Up Against the Wall: Rising rents haven’t silenced San Francisco street artists. Meet seven who have beaten the odds

Mel Waters

Around the world, San Francisco is considered a street-art capital — a kind of Promised Land that serious artists have to visit at least once in their lifetimes. Banksy (England), Aryz (Spain), Blek le Rat (France), and Nychos (Austria) are just some of the famous street artists who've flown here to paint, stencil, or affix their works onto public walls. But San Francisco has always had a homegrown street-art community, embodied by Barry McGee, Margaret Kilgallen, and others who, in the 1990s, plastered their art around the Mission District, where artists inspired by Mexican muralism had, decades earlier, covered stretches of buildings with scenes of everything from revolution to everyday life. 

The street artists profiled here belong to the new generation of San Francisco's street artists. They all live in the city. They all paint here. They all have talent that was years in the making. All of them are in their 20s or 30s. The street art they do now is legal. The street art they've done in the past? Well, let's just say that, on occasion, a few of these artists did things that were technically illegal. But that doesn't matter. What matters is that they now see the city as a continuous canvas for art, and in turn the city — homeowners, businesses, the San Francisco Arts Commission, and arts organizations — sees them as indispensable to San Francisco's character.

The relationship, however, is complicated.

Rising rents and real estate prices make it harder for artists to live in San Francisco. In December, SF Weekly profiled Andrew Schoultz, an award-winning street and gallery artist who moved to Los Angeles after 18 years here, chased by a studio eviction and the uncertainty of finding a long-term space to paint. That month, though — and every month for the past two years — SF Weekly has profiled current San Francisco street artists in a column, Know Your Street Art, that digs into the stories behind the paintings, sculptures, stencils, and stickers that pop up in different neighborhoods. The column testifies to an unassailable fact: San Francisco has more talented street artists than ever before. And it's not just the Mission District where street art has found a home, but the Richmond District, Sunset, Haight, Fillmore, North Beach, Nob Hill, Tenderloin, Mid-Market, SOMA, Bayview, and Excelsior. Almost everywhere you look, there is street art worth noticing.

The seven artists profiled here have beaten the odds. Street art is by nature ephemeral, but these artists' works are up right now, in multiple San Francisco locations. What's more, the artists' reputations extend far beyond this city, thanks partly to the growing network of websites, magazines, and gallery spaces devoted to street work.

We live in a Golden Age of street art, when it has become embedded in popular culture. Exhibit A: Jay Z's recent “Dreams Are Made” TV commercial, which features Mill Valley street artist Zio Ziegler, whose San Francisco works — exoskeletons covered in scales, zigzags, crisscrosses, circles, and other distinct shapes — stand out for their temerity and intensity. If all art is an act of faith, to quote Truman Capote, then the street art on these pages are leaps of faith that landed well. And the artists behind that faith don't need to make long pilgrimages to this city. They're already here. Like earlier generations, their art speaks about everything from revolution to everyday life.


Mel Waters

In San Francisco, the debate about gentrification and the changing nature of neighborhoods is particularly resonant in the Mission District, which is losing its Hispanic population at a time when high-dollar restaurants and bars have cascaded in. Into this maelstrom stepped Mel Waters and his oversize painting of Carlos Santana, the Mexican-American guitarist who went to school in the Mission District and is a celebrated native son. Waters put up the painting last October, at 3107 19th St. near Mission. It's topped with a dedication in Spanish (“Para la Mission”) and flanked by powerful Aztec symbols (painted by the artist named Hyde). The artwork, which was coordinated with the building's owner and the San Francisco Arts Commission, honors a musician who symbolizes cultural pride and synthesis — who combined Latin music with American rock and other influences — at a highly trafficked intersection. Waters' art has become an instant landmark.

“From when I started it, people were yelling out, 'Carlos Santana!' 'Carlos Santana!,' ” says Waters. “The old Latino generations felt like I was bringing the Mission back. But old, young, hipster — it didn't matter. People were feeling it from the start.”

Like Santana, Waters grew up in San Francisco. And like Santana, Waters draws on a confluence of cultural influences: He's African-American and Filipino-American, and came of age with the ascendance of hip-hop while listening to other music, including jazz, soul, R&B, and Santana.

