Revolution Lane - November 17, 2016 - SF Weekly
SF Weekly

Revolution Lane

Title Unknown, Crystal Vielula, Clarion Alley, 2013

Expect dissent in the aftermath of this election. Expect it to be large and frequent. Expect more protest songs. Expect more anger, more fear. Expect an explosion in creative expression as people committed to nonviolence above all else do what they can to channel those emotions and thwart the further progress of America down this dark path.

But more than anything, expect more murals.

San Francisco has, for decades, been a place where progressive politics has met the wall. It draws well-known street artists on the regular: Shepard Fairey, creator of the Obama HOPE poster, was in town this August, commissioned to execute two pieces, one in Hayes Valley and the other in the Mission District. (He’ll be back for 2017’s Noise Pop Festival.) And the city isn’t shy about commissioning large-scale work, either. Bayview Rise, on the western facade of a 187-foot grain elevator near Pier 92, is big enough to be easily discernible from the summit of Twin Peaks, three miles away.

But for almost a quarter-century, the most prominent site for murals has been Clarion Alley. It’s easy to mimic the boosterism of a tourist brochure and call anywhere the “heart” of anywhere else. But if the circa-2016 Mission has an aorta, it’s certainly Valencia Street — and a good candidate for the organ pumping blood into it is this block-long lane running from Valencia to Mission Street, between 17th and 18th streets.

Run by volunteers whose mission is to give a voice to the concerns of largely disenfranchised people in the immediate neighborhood, the Clarion Alley murals constitute a self-policing community, steps from an actual police station, as well as a self-sustaining network in an area where the median rent treats neighborhood ties the way a saber treats the neck of a Champagne bottle. With street art hipper than ever, Clarion Alley draws tourists — and tour buses — like never before. Instagram and other platforms broadcast its shifts worldwide. Condo developers cite it in their prospectuses as proof that the Mission is “edgy” and “vibrant.” Nefarious corporate actors shoot ad campaigns on its asphalt, sometimes without asking permission and sometimes after permission has been denied.

In short, Clarion Alley is in danger of being loved to death.


‘A Replica of a Replica of a Replica’

“It’s way more physically exhausting to paint a mural than I ever expected,” says Christopher Statton, board secretary of the Clarion Alley Mural Project (CAMP). We’re chatting over coffee at Muddy Waters on Valencia with Megan Wilson, president of CAMP’s board.

Statton has been with the project since its 20th anniversary in 2012, when, as an employee at the nearby Roxie Theater, he arranged via the house projectionist for some artists to spruce up the lobby and bathrooms of the Little Roxie, its companion screening room down the block. (“They’re still there,” he notes. “The Clarion artists were very generous.”)

He’d never painted before, but an invitation to collaborate on the Shameless mural — which he calls “very close to my politics” — spurred him to action. A little guidance from more experienced artists helped, too.

A muralist herself, Wilson has been involved since the annual block party started in 1998, serving as co-director from 2001-05, and, after a five-year break, returning to preside over CAMP’s seven-member board. She helped launch an international exchange project with artists from Jogjakarta, Indonesia, from 2001-03, and another that’s scheduled for the summer of 2018.

In that time, the alley has continually changed. Of the original murals, completed in 1993, little remains. By design, Clarion Alley is a palimpsest, a text that gets erased and written over again and again. The oldest extant piece is a black-and-white, Picasso-esque work by Chuy Campesano, who painted it in 1994 and died two years later. But, like a Japanese temple rebuilt after a firebombing in World War II, it’s a simulacrum — real only in the postmodern, Baudrillardian sense.

“It’s not the original paint in any way,” Wilson says. “It’s been tagged over. The fence fell over in 2004, and we had to rebuild it.”

“It’s a replica of a replica of a replica,” Statton adds.

Clarion Alley’s history is more colorful than simply polychromatic murals. Once known as Cedar Alley, local lore has it that it was renamed for being home to labor organizers. The Cockettes, a 1960s drag troupe, had a space there, as did experimental musician Terry Riley. The eastern end sits atop the lagoon that once emptied into Mission Creek, and Statton claims a larger-than-average number of butterflies flutter through it because of the wind currents.

