Know Your Street Art: 9 Berwick Place

Located a stone's throw from Eighth and Harrison streets, Berwick Place is one of those “hidden” South of Market alleys that drug addicts and homeless people frequent as much as anyone. On Heron Street, which intersects with Berwick, Heron Arts opened its doors for art exhibits earlier this year — but that's for bona fide art-goers who walk inside a beautifully revamped building. What Daniel Chen did in April and May was equally noteworthy: He painted a museum-quality mural on the outside of Heron Arts' northeast wall — the one facing Berwick Place — that is a gift to the alley's denizens.

Layered with faces that are sculptural, playful, fearful, menacing, and everything in between, and festooned with Pop Art colors that accentuate the spectacle at its center, Chen's tableaux is worth visiting while it lasts. (Taggers have already marked it in parts.) Detritus from others has also discolored some of the wall. But that's Berwick Place. Chen, who's exhibited widely in Bay Area galleries, created the work as a one-off, a chance to experiment with a scene that spotlights two disparate subjects: police militarization, and tech's gentrifying effect on San Francisco.

Regarding gentrification, Chen says, “There's this underlying angst and anger and feeling displaced, and not belonging. I wanted to note that underlying notion that's on the tips of people's tongues.” A first-generation Taiwanese-American who lives in Millbrae and has his studio in San Francisco, Chen says, “I've always lived in dualities. I'd say I'm really good at being in the middle, where I don't take judgment. I know artists and I know people in tech. I try to hear both sides.”

Chen had exhibited his work three times inside the Heron Arts space, and got to know its founder, Mark Slee, a former Facebook engineer. When Chen asked if he could paint a large work inside the building — originally to enter the work in a competition — Slee suggested the outside. The only problem: The graffiti artists named Blake and MQ had already put their tags up in an alley that is full of them. Through Slee, Chen asked Blake and MQ for permission to paint over their work. “I'm not a street artist, but I know street artists are very territorial about who gets what, and painting over stuff,” says Chen, a recent graduate of California College of the Arts. “I definitely don't want to get beat up for painting on a wall.” Chen wasn't. Blake and MQ said “go ahead.” And now Chen's mural is one of the city's best new street works, admired by anyone who has reason to be on Berwick Place. “My job was just to come in,” he says, “do the best work possible, and try to beautify the alley.””Talking to the people who live in the alley — at the time there were three people there — and getting to know them, they were mesmerized (by the work),” Chen adds. “They said it was awesome. And even coming from them it meant a lot — because who's going to see that mural? Those guys. Even to make it so that it betters their day for a snippet of time — that felt great.”

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