The young Apache couple who Douglas Miles depicts in his Mission District mural look straight ahead, their eyes open, their mouths closed. There’s no drama and no great pageantry. The Apache man’s spear and dress, and the mountains in the background, hint at the couple’s ethnic origins and the dignity that Miles wanted to convey at the corner of 16th and Shotwell streets.
“It’s a portrait of an Apache woman and an Apache man behind the woman in full support of the woman,” Miles tells SF Weekly in a phone interview from the San Carlos Apache Nation reservation in Arizona, a community of about 12,000 people that’s about two hours east of Phoenix. “It’s always important to have my voice, the indigenous voice, that seems to be missing from so many industries and genres. You rarely see indigenous people in film, you’re just now seeing them in television, on Netflix. You rarely hear about them in media — and, of course, in the street-art world, they’re almost nonexistent.”
Miles spray-painted Apache Couple in February, when he was an artist-in-residence at the de Young Museum. With the help of sponsors, he also did three other murals during his San Francisco stay, including one in the Luggage Store Gallery’s Tenderloin National Forest on Ellis Street. Miles centers his work, which consists of paintings, murals, and skateboards — he’s the founder of Apache Skateboards, and a former skateboarder himself — around proud Native American figures, frequently festooning the backgrounds with calligraphic writing. In 2016, Miles wrote the introduction to the best-selling graphic work, Indeh: A Story of the Apache Wars, by Ethan Hawke and Greg Ruth.
When he painted Apache Couple, Miles was aware of the gentrification that is roiling the Mission District and San Francisco, and leading to an exodus of Latinos and others. Miles likens that exodus to the European encroachment of Native American lands that now comprise the United States. But he also says Apache Couple transcends ethnicity with a message that applies to many in the Mission. In fact, there’s nothing on Miles’ mural that says “Native American” or “Apache.” Its title is nowhere to be seen.
“Apache Couple is really about people who are indigenous to that community,” and urges them “to stand up for their rights as community members, as tenants, as renters — to stand up for their community,” Miles says. “Because we, as Native Americans, have always stood up for our community. We know what the struggle was like. They gentrified the community over there, but imagine for us: They gentrified our whole country. Wait until they gentrify your whole country. So the meaning behind my piece is to stand up for your country, stand up for your land, and your neighborhood, and your district. Fight to get affordable housing. Fight for affordable, creative spaces, because you’re going to need them.”
Miles’ experience in the Mission District changed his own perspective on art in the city.
“I was completely blown away by the level of murals in the Mission District — not just by the quality of work, but by the quantity and how prolific these artists were,” he says. “I was really intimidated to do murals in San Francisco. I really was — out of the high quality of mural work there, from all different styles and genres. I’m honored that I was asked to paint there and that people have liked it.”