Its location resonates in other ways, too. It was here that a mural went up in response to an awkward encounter between local teenagers and “Dropbox bros” in a nearby park that fed a social-media revolt against Rec and Park’s letting people book a soccer field in advance. (“That was the fastest reversal of city policy in history,” Statton says.) The proximity to Mission Station — which was once a Pepsi bottling plant — requires another delicate dance. Having artist and board member Jose V. Guerra Awe’s Rise in Power so close to the cops brings CAMP’s principals joy, but at this year’s block party on Oct. 18, the presence of eight SFPD officers introduced enough tension that Statton felt compelled to inform them that the event’s permit was only for the alley and, no, no one was planning to protest police brutality that day.

“Luckily, they were very nice for not writing people up about certain things,” he says. “It would just escalate the situation.”

The sun will do what the cops never could. The Mission’s climate will cause murals to fade — although Indonesia is far worse — but the type of paint used is a better determinant of how long they will last. And sometimes restoration work is impossible. One artist didn’t realize he was painting dangerously close to powerlines, and his work has since almost faded to the point of invisibility because he’s loath to go back up there.

But visibility remains. Artist Crystal Hermann stumbled upon a block party on the alley while she was in college, and calls it “one place I felt made me feel San Francisco is my home” and a “community space rather than a gallery.”

She initially received a less-than-ideal spot, describing it as “this place no one ever really wanted, this bizarre, narrow wall — and it’s kind of been this little corner that can also be used sometimes as a makeshift toilet.” (She’s since graduated to better real estate.)

Even when highly compensated tech workers’ jaws gape at the cost of living in San Francisco, Clarion Alley can still serve as a bridge to welcome immigrants. A native of Belize, José V. Guerra Awe visited in 2011, returned home to start a mural project in his hometown, and immigrated to the U.S. the following year. Largely self-taught, he’s since been taking classes in brush lettering, and his next mural is called No Te Olvides de Mi.

It’s a triple pun. Translating as “Don’t forget about me,” it refers to people who’ve been incarcerated, but also to the Mission that Guerra never got to experience firsthand.

“I always hear the stories — that’s what lured me to this area to begin with,” he says. “Even in the past four years, it’s been changing so dramatically. I want the walls to tell them, ‘Don’t forget about me.’ It’s like the Mission speaking to them.”

“Because it’s behind that gate, it also speaks to populations that are in prison,” Guerra adds. “It’s easy to forget someone when they’re not within your scope, your frame of sight. The third layer is almost like the Mission of old is in prison — in exile, sort of. The Mission of old has been exiled and is calling out.”

Statton notes that because many members of a community who paint a mural may already be living daily with the concerns that its subject matter depicts, the responses can feel especially organic even when they aren’t spontaneous.

For instance, CAMP worked with Hospitality House, a local job-placement nonprofit with a drop-in arts center in SoMa, for more than a year to create the diverse people-scape in We All Deserve a Healthy and Safe Community. But after the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando this June, it was easy to include a reference to the tragedy.

“You’d see a lot of work that was in response to what happened in Orlando,” Statton says, “and here, for the clients that Hospitality House worked with, that’s a reality. That massacre was happening every single day, and so their work already reflected that.”

“It takes time to have that space to create,” he adds. “It’s not always spontaneous, but it’s always giving support to people who might not have that large public venue.”

So it’s no free-for-all. CAMP inherited many murals dating from before its incorporation as a nonprofit, and labors to honor those previous commitments. Spaces are negotiated, and the terms of how long a given piece exists depend on how long the artist can commit to keeping it blemish-free.

“We’ll contact them and say, ‘Hey, you’re space got tagged,’ ” Wilson says. “But some spaces are temporary because we’ve had an agreement that this is just going to be temporary.”

There is a sort of fluid social contract between CAMP and the artists, and the organization will pick up some slack if they recruited an artist who isn’t local — because Clarion Alley is, if nothing else, a magnet for all types of attention.


Unsolicited Submissions

Vandalism is a perennial concern; you may as well try to halt high tide. So CAMP maintains a “Rapid Response Team” to combat tags as they’re discovered. But because the alley is always in flux — in contrast to Balmy Alley off 24th Street, which uses a product called Graffiti Guard to preserve its murals for as long as possible — Clarion effectively invites more desecration than its peers get.

