Know Your Street Art: Shrooming in SoMa

Lauren YS's Mushroom Eater at 426 Brannan St. was pivotal to the street artist's career.

For three years, Lauren YS’s Mushroom Eater has draped the outside wall of a SoMa restaurant, Brickhouse Cafe & Saloon. And in those three years, the artist’s life and the city she once called home have changed dramatically, while the mural itself is surprisingly intact. That’s surprising, as Mushroom Eater was only supposed to be there for six months or so. But the mural’s longevity is a good thing, because Mushroom Eater is funny and provocative — with references to Japanese culture, gender, and street art, and Lauren YS’s own idiosyncrasies.

The artist is obsessed with mushrooms, which dot the entirety of her mural, including the sandwich that the central figure is about to eat with a “yechh” expression on her face. The restaurant’s artistic preferences influenced the making of Mushroom Eater.

“They had requested the work indirectly reference the menu, and I already work with a mushroom motif, and they had a mushroom burger — so that was the whole idea behind it,” Lauren YS tells SF Weekly. “I use a lot of mushroom imagery because I’m really interested in them as art objects, and as organisms. They reproduce by releasing spores through their gills, and they’re possibly the future of saving the environment. I think they’re very beautiful.”

Lauren YS, a contributing writer to Juxtapoz magazine who has almost 20,000 Instagram followers, studied English and art at Stanford and graduated in 2013. In 2015, SF Weekly wrote about Lauren YS’ collaborative work, Rock, Paper, Scissors, which is also still going strong near the corner of Market Street and Van Ness Avenue.

Mushroom Eater originated when Rocha Arts, a SOMA art space and company, commissioned eight women artists to paint murals and gallery work in what it called a “Wander & Wayfare” festival. Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland is an influence on Lauren YS’ work — and the main figure in Mushroom Eater is “a young woman making her way through the world and deciding what she thinks reality is,” and her expression “is a vibe that came from Samurai imagery. Often, they have that expression going on. I was leaning toward having the imagery have a more aggressive feel since I get included in these all-female things quite often. And even though I like to paint feminine imagery, I like the energy to have a more aggressive feel to it.”

For three years, Lauren YS traveled around the United States making murals, then moved to Oakland for a bit, and then in 2016 — after the Ghost Ship fire — to Los Angeles, from where she’s planning another move, this time to Australia, where she has an upcoming exhibit. Lauren YS says she can’t afford to live in San Francisco anymore after relinquishing her space a few years ago. Mushroom Eater may be her last piece here.

“It’s really amazing to still have work in San Francisco even though me and all my friends have been driven out of San Francisco,” Lauren YS says in her phone interview from Los Angeles. “It’s still my favorite city, but I feel like a visitor there. There’s no way I could ever live there again. It’s sad.”

Still, she says, her few years in the Lower Haight “were really crucial for me in starting my career, so I’m really grateful.” And her regular travels and recent mural work — including in Japan, China, South Korea, Nepal, and Australia — “have been incredibly rewarding — the time of my life.

“I’ve definitely become more comfortable with color and spray paint and with pushing my imagery,” she says. “Especially given events from the past year, I’ve really dug into paying attention to what my work — in a subtle way — says about femininity, and gender, and identity politics. It’s become apparent to me that, as a woman of color, I have a platform that most people don’t have. And I’m using that to subtly empower people to see these things.”

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