San Francisco artist Mel Waters uses the walls of historically musical neighborhoods to lionize important figures from the vast continuum of black American music. His portraits of deceased jazz icons Louis Armstrong and Nina Simone grace 559 Hayes St. in Hayes Valley; the rapper named Kwanza (who passed away in 2010) is memorialized at 588 Haight St. Simone, whose popularity peaked in the 1950s and '60s, was a virtuoso on piano and sang anthems like “To Be Young, Gifted and Black.” Armstrong created standards that are still popular today. Kwanza, who was part of the San Francisco group Bored Stiff, loved songs that critiqued the culture and that lauded his hometown (as in “Frisco,” on the album Ghetto Research).
The neighborhoods where Waters has painted are in close proximity, and seeing Waters' artwork in a single outing emphasizes the techniques that make his street art stand out. Waters paints in black and white, not color, which gives his portraits the kind of timelessness that black-and-white photographs command over color prints. Then there's the rich detail that Waters puts into his portraits. With Kwanza (who was also known as Rick Flare), Waters portrays him exhaling smoke that seems to float in the air. Waters also has Kwanza looking straight at the viewer, as if Kwanza were still alive and trying to analyze the person before him. All three portraits take up entire storefront walls, which give Kwanza, Simone, and Armstrong a prominence that's entirely deserving.
“I'm a hip-hop kid — I grew up in the '80s and '90s,” says Waters, “and I listen to a lot of jazz-influenced rap music.”
In the mid-20th century, Hayes Valley was on the edge of San Francisco's jazz district, which is why Waters chose Simone and Armstrong for his Hayes Valley artwork. Kwanza performed in the lower Haight, and Bored Stiff's members frequently hung out near 588 Haight St. Because both neighborhoods are being increasingly gentrified — and experiencing an increasing exodus of African-American residents — Waters' artwork is particularly important, a reminder of the city's music and cultural history. Waters, a San Francisco resident who was born and raised here, has Filipino and African-American lineage. His work can be found throughout San Francisco, including a large image of Gandhi on 16th Street near Florida Street, and more jazz portraits at Divisadero Street near Ellis Street. Waters' work at 559 Hayes St. began in 2006 (before the opening of the nearby SFJAZZ Center) when the store's owner wanted art to keep his walls from being tagged. At the store on 588 Haight St., the surviving members of Bored Stiff got permission from the owners to have Waters paint Kwanza's image.
Says Waters: “They used to hang out right there, on the stairwell next to the store.”