“I went to high school with his daughter, Stella Santana,” says the 33-year-old Waters, who grew up in the Fillmore and attended Sacred Heart Cathedral Prepatory high school. “She came back to the city and we met at the wall, and we had a long conversation about it. She said her dad had heard about it. He saw pictures.”

Waters' street paintings are almost exclusively in black and white, giving them a texture and vividness analogous to the best black-and-white art photos. His work also can be seen at 588 Haight St. (the rapper named Kwanza, shown exhaling smoke), 559 Hayes St. (Louis Armstrong and Nina Simone), and 16th Street near Florida (Gandhi).

A tattoo artist who works in the Ingleside district, Waters says he perfected his art by making more of it. “I can't be any more thankful and blessed than to be an artist in my hometown,” he says. “It's been a dream to me. I grew up in the '90s era with graffiti, which was very inspirational. And some fine artists, and tattoo artists that I've come under — I owe it all to them, because they were my inspiration.”


Chad Hasegawa

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The bears that began appearing on walls along Market Street and the Tenderloin over the last decade didn't start out as bears. They were blobs. Abstract blobs that came from Chad Hasegawa's imagination and would have stayed as blobs except for one thing: Hasegawa's friends urged him to anthropomorphize the shapes, and Hasegawa agreed. The bear was a compromise of sorts, but it stuck. And so did the style: a cross between abstraction and figuration. From a close distance, Hasegawa's bears still look like overlapping shapes without a definitive structure.

Cheap paint helped prompt the figures.

“I was getting these bucket paints for $1,” Hasegawa says. “I was having fun with dripping and splashing. I was putting ridiculous amounts of paint on. All bright colors. They also had neutral tones. And my friends would hang out and watch me paint. They'd say, 'Dude, you're painting a bear.' And I'd say, 'No, it's actually a blob.' And they'd go, 'No, dude — it's a bear. You can tell. It's all brown.'

“I refused to paint a bear, and finally my friend was like, 'Just paint a bear and see what happens.' So I painted a bear, and said, 'Oh, my God. This is kind of cool.' It made sense now that I was painting in this ugly style. It opened up everything. And I said, 'I need to get this out onto the street.' “

Hasegawa, 32, grew up in Hawaii with strong artistic ambitions. Even as a 10-year-old, he devoured graffiti magazines. The street artist who influenced Hasegawa at that age was Barry McGee, who went by “Twist” and other names. But it was the entire Mission School scene that inspired Hasegawa to apply to San Francisco's Academy of Art University, where he earned a BFA in advertising. Hasegawa has been here ever since. From the day he arrived in 2000 and moved to Nob Hill, Hasegawa began putting up street art.

“As soon as I got here, the first thing I did was walk down Taylor Street to Market Street. I was hungry and I needed a refrigerator, and I walked to the pawnshop on Sixth Street, and the first thing I saw was Twist's character,” Hasegawa says. “Twist was in my face right there, on the Luggage Store Gallery. I thought, 'Whoa. This is San Francisco!'

“I walked into the gallery and I noticed the stairwell had a bunch of tags,” he says. “And this lady is at the top of the stairwell and she says, 'Are you going to come up and see the art?' I said, 'No, no. I'm sorry.' And I ran away. I went back and saw her again, and I found it was Laurie Lazer, the co-founder of the Luggage Store, which the whole Mission School hung out at. It was just my luck.”

That luck has stayed with Hasegawa, whose bears can be found on the outside shutter of White Walls Gallery, 886 Geary in the Tenderloin; at the Luggage Store Gallery's outdoor annex Tenderloin National Forest, at 509 Ellis; and on a wall near the intersection of Treat and 23rd streets in the outer Mission. The Mission helped inspire Hasegawa to come to San Francisco. Now, his work is situated there, a twist that “Twist” would surely be happy about.


Chris Gazaleh

The history of political art is the history of art itself, as in Francisco Goya's The Third of May 1808, whose firing-squad scene is a searing attack on the inhumanity of wars and governments. Chris Gazaleh has one foot in that art tradition, with a focus on Palestinian issues. In Clarion Alley, the celebrated art corridor between Mission and Valencia streets, Gazaleh has a large work of a man's face surrounded by squiggly lines. People who've studied languages might recognize it as stylized Arabic-lettering. Closer scrutiny reveals upsidedown pyramids in the man's eyes.

