Five years ago, Vets Alley was best known for its drug users and occasional dead body. Today? Most of the walls are covered in art, and tourists are a common sight. Bay Area Navy veteran Amos Gregory orchestrated the transition in 2011 by asking the alley's property owners if they'd let military veterans paint the walls. Most owners said yes. Since then, Gregory and other vets have painted every work in the alley, where the artistic themes relate to war and its debilitating effects on those in the front lines.
On one wall are the names of all the U.S. military members killed in the Iraq War. On another wall is a work that says Chelsea Manning, the imprisoned ex-Army intelligence analyst, is a hero for leaking classified documents. Several paintings bemoan the high suicide rates of former military personnel. Others urge people to remember prisoners of war who are still missing, including a Minnesota Air Force pilot named David Hrdlicka who was shot down over Laos in 1965 and survived the crash. In Vets Alley, a veteran has painted Hrdlicka as he looked as a 1965 POW.
Formally called Shannon Street, the alley is as artistically interesting as any of the Mission District's best-known art alleys. Located three blocks west of Union Square, Vets Alley is in a gentrifying area with transient hotels and a homeless population that includes military veterans. Painting is one way for them to cope with their traumas.
Standing in the alley and looking at an overhead scene he painted of a cemetery, a veteran named “Cowboy” tells a visitor, “This represents what I brought home. I rode 18 hours from Saigon to Guam. Riding in a cargo bay with 700 bodies at a time, I can't forget the smell. And I have people in this neighborhood calling me [weak], saying, 'All you veterans who came back are [weak] and homeless.'”
Cowboy says he suffered a head wound in the Vietnam War, and that he's struggling to get benefits while still dealing with seizures. His painting, which he began in 2012, is overlaid with giant black letters that say, “LOVE NOT WAR!”
“I come in and keep it clean,” he says.
Then he points to a nearby light — the only one of the alley's three that still works.
“What makes my heart proud: There are three lights there, and the other two have burned out while this one lights up the cemetery at night,” he says. “That's like a sign for me.”
As Cowboy spoke, Gregory was a few doors away painting a work that stressed the need for veterans' housing. Sitting on a chair that was given him for the afternoon by the eatery bordering the alley, Gregory says the alley “gives us a voice. A lot of healing happens out here.”