Mel Waters, a tattoo artist who lives in Pacifica and mostly paints “someone who’s passed away,” has finished five murals on the alley in the last eight or nine years — most recently, one of Prince. He calls tagging “the nature of the beast,” and notes that his Carlos Santana mural has “a few nicks.”

“Anything’s bound to happen with public art. Even graffiti letters that are super good with awesome characters get dissed,” he says. “It doesn’t bother me because you can’t ever beat that battle. I wouldn’t want to camp out in my car and watch somebody [and say], ‘Hey stop!’ ”

Hermann more or less concurs.

“The idea that something can be destroyed in a matter of 30 seconds that will take me three hours to repaint is really frustrating,” she says of taggers. “And the fact that it’s not artfully done. I can understand — although it would still be frustrating — if someone artfully did something over my picture, but if it’s just a scrawl, a 30-second tag … Fortunately, in the space I’m in now, I don’t get tagged as much, which is such a relief.”

Guerra is a little more hard-line, though.

“I do sometimes get very annoyed at that, ’cause I see it as a total lack of respect for someone’s hard work. It’s like artists hurting other artists,” he says. “The artists who’ve been painting in that alley for the past 30 years are blue-collar. We don’t make shit tons of money. We’re just artists like everyone else, struggling just as hard. We take a lot of time and effort to put into our work — and not only that, we work completely voluntarily. So for someone to have a moment of rebellion and come in and deface our hard work, it does hit home.”

Guerrilla art, and not tagging per se, is also a worry. So blank spaces are seldom left blank for long. CAMP will paint a generic message as a placeholder — ” ‘Housing Is a Human Right’ or ‘Respect,’ Statton says — as a talisman to ward off anyone who might happen upon a tabula rasa and decide to get to work. He calls them “unsolicited submissions.”

“There are people who don’t care, or who are operating under their own set of rules,” he says. “But a project like that runs on respect.”

Because crews are small and known to one another, and lone-wolf newbies can seldom resist putting their work on social media, Statton and Wilson often deduce who the culprits are, in which case CAMP will approach them gently but firmly over the “miscommunication.” Some people can be shamed into respecting the rules; others may be happy for 15 minutes of fame and a few likes. Incredibly, some unsolicited submitters who saw that their work didn’t last long have whined to Statton about how they put in a lot of effort and paid for their own paint, forcing him to explain patiently that so did the artist whose mural they destroyed. Wilson considers such actions no different from greedy developers, claiming public space as their own. (And Google buses are completely white canvases, they hint, in a “… just sayin’ ” kind of way.)

But sometimes, the timing is particularly unfortunate.

“We did have somebody show up and do their entire mural, and the artist came upon them while they were doing it,” Wilson says. “They were completely devastated that here their work is being painted over. We ended up having to paint over that whole mural — in the same space, two times.”

Because everything is documented, even those guerrilla artists obtain a certain kind of permanence. It might not be catalogued for public view, but they will have entered CAMP’s archives.

Absolut Nightmare

Commercial intrusions are what get under everyone’s skin the most.

“Here’s a space that’s becoming so popular — not just with tours but with corporations,” Statton says. “And we want to make sure if the whole alley gets used or any art in the alley gets used, it’s in line with the mission of who we are. The project started with an eye toward being a voice for social justice and economic justice in the community, and giving voice to different people in the community who might not have a platform. We wouldn’t want someone to come in who’s a developer who’s causing this gentrification or evictions of people using the space to advertise.”

Community builders by temperament, Wilson and Statton are reluctant to name many bad apples’ names — although Wilson’s own website calls out Absolut Vodka for its “complete disregard of CAMP’s wishes [that] reflects the corporation’s sense of entitlement and disrespect for the very community that it’s using” and “contemporary colonialism.”

