Graffiti to Gallery

Andrew Schoultz, the mural artist who's making it big in the gallery by refusing to leave the street behind

Beginning shortly after Christmas 2001 and running into the new year, Andrew Schoultz changed a long, drearily gray wall in Hayes Valley into a delightful, off-kilter universe, one in which distressed giraffes with airplane propellers tied to their stomachs floated above a dense, ramshackle world of intricately corkscrewed buildings; blue birds sporting green tufts of hair blew into trumpets. If the themes were geared toward neighborhood children, the mural -- with its complex anthropomorphism and deceptive cuteness -- was indicative of the style that has earned Schoultz a reputation as one of the most promising artists to emerge from San Francisco's mural-art scene.

To passing kids, Schoultz -- a large figure with a dopey warmth and a thick, gnarly, blond beard -- must've resembled a hipster version of Santa Claus. Many of their parents had already met Schoultz; on the first day of his project, he went door to door, telling them he had received permission for the mural and asking them for feedback on its design. One parent had even gone so far as to organize a group of neighborhood kids to paint their own drawings into small picture frames that Schoultz incorporated into the mural.

In the back of his mind, Schoultz wanted to transform this stretch of wall, previously a space for gang graffiti, into a smaller version of Clarion Alley, a former heroin shooting gallery in the Mission District that has become, arguably, one of the nation's finest testaments to the possibilities of public art. But in the back of his mind, he also knew he'd screwed up, and badly.

The 18th and Lexington project.
Paolo Vescia
The 18th and Lexington project.
Some of Schoultz's birds.
Paolo Vescia
Some of Schoultz's birds.

On the afternoon of Jan. 7, 2002, a car shrieked to a halt near the wall Schoultz was painting.

"Who gave you permission for this?" a gruff male voice barked out.

"The owner did," Schoultz replied, putting down his brush and shielding his eyes from the sun.

"And where is the owner?" the man asked.

"In Russia," Schoultz replied.

"No," the man barked back, "he's not."

The man was the owner of the wall, Mike Berline. Although Schoultz had told everyone his mural was part of a "neighborhood beautification" effort, he had never asked for or received permission to paint it. The owner was supposed to be in Russia, that much Schoultz had learned from a friend. Apparently, though, the friend had been a little vague on the actual date of Berline's return. "I always thought that if I was caught in the process of painting a really beautiful mural, the landlord would be like, 'This is bitchin'! Please proceed,'" Schoultz says with a slow, stoned-sounding SoCal drawl that belies his workaholic mentality.

The mural may have been bitchin', but two days later Schoultz received a letter from Berline's lawyer. It said, in part:

"You say the neighbors like what you are painting. That may or may not be true. But it does not contravene our right to paint our wall as we please. You are using our wall to solicit money. You suggest that your graphics remain in perpetuity. You 'guarantee' your work will displace the graphic trespasses of the gang tags. You agree that their tags are a graphic trespass but find it offensive that we consider your symbols a similar trespass. What endorses your work above others?"

Schoultz presented his artistic credentials -- including a series of gallery showings and favorable mention from local art critics -- but Berline held his ground, and early on the morning of Jan. 9, 2002, before the neighborhood awoke, Schoultz negated his meticulously construed universe with a deep coat of drab gray paint. Later that day, callers flooded a voice mailbox set up for the project, but Schoultz -- realizing that though his heart had been in the right place, his actions had been wildly irresponsible -- couldn't bring himself even to answer the calls.

This would be the last clandestine mural Schoultz painted.


Although it's doubtful that Berline knew it, he had presented Schoultz with the central question any street artist must answer: What distinguishes your work from what thousands of muralists, graffiti writers, and outright vandals are slapping up around the city? At their best, street murals provide an aesthetically pleasing forum for political dissent and personal expression. But on the street, there are no curators separating wheat from chaff, no financial infrastructure to reward quality work, and the result is a lot of bad art, perpetrated by anonymous and indistinguishable artists.

Schoultz is different, and not just because the fine art world is taking note of his work. It's true that many so-called experts -- including curators at SFMOMA and Yerba Buena Center for the Arts and owners of major galleries in San Francisco and Los Angeles -- believe he may be the next artist to make the crossover from the streets to the gallery in a big way. But Schoultz's art is anything but gallery-bound. Fusing the vitality and renegade approach of graffiti, the social consciousness of Chicano muralism, and the formal flourishes of fine art, Schoultz brings a little street into the gallery, but the reverse is also true.

Schoultz's desire to have an impact outside the world of fine art is real and impossible to miss. His speech is peppered with references to community and social responsibility, and though these are slippery notions, there's no denying that Schoultz spends most of his time trying to inspire people who don't spend much if any time inside art galleries. The street work pays him next to nothing -- and only marginally helps his career -- yet Schoultz still sees it as the most important thing he does.


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