A Novel Idea

Stencil artists tell a love story on sidewalks. Read it while you can

Choose Your Own Adventure books used to be a staple of rainy-day recesses at the grade-school library. And yet, on an otherworldly beautiful San Francisco day in July, there they were: couple after couple, hand in hand, choosing their own adventures along the perimeter of Dolores Park. With their eyes glued to the pavement, they found themselves engrossed in a story spray-painted on the sidewalk below them.

"She tells him about the dream journals she kept since she was 12, filled with watercolor sketches and the lyrics of subconsciously composed songs," reads one sidewalk entry stenciled in red. "She tells him about the telescope she uses to examine the intricate surface of the moon."

Last month, 43 whimsical snippets of text like the above passage were stenciled onto city streets, tracing the smoldering saga of a man with a yen for a woman who only has eyes for — the moon. Depending upon which paths readers choose to follow, one can enjoy 16 different story combinations, four endings, and hike nearly four miles up and down San Francisco's hills and flats.

Anonymous stencil artists The Strangers stand over one of their works.
Anonymous stencil artists The Strangers stand over one of their works.
Street stencil novella: "She shows up early and waits, leaning against the tennis court fence."
Kieran Ridge & Hiromi Oda
Street stencil novella: "She shows up early and waits, leaning against the tennis court fence."

The mysterious duo behind the sidewalk stencils — titled "She Loves the Moon" — call themselves "The Strangers." For purposes of identification, there's the Tall Pale Stranger and the Short Dark Stranger.

The inspiration for the stenciled sidewalk-novella came to them after glancing at other street artists' work. "We were walking by this awesome stencil of a purple cartoon bear on the street and we had a vague notion of doing something more interactive with stencils," said the Short Dark Stranger.

They elicited literary suggestions from friends, made their own stencils, and painstakingly matched geographical locations to plot devices. "The stencil that mentions the sun glowing off Bernal Heights in the distance — well, if you look up from that stencil at a certain time of day, you'll see Bernal Heights with the sun glowing off of it," says the Tall Pale Stranger.

Going from "Hey, that's a great idea!" to spraying down stencils at 15 seconds a pop took around six months of brainstorming plot twists, mapping the interlocking paths on a computer, cutting 43 stencils, and, of course, writing the damn story. The Strangers furtively painted the town red — literally — over a couple of days in early July.

Of course, all that work will eventually disappear once city graffiti crews paint over it. Transience is an occupational hazard with stencil art — as is getting caught by the police.

The masterminds behind "She Loves the Moon" are almost fanatically preoccupied with the possibility of being busted by the police for 43 instances of vandalism. When they agreed to meet an SF Weekly reporter at the bell in Dolores Park, they insisted he wear a red string on his sleeve. A compromise was reached to simply wear a red shirt.

The Strangers have never been busted and would like to keep it that way. Graffiti damage up to $400 is punishable by up to a year in jail, a $10,000 fine, or both, and graffiti damages exceeding $400 can be a felony offense and carry penalties of three years in state prison and a fine of up to $50,000.

With that in mind, more street artists are turning to stencil art's speed, efficiency, and neatness as a means of expression. All it takes is a piece of cardboard, an X-Acto knife, and a can of spray paint to pose an idea or tell a story with the potential to change the gait of pedestrians and make them stop and think.

"Part of what we find really interesting about it is it connects people to public space and gets them walking around the neighborhood and interacting with other people," says the Short Dark Stranger.

The Mission and Haight-Ashbury neighborhoods lead San Francisco's stencil scene with dozens of artists contributing their work to the galleries of the streets. In the Lower Haight, an artist has stenciled images of a "gas tank" with an Army-tank base and a fuel-pump-nozzle head. Another anonymous stencil in the neighborhood reads: "Hipster tee: $71. Hipster jeans: $199. Gentrification: Priceless."

Not all stencils have profound or political messages. One artist, who signs her (or his) work E.Clair, sometimes E. Clairacuda, has about 15 different stencils up and down Haight Street that are no more than cutesy cartoonish girls. But the lack of a message makes no difference to Russell Howze, a connoisseur of stencil art. "Someone went out of their way to cut a stencil and break the law," Howze says. "I give them props."

While most people examine their surroundings at eye level, Howze keeps his eyes on the ground. He carries a digital camera and takes different paths when walking around the city in search of stencils. Even when he's overseas, his eyes are on the sidewalks, utility boxes, and sides of newsstands. "Most people do tourist stuff. What do I do when I go on vacation? I wander around looking for stencils," says Howze, 37, who has documented stencils since 1997.

To date, he's collected 7,000 images of stencil graffiti from all over the world on his Web site, www.StencilArchive.org. He's currently in the early stages of his book, Stencil Nation, to be completed next year for Manic D Press.

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