatures can have foam, wood, and plastics — but any materials will do, because he aims to recreate textures. Wright even dabbles in 3D printing and Photoshop, but he estimates about 99% of the builds are handmade.
“I'll go to the 99-cent store looking for something that might look like a tiny light bulb or something,” he said. “The miniatures take me a lot of time to make because I make everything.”
Wright says he tends to sneak by when a place is closed to snag measurements. Then, he dives into sketches and plans the design in Photoshop. Most of his buildings are of front facades, but Al & Bea’s is one of the first to capture a fuller picture with the seating and ordering areas.
Getting all the details correct matters to Wright. That’s because shrinking buildings is a niche art form that freezes a space in time. It’s not flat like a photograph or intangible like digital art. Those leave out physicality, which can transport people back to a memory.
“I think it's important to make sure that these … family-run businesses are going to be around for another 100 years or 50 years, because serving their community is so important,” he said.
So, what’s next on his list? He hopes to commemorate the oddly-shaped Kentucky Fried Chicken in Koreatown.