Follow Voicebox on Twitter Follow Voicebox on Facebook
Follow Voicebox on Facebook

Street Art Moves Onto Some New Streets

May 9, 2010

For a short while a few months ago, a mural by Eddie Colla enlivened an otherwise grubby stretch of wall in an alleyway in the upscale Hayes Valley neighborhood. The image, depicting two nearly naked and tattooed young women entwined in a sensual kiss, was a witty political message. The words “Just Married,” spray-painted in crimson above the couple, suggested the artist’s stance on gay marriage, while the six crushed beer cans dangling from strings attached to the women’s thighs like postmodern wedding garters conveyed his offbeat sense of humor. But like many street works — broadly defined as the stencils, murals, posters, tags and stickers that appear, often illegally, in public spaces — Mr. Colla’s mural didn’t last long.

Perhaps its fate might have been different had it appeared in the Mission district, where street art has long been embraced as a source of neighborhood pride. Works from that area are the subject of the recently published book “Street Art San Francisco: Mission Muralismo” (Abrams), with a foreword by Carlos Santana. Precita Eyes, a Mission group that sponsors murals and runs regular tours of street art, and the de Young Museum are in the midst of a yearlong series of monthly events spotlighting Mission street artists, each attracting an average of 3,000 attendees since the series began in November. Several street artists associated with the Mission, including Shepard Fairey, R. Crumb and Barry McGee, are internationally renowned.

But with wider recognition, street art in the Mission appears to have lost a bit of its edge, though much captivating work is still being produced there. Now some of the freshest and most thought-provoking pieces are turning up elsewhere, like the spray-painted and stenciled images found in neighborhoods like SoMa, the Tenderloin and Bayview-Hunters Point.

Take Chor Boogie’s mural “The Color Therapy of Perception,” a riotously vibrant painting of a pair of eyes stretching along Market Street near downtown. It has the visual power of a kaleidoscope, and its subject matter is an evocation of the author and activist Jane Jacobs’s pronouncement on urban safety: “There must be eyes upon the street.”

On Commercial Street in Chinatown, works by the British street artist Banksy feature crudely drawn red peace and love signs next to an intricately rendered doctor checking out a heart symbol with his stethoscope, questioning if 1960s idealism remains in good health.

“In neighborhoods like SoMa, Bayview-Hunters Point and the Tenderloin, the work feels more expressive and free,” said Justin Giarla, owner of the White Walls gallery in the Tenderloin, which is presenting an exhibition of works by the graffitists Blek le Rat and Above. “The street art scene in the Mission is comparatively much more structured.”

Street art, both the legal and illegal varieties, has long found fertile ground in San Francisco. The murals inside Coit Tower atop Telegraph Hill were commissioned as part of the New Deal’s first public art projects. The work and influence of the Mexican muralist Diego Rivera also helped to forge San Francisco’s passion for street art. The Mission became a hub for the form in the 1960s and ’7os partly because of its high concentration of Latino residents who brought in mural-making traditions.

The arrival of art-oriented organizations like Precita Eyes and the San Francisco Mime Troupe, which view street art as a core component of their activities, also contributed to its rising visibility in the Mission. Street art has become so inextricably linked to the Mission’s culture that today it often has the blessings of the city and property owners.

“In the Mission there is a real respect for muralism,” said Luis Cancel, director of cultural affairs for the San Francisco Arts Commission.

Street artworks outside the Mission have not had the effect of those in that neighborhood, partly because of an absence of community interest. That perhaps helps explain why Mr. Colla’s mural, admittedly produced illegally, had a short shelf life.

Sometimes, even works by famous artists have been erased by accident. Last fall a monochrome portrait of a heavy-lidded man wearing a sleeveless T-shirt, made on a garage door at 1009 Market Street, was mistakenly painted over by a contractor working for a neighborhood improvement group. That piece, which the Luggage Store gallery commissioned in 1994, was created by Mr. McGee.

The city is working to promote street art in parts of town beyond the Mission through programs like StreetSmARTs, which aims to reduce graffiti vandalism by connecting established artists with landlords on mural projects. The local artist Jet Martinez is currently working on a wall-length mural based on Mexican floral textile patterns in collaboration with a Tenderloin bookstore owner.

The city’s efforts in this area are laudable, but they seem ultimately more concerned about reducing graffiti than promoting street art as a form of creative expression. There is also a danger that if the city plays too great a role in neighborhoods like the Tenderloin, the works produced there might come to resemble their more establishment-friendly counterparts in the Mission, at the expense of their artistic edge.



Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home