It’s less about the sanctity of the alley than about community sensitivities, in the end. Lenny Kravitz shot a video there in the ’90s, a time when Statton believes people were more respectful of Clarion Alley. The San Francisco Film Commission helps protect the alley, clueing CAMP into unpermitted shoots and roping them into dialogues with people they may want to work with. The Wachowskis’ Sense8 — which features a transgender protagonist — filmed on Clarion Alley, which furthered the progressive agenda of increased trans representation in the media. “It’s totally in line with who we are,” Statton says, calling the Wachowskis “very respectful of the artists, and that this isn’t just a scene for them to shoot a backdrop in.” (Plus, as he admits, many of the alley’s artists are “comic-book geeks.”)

But when Absolut wanted to shoot an ad, he told them no, as many artists are in recovery. That the liquor brand went ahead and did it anyway became the main impetus for registering the murals with the U.S. copyright office. (CAMP and Absolut later worked out a settlement, the terms of which Wilson is unable to discuss.)

They’re not reflexively opposed to corporate money, however. When I ask what Wilson would do if, say, Instagram offered CAMP $1 million purely for good P.R., she doesn’t hesitate.

“If it’s no strings attached, sure,” she says. “Give us that money, we’ll take that money and turn it around to use it toward something better.”

Money is not and never has been the fundamental issue, though, as CAMP doesn’t commission art. As a volunteer-run organization with no rent, its overhead is minimal. Even the weeks-long residencies associated with the exchange trip to Jogjakarta totaled only $50,000, Wilson says. Although they worked with Supervisor David Campos on a project for Virginia Ramos — better known as the Tamale Lady — there’s no direct financial support from the City of San Francisco, either. (CAMP board members have become disheartened to read outraged, “my-tax-dollars-pay-for-this?” comments under news articles about Clarion Alley, because no, they don’t.) And while organizations like Precita Eyes are allies, each is autonomous, with its own unique approach.

It’s less about making sure each individual artist is compensated — as volunteers, they receive only a stipend to cover paint, so it’s not about the money — than about protecting the integrity of the overall project.

“The whole alley itself, as a long gallery of work, represents one entity. All the pieces work on this enlarged scale,” Statton says. “And then there’s each individual work.”

So the organizations CAMP seeks out tend to be engaged with current issues, such as the Anti-Eviction Mapping Project or the Western Regional Advocacy Project (WRAP). Currently, they’re discussing the possibility of a mural with the Arab Resource Organizing Center (AROC) in response to anti-Palestinian ads on Muni buses.

But even with this degree of vigilance, in the 20 years since she began coming to the alley as a student at the San Francisco Art Institute (SFAI), Wilson has observed Clarion Alley’s evolution from neighborhood-based project to destination, and the increased attention has been bittersweet.

“It’s in all the tour books now,” she says.

Most tours — which began in earnest around 2010 — get many details wrong, and Wilson calls the experience of overhearing people incorrectly point out this or that mural as the oldest “grating.”

And while Statton doesn’t object to tourists, he draws the line at buses, which are a major disturbance on a narrow thoroughfare where people live. He’s made his peace with it all, recognizing that most tour guides are local San Franciscans struggling to make it in an expensive city, just like anyone else. Still, he’s begun conducting his own free, donation-based tours every other Saturday at 1 p.m. (The next one is Nov. 19.)

Until capitalism implodes and gives birth to the next economic order, commodification is probably inevitable. But the alley’s future is only partly secure. Private homes could potentially be sold and redeveloped as condos whose residents might take a dim view of the attention, irrespective of its history. (A similar dynamic happens when buildings adjacent to live-music venues go condo, and affluent people move in.)

Community Thrift, at the western end of the alley, is where the first murals were painted. It’s run by a trust that owns the building, so there’s no risk of that space vanishing, at least. But because of the way capital circulates through the culture industry and back up to the top, even a site of large-scale public art with a powerful anti-gentrification message can contribute, however indirectly, to gentrification.

“Anytime you have this hot commodity, someone’s going to want to grab hold of it and love it to death,” Statton says.

Even that’s not entirely negative. CAMP worked out an agreement with the condo development along the western half of the northern side of the alley to create lasting spaces for murals. Wilson’s own design, a bombastic piece reading “Stop the Coroporatocracy” is there. She calls that condo-adjacent segment “the nicest walls on the alley.”