“My art is definitely that of a conscious person trying to address world politics,” says Gazaleh. “I love putting history into my art. The Arabic is abstract. If you go to old mosques in Spain or Morocco, you see beautiful mosaics in Arabic letters. The face is wrapped in all these letters. The words are protecting the face but also causing confusion. The pyramids are like history that's reversed. The way we understand history is almost like the opposite of what we should. That art is like reinterpreting democracy and capitalism. A lot of Western ideas were adopted from Egyptians. Basically, it means that shit is backwards. We put a pyramid on the dollar bill, but I like to flip it upside down. I'm saying capitalism isn't working.”

Last year, Gazaleh was one of the artists invited to contribute to the Oakland Palestine Solidarity Mural. His painting: a tree with multiple generations of Palestinians living within — symbolic of Palestinians' long history in the Middle East. At Clarion Alley, next to Gazaleh's art of the man and lettering, he painted a large work of a tree surrounded by a white wall that said, “Free the People of Palestine.” That colorful artwork, which had been there for years, was painted over this month with another artist's work.

“The tree represents Palestine,” says Gazaleh. “The Palestinian plight is known out here in major cities. And a lot of people know that Palestinians are a historic people. But there is also an extreme lack of understanding. It's not represented in education and the media. It's important to let our narrative be known.”

Gazaleh's family immigrated from Palestine to San Francisco in 1955. His great-grandfather had a liquor store at 23rd and Guerrero. Gazaleh, 31, is a San Francisco native who also grew up in Dearborn, Mich., which has the highest concentration of Arab-Americans in the United States. As a college student at San Francisco State, Gazaleh was a lead organizer of the campus's Edward Said mural, which honors the late Palestinan-American author and academic. Gazaleh, who lives in the Excelsior District, studied postcolonial literature, not art.

“Art,” Gazaleh says, “is the most important thing to get out there, because you can't censor art. The best thing I can do is use art for something that will open minds, and inspire, and criticize, and challenge. Those are things we need in society.”


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Shawn Bullen

They've become two of San Francisco's most prominent black faces, seen every day by thousands of commuters who pass by the corner of Fillmore and Geary. Shawn Bullen's artful profiles of John Lee Hooker, who died in 2001 at 83, and Genevieve McDevitt-Mauldin, a young singer in the funk band Katdelic, say everything about Bullen's approach to street art, and the way he reaches into the neighborhoods he paints in for inspiration.

McDevitt-Mauldin grew up in the Fillmore, which for much of the 20th century was the heart of black San Francisco. She and Katdelic regularly perform at the Boom Boom Room, whose wall Burrell was invited to paint. McDevitt-Mauldin is a local girl who's starting to make it in her field of choice. Fillmore residents appreciate (and applaud) Bullen's depiction of the neighborhood kid who they used to babysit and whose visage is now the size of Mount Rushmore. Hooker co-founded the Boom Boom Room, which is named after one of his songs.

Bullen's street-art habit: experience a neighborhood and talk to its people before painting, rather than parachute in and impose a planned vision.

“I try to illustrate what a community has been but also what it could be,” says Bullen, who studied fine art and photography in college. “When I started walking around and [telling] people that I was doing a mural for the Boom Boom Room, people who'd lived there a while were concerned that the history of the neighborhood was being forgotten. And it was important that anything new honor the history. Katdelic performs there once a month, and Genevieve is a new singer who's just getting her name out there. It would be awesome if my art could help progress somebody else's artistic career.”

In Noe Valley, American Express commissioned Bullen to paint a two-story street work that tells the story of that area's small businesses, and like his Boom Boom painting, the work is an inspired, larger-than-life look at people who ordinarily get little attention on public art. The biggest image in that collage: a young woman who worked in the area and told Bullen she hopes to return to China with her mom to visit family. The plane at the top is a proxy for her dreams of traveling.

