Graffiti to Gallery

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

Born in 1974 in a lower-class district on the north side of Milwaukee, Schoultz began his art career as a graffiti writer. After seeing the seminal hip hop film Breakin', he put up his first tag -- the twisted signatures that define graffiti lettering -- in third grade. Though graffiti played a prominent role in Schoultz's life, his interest in the more respectable side of art was piqued when he began attending Pius XI High School in Milwaukee, which had a progressive art program that provided Schoultz his first formal training. One of Schoultz's pieces from that class was displayed in the Milwaukee Art Museum, and he went on to win a scholarship that entitled him to a free ride at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee.

More concerned with petty vandalism and skateboarding than art, he rarely attended classes and was out of college within the first semester. He turned his attention to skateboarding and toured with a group of professional skaters, on and off, from 1993 to '98, helping construct skate parks along the way. During that time, however, he retained an interest in graffiti and public art, viewing some of the nation's finest urban art and contributing a few pieces of his own.

In 1996, knowing that San Francisco had lax graffiti laws and a great skateboarding scene, Schoultz relocated. Although never formally connected with the graffiti crews that roam the city ("I've always been more of a loner"), he immediately felt the influence of the Mission mural-art scene and began putting up his own clandestine work, gradually developing a sensibility that still informs his street painting. Along the way, he birthed a cast of characters -- among them twisted elephants, blue birds, distorted buildings, and tornadoes -- that he uses repeatedly.

Detail from the 18th and Lexington project.
Paolo Vescia
Detail from the 18th and Lexington project.
Paolo Vescia

Schoultz's art failed to receive widespread recognition, blending with the work of countless graffiti writers and part-time muralists adorning the city, until he approached Aaron Noble in 2000 about painting a mural in Clarion Alley. Noble and other artists had founded the Clarion Alley Mural Project in 1992, changing Clarion -- a narrow lane off Valencia, between 17th and 18th streets -- from a heroin shooting gallery into three blocks of walls dedicated entirely to murals. Recently displaced from his house in the Lower Haight, Schoultz desperately wanted to contribute something to Clarion that referenced the dot-com gentrification debate then engulfing San Francisco.

Noble, one of San Francisco's most widely known muralists, hadn't heard of Schoultz. "Lots of people come up and see if they can do a piece on the alley," Noble remembers. "I ask to see some examples of work or a proposal, and that usually weeds out 70 or 80 percent, right there. Of the remaining who do get me something, it's usually some old pictures or vague idea of what they want to do. But Andy came back the next day with a huge, incredibly detailed and specific drawing of the mural he wanted to do."

Schoultz's mural focused on an iconic yuppie image -- the coffee machine -- but its normal settings had been replaced by orders to "control," "conquer," and so forth. Topical and poignant, the mural was quickly pushed through the Clarion committee. Afterward, Schoultz could be found first thing every morning standing on his ladder and painting the piece that would bring him into San Francisco's public art scene and, most important, to the eye of Ray Patlán.

It's the sort of San Francisco summer day that you'll only see in the sunny Mission. Random hipsters and tourists with water bottles and digital cameras drift, displaying an array of expressions that vacillate between curiosity and sheer wonderment. Mexican garage rock bleeds from outdoor speakers. It's so hot that my shirt clings to my body and my sneakers stick to the black asphalt of Balmy Alley, the extraordinary mural exhibition that Ray Patlán founded in 1984.

Patlán has a fiery, larger-than-life history. After all, he is the man who, when sent to Vietnam as a soldier, painted a giant anti-war mural in Saigon. On his return to Chicago after his tour of duty, he helped birth that city's Muralist Movement, encouraging artists and nonartists alike to use murals to express their dissatisfaction with racism, poverty, and war.

Patlán arrived in the Bay Area in 1975, teaching at UC Berkeley and Stanford before creating Balmy Alley, the first streetscape dedicated exclusively to murals in the United States.

Schoultz sees Patlán as a mentor, although the connection may be more philosophical than artistic. Through his life and his words, Patlán has shown Schoultz that public art can have a direct and substantial impact on the community. Schoultz speaks of Patlán constantly and in reverential terms.

As we walk through the alley, Patlán explains the beginnings of the Balmy Alley project, when he organized 36 artists from around the country to paint 29 murals over the course of nine months. Those initial murals dealt with the theme of supposed U.S. imperialism in Central America, a timely subject, given the Reagan administration's policies in the region. The murals are not polite. Patlán's first mural, for example, portrays Latino women in their 50s walking up to soldiers; the women have automatic rifles stealthily tucked under their shawls, as if ready for ambush.

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