Murals As Performance

Since it takes primer and several layers of paint to cover a pre-existing mural — or an aggressive tag — the alley is, little by little, shrinking in width. (“Sometimes, I really do feel like that,” Wilson says.)

The walls are privately owned, and there are two spaces that don’t participate with the project.

“Those are the ones that probably have the most layers of paint on them, because they get tagged a couple times a week, and [the owners] cover it up.”

Taggers operate furtively, but street artists work out in the open, and as Clarion Alley attracts more and more attention, the art of painting has come to feel like a performance.

Mel Waters has grown used to the looky-loos, noting that when you’re a spray-can artist doing legal work, you develop a bit of a crowd.

“A handful of years back, the alley didn’t have as much traffic as it does,” he says. “Painting today is a sort of like a show. A lot of tourists filter through there. It gets a little tricky — and it’s a wind tunnel.”

Crystal Hermann contends it’s “bizarre to be a tourist attraction, especially when you’re just going and touching up a piece.”

Although not everyone likes to clock in for a shift and feel random eyeballs at the back of their necks, it can give a signal-boost to the overall message.

“When we were painting the ‘No on Q’ mural, Jonathan from WRAP was there,” Statton says. “It’s great because he knows the inside and outside of that policy. When people would come, it was, ‘You need to talk to that guy right there.’ He would just step back and have these hourlong conversations, really in-depth. It’s great to have these interactions with people.”

“It’ll take me five weeks to paint a mural on the alley,” Wilson adds, “spending all day long. You get asked the same questions, but you do have really interesting conversations.”

Aside from the regulations regarding curation and submission, there are other rules. For instance, no wheat paste.

It “doesn’t really work,” Statton says. “It’s hard for the next person to paint over it.”

CAMP made an exception to that for The Deck Is Stacked, an effort by SFAI students calling themselves the Poster Syndicate to fight the anti-homeless initiative Proposition Q. The syndicate worked quickly, completing the complex mural in only three-and-a-half days, and promised to clean it up.

The Hospitality House mural broke another, less formal rule: no faces.

“I always tell people, ‘Don’t do faces, ’cause they take forever and you’ll never be happy with it,’ ” Statton says.

They’re also much harder to fix once tagged, so he encourages people to go for lettering, bright colors, and pop imagery instead.

But with these few ground rules, Clarion Alley has remained intact in a period of intense disruption and displacement. It operates almost according to the precepts of The Death and Life of Great American Cities, a book by mid-century urbanist Jane Jacobs that coined the phrase “eyes on the street” to refer to the informal network of neighbors across ethnicities and socioeconomic classes who all keep an eye out for one another.

As Hermann puts it, “When I’m painting there, there’s a lot of people that I’ve gotten to know peripherally over the years, who live off the alley or hang out in the alley, and it’s heartwarming that people are looking out for this space and the art. You still see the families walking through, the people hanging out and listening to music there, people working in the garage,” she adds. “It feels like an authentic space in an area that’s become more of a shopping mall. It’s a haven.”


Wedding Day

As Statton, Wilson, and I wind our way down the alley, a convertible with a mounted GoPro rolls through, twice. Neither the driver nor his backseat passenger-photographer pause to consider even a single mural. I ask if this bothers them, but neither of my tour guides looks fazed.

“One of the most photographed pieces on the alley is this one with the flowers and ‘Tax the Rich,’ ” Statton says. “One day, this whole convoy of Escalade limos comes down and the wedding party gets out in front of ‘Tax the Rich’ because of all the flowers and everything, and hops back in their limos and drives away. It’s like, ‘That is gonna be in your wedding album forever.’ ”

But isn’t that the hipster ouroboros, the irony-snake eating its own tail? Who is the joke on? Statton acknowledges the tension forthrightly.

“We’re trying to be a voice of the community, but also developers use us as a gentrifying force — but then the newest developments give us the best walls to paint on and we have these more secure contracts.”

“It’s constantly dealing with the contradictions of where integrity stands within all these frictions,” he adds.

Wilson agrees, noting that Clarion Alley is one of the only public spaces in the city that has this kind of platform for doing public messaging for communities that are disenfranchised.

“We do it because it’s so important,” she says.