Bullen, 26, is a Chicago native who lives in the Richmond District and spent many months living in the Bayview, where he's orchestrated several standout street works, and where he's co-founding an urban arts festival in October that will bring top muralists and street artists to paint walls and work with neighborhood schoolkids. He's already taught mural painting to middle school kids there. The festival would happen over three days. Among the fiscal sponsors: the nonprofit SF Beautiful, Bayview activist Tyra Fennell, and Bullen himself.

“We're going to bring artists from outside San Francisco, and local artists from San Francisco and the Bay Area, and create a mural installation on one entire block in the industrial district of Bayview,” says Bullen. “We're trying to create a project that benefits the surrounding community, and the artists.

“We want to bring a larger culture of mural painting and street art to the city,” he adds. “It's surprising that it doesn't already exist here, since [a similar festival] is happening in every other major city. It's exciting that we get the opportunity to get it started.”


Amandalynn

Street art and graffiti are inextricably linked, with casual observers frequently conflating the two. Graffiti is based on stylized lettering, and its presumed Latin cognate, graphire, means “to write.” Graffiti writers were Amandalynn's first peer group when she started doing street art in San Francisco. But she didn't want to do tagging and writing, so she focused on doing images, and she painted what she knew best: women. That's still Amandalynn's preferred motif, and she's the most prominent female street artist doing those images in San Francisco.

One of Amandalynn's most recent works, called Live Outside (700 Stevenson St. at Eighth), turned a hotel's boring beige wall into a sea of turquoise, where three dark-haired women frolic in the water, one of them blowing at dandelions. Birds fly amid giant lettering done by the Oakland artist Lady Mags, with whom Amandalynn has collaborated since 2011. Amandalynn's street art can be thought of as beautification art. The women she paints, though, are more than eye candy.

“I started out as an artist with the dream of being a muralist,” says Amandalynn, 35, whose freelance work includes outdoor sculpture preservation and motorcycle painting. “I grew up in Pennsylvania, till I was 18, and moved out here. I did a little bit of it there, but it wasn't until I came to San Francisco that I met a bunch of graffiti writers and learned how to paint on walls just for the hell of it, and how fun and inspiring it can be. I'd show up and the guys would start painting, and I would just fit in something somewhere.”

Amandalynn had a specific vision for what she wanted to do. “As much as I was inspired by them and their style, I really had this desire to do my own thing, and create my fine art on walls,” she says. “I love abstract art, but I'm not a good abstract artist. And I love graffiti, but I'm not a graffiti artist. Women inspire me. Female energy, and nature, and that sort of thing. When I look around and dream of things, that's what entices me, so that's what I put out there.

“I've been challenged several times to paint men, and they end up looking quite feminine,” she adds. “It's obviously something that's not inside of me.”

When Amandalynn started doing street art about 15 years ago, there were fewer women doing it, and few other artists putting women so prominently — using brushes, and completing gallery-like paintings — on public San Francisco walls. “I was incredibly fortunate to get engulfed with a group of graffiti writers who really encouraged me to do that sort of thing,” Amandalynn says. “It wasn't widely accepted. No one came to a wall with brushes. Now, there are street-art TV shows, and everyone is now painting for murals, and they want you to paint girls. It's definitely something that's worked its way in through various artists. I can't say I was the first in any way. But it's embraced much more nowadays, simply because there's more a fine-art approach to murals.”


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Cameron Moberg

In the Oxygen cable-television series Street Art Throwdown, the first reality TV show to feature street artists, Cameron Moberg is the only contestant who's a San Francisco native and resident — but he defies the stereotypes of the city. The first time audiences see Moberg on the show, in episode 1, he's painting a cross on a metal shutter. Moberg is a Christian pastor who infuses his street art with symbols — both overt and implied — of religious inspiration. That doesn't make Moberg's art “religious art.” Instead, his works are akin to secular gospel music — enjoyable in any way that inspires the audience.

A good example: his work Time Flies When You're Having Fun, at 3166 26th St. (near Folsom), which covers the outside of a three-story building and features a trippy kaleidoscope of shapes and colors, topped by a giant majestic bird that's swooping along. Moberg did the work with Ivan “Gath” Preciado, who's also on Street Art Throwdown.

