Graffiti to Gallery

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

Only six of the original Balmy Alley designs are left. It's nearly impossible to preserve murals, which are subject to both natural wear and tear and defacement by vandals of varying agendas. It's the nature of the genre, and while they take great pains to protect their work, Patlán, Schoultz, and Noble have accepted the temporary quality of their chosen field.

Schoultz has three murals on Balmy, one solo and two collaborations. The solo mural was painted in the first months of 2001 -- shortly after his Clarion Alley piece -- and it also deals with the themes of gentrification and displacement.

For another mural, Schoultz says, he collaborated with Sirron Norris, who paints in a style that he calls "cartoon literalism," in the hopes that Schoultz's graffiti-esque technique (and personal touch) would keep clandestine taggers from defacing Norris' work. "They don't touch my murals," Schoultz tells me, smiling. "I handle my business."

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

The third Schoultz mural in Balmy Alley was a collaboration with his students at Precita Eyes, one of three community mural schools in the nation. True to the topical nature of Balmy Alley, the mural was painted just before the Iraq War and reflects Schoultz's deep belief that Bush's pre-emptive strikes were a tragic mistake.

"The times change, the world changes, and the alley changes," Patlán comments. "It lives and breathes with the community."

Around the time that Schoultz finished the Balmy Alley murals, he began to collaborate with Aaron Noble. The murals that they've done together have transformed their personal styles and represent some of their best work to date. The final collaboration, at 18th and Lexington streets, is recognized, here and elsewhere, as one of the most striking in the city. In fact, the histories of Noble and Schoultz have become so closely intertwined, it's almost impossible to understand the art of one without studying the art of the other.

Although a founding member of the Clarion Alley Mural Project, Noble, before meeting Schoultz, was perhaps most widely recognized as a performance artist. In one of his best-known works, Confession, Noble spent the duration of the performance denouncing his sins as he crawled across the stage, naked, with a guitar amplifier tied to his back. It was a stark and confrontational piece, drawing the ire of the anti-federal arts funding crowd after police in Las Cruces, N.M., threatened to close down Noble's show at the University of New Mexico on an obscenity charge.

The first Schoultz and Noble attempt at a clandestine mural -- at the intersection of Sixth and Howard streets -- was a bust. Schoultz finished his panel, but Noble was caught and had to paint over his mural. For the next mural, they bicycled to Mission Bay, finding a removed spot unlikely to be immediately detected by the property's owners. "I knew the landlord didn't care," Schoultz recalls. "I knew that the wall would be torn down within the next year, and I knew certain information about the location where I could [pretend] that we were legitimate."

The relative isolation allowed them to develop their styles in a safe environment, and the mural contains some of Schoultz's most compelling imagery; Noble credits it as a turning point in his career. Though the individual elements in the mural are sharp -- notably, Schoultz's twisted elephants and Noble's abstract, comic-book creatures -- the images bear little relation to one another.

If the Mission Bay mural was more or less a trial run, then the mural at Lexington and 18th streets is the realization of the trial mural's potential. The owners approached Noble and Schoultz about painting a mural to displace the gang graffiti that adorned their house, a large Victorian that was in a severe state of dilapidation; much of the paint had peeled off, and structural cracks were visible. Instead of trying to hide the decay by repainting the entire building, Schoultz and Noble incorporated the cracks and fissures into their mural.

The mural's central images are two large birdhouses that haphazardly spiral into each other. Smaller structures jut from the two main houses, and groups of smaller houses and buildings sprout from the larger birdhouse's various orifices. Some of Schoultz's blue birds, wearing exasperated expressions, can be seen fleeing the structures. Some of the birds have long sticks tied to their necks; the sticks dangle dollar bills in front of their faces, ever out of reach.

To the right of this chaotic scene, Noble's taut creatures -- collages of comic-book characters reassembled as clusters of muscle and prosthetic weaponry -- loom over the proceedings, while wires protrude from generators above them and into Schoultz's scene. Just as Schoultz's world is defined by its intricate imperfections and chaos, Noble's creatures are studies in abstraction and exactness. When taken as a whole, Noble's images refer to nothing outside of themselves and serve no apparent function, but the cold precision of his lines suggests technological functionality, which acts as a nice counterpoint to Schoultz's industrial disarray.

The mural was recently featured on the cover of the hipster journal Alarm Magazine and provides an important landmark for an area of the Mission District. "It's incredibly striking," says Kevin B. Chen, program director for the visual arts at Intersection for the Arts, San Francisco's oldest alternative art space, which is known for presenting new and experimental work. "Most people walking down 18th do a double take at first. Just the colors catch your eye, and then you realize that it runs the length of that entire building."

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