“My faith is completely encompassed with my life,” says Moberg, 33, who also goes by the name Camer1. “So say I paint the birds that I paint, and there's not a giant scripture up there, but to me creation comes from God. So when I paint that bird, it's something that I would call natural revelation — God revealing himself through nature. My desire is to love people and reflect the love of Christ.”

Moberg grew up in the Mission, near Army and Guerrero, and studied religion at Oakland's Patten University, then a religious-based institution. He's a self-taught artist who favors baseball hats, tattoos, ear and lip piercings, and a style he says is rooted in graffiti but is venturing into character work. So his birds frequently have letter-like shapes descending from their feathers.

With a wife and two children, Moberg lives in low-income housing South of Market. Though he'd like to win the main prize of $100,000 on Street Art Throwdown, it's basic street art that drives his daily life. Painting and exhibiting in galleries don't have the same thrill.

“When you're out in the public, there are more interactions with the environment that you're in,” says Moberg, whose appearance on Street Art Throwdown parallels his increasing visibility through street art and gallery exhibitions. “I'd even say it's sometimes performance art, even though we're not dancing or things like that. People get interested in the process. There's also the large space — there's just a lot more in the process that feels good when you're doing it.

“In front of a canvas, you're only kind of moving your arm and a little bit of your wrist,” he explains. “But when you're on a wall, you're moving your entire body. You're doing lunges and really large movements. So it's not always the outcome that's important to us. There are movements with the can that feel good because they're so big and loose. I grew up in the hip-hop scene, and I love breakdancing. And everybody in hip-hop watched kung-fu movies. So coming into the street-art world, there's that side where you're climbing buildings and doing crazy stuff. It's fun coupling the physicality and the painting.”

Few other pastors, it's fair to say, can say the same thing.


Ricardo Richey (Apex)

Whether it's the Tenderloin (Ellis and Leavenworth), Mid-Market (corner of Turk), or an off-the-beaten-path part of San Francisco (Colton Street and Colusa Place), Apex's work stands out for three good reasons: 1. It's architectural, with layers and lines and loops that zig and zag and form exquisite patterns; 2. It's colorful, and even when Apex uses a central color, he employs half-shades and quarter-shades that create striking contrasts; 3. It's unlike any other street art in San Francisco.

A native San Franciscan, 36-year-old Apex has done street art most of his life — since 14. Raised in the outer Sunset District and Anza Vista, and now a resident of the Mission District, Apex has used different San Francisco neighborhoods — including its buildings and billboards — to inspire his art. Architecture is one component of Apex's artistic foundation, but just one. Lettering is another big influence, though that, too, is subsumed by Apex's unique aesthetic.

“To be honest, as far back as third grade, I was driven with abstraction and color gradations,” says Apex, who studied graphic design in college. “I really give credit to the San Francisco I grew up in. The grittiness of the '80s and early '90s of certain areas of the city. The Victorians on McAllister and upper Fillmore — those color schemes — to the box houses of the Sunset. For me, just driving through the city and seeing different architecture and buildings, seeing paper billboards that were ripped because of the rain, that to me was art.”

Apex has exhibited at galleries and museums around the Bay Area, including Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, and his honors include an artist-in-residence at the Headlands Center for the Arts. Last December, Adobe commissioned him to do a large public “pop-up” mural in Hayes Valley that has since been donated to the African American Art & Culture Complex on Fulton Street.

His studio is near Turk and Market. “I use my studio to practice and my public art to talk to one another and inform one another,” Apex says. “It's beneficial for me as an artist to have public work that people can respond to, and get feedback from, and then have studio practice that I use to experiment and have a more intimate setting to view the work. It's a cycle I use to slowly change the public art, and then I turn around and slowly change my studio work.

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“Last year, I was doing so many private commissions, and this year, I want to concentrate more on public art in San Francisco, and really separate what people see in the public sphere vs. what they see in a gallery,” he says. “I want to continue pushing the envelope in terms of color, form, and size. With my studio practice, I want to concentrate on minimalism.”

In this yin-yang approach, Apex's street art will get even bigger and bolder. That's a positive development for anyone who's seen his street art and wishes to see more.

 

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