Street Smart

Bye-bye hippies, hello Factory model. The Haight is becoming a center for over-the-counter street art.

Haight and Ashbury has been a commercial real-estate bugbear for the past couple of decades. Any business that opened at the historic intersection was offering itself up for judgment on the altar of the Diggers, the anarchist theater collective of the '60s that gave away baked goods, medical care, and clothing. How do you compete with free?

The Gap store at 1485 Haight finally shuttered in January, losing its ongoing battle against vituperative tagging and window cracking. The corporate clothier never really fit in with the area's counterculture ethos. But the new clothing store that has replaced Gap, Costa Mesa–based RVCA (pronounced “roo-ka”), cultivates a surf, skater, and street-art aesthetic that fits right into the Haight — or at least into what the Haight is becoming.

The neighborhood has long teetered at the edge of gentrification without quite succumbing, like a hippie with scissors held to his ponytail. Throughout, it has managed to maintain a livelier street culture than most. At all hours, kids hang out, pot smoke floats like fog, and eccentricity is not only tolerated, but lovingly embellished. In this fertile environment, street art — including graffiti, stencils, stickers, drip tagging, and wheatpaste posters — has flourished. RVCA's opening signals a critical mass of stores-slash-art-galleries featuring these artists, including Giant Robot, Lower Hater, and the nearly-decade-old Upper Playground and its attendant gallery Fifty24SF. If that's not enough, you'll find art tucked away in stores like Stussy and FTC Skateboarding.

RVCA has adopted the same model as these other stores: Artists are featured in an in-store gallery, and their work is commissioned for T-shirts (and, at Upper Playground, for items like shower curtains, pillowcases, and even soccer balls). Admirers get pieces of art cheaply, artists make money outside the gallery constraint while maintaining a high-art sheen, and businesses soak up the legitimacy artists bring to boring old commerce.

“In the past five years, underground street art has become acceptable contemporary art,” says Kent Uyehara, owner and creative director of FTC. “What's happening is that stores as well as brands feel that it's an integral part of the marketing now, tying in a lifestyle. Even brands like Scion — Scion probably sponsors half the art shows that come to San Francisco as far as the independent underground art goes.”

John Trippe, editor of Fecal Face, the online art magazine, doesn't think there's anything wrong with this model per se. “There are boundaries between the commercial capitalism and using T-shirts to help sell the art, but there's also these people who have been participating in street art or graffiti who have reached the age where they have to support a family,” he says. “I wouldn't really call it selling out — it's this lifestyle of creativity. You're using this amazing feeling of all that, and using all of that to make a lot of money.”

RVCA celebrated its opening last month by inviting graffiti artist Josh Amaze to paint a giant tag in yellow letters that ballooned one story high across the building's front. On Nov. 8, RVCA opened its backroom gallery with a show called “Family Tree,” featuring the work of Barry McGee (sometimes known as Twist, but who goes by R. Pimple for this show) and Phil Frost.

“RVCA stands for the balance of opposites: consumerism versus creativity,” says Meghan Edwards, director of the Haight Street store. “It's really about the art, not about the commercialism. That's part of why we chose the location in the Haight — because of how raw the art scene is here. It's very organic.”

The relation between the art and the clothing is not quite as clear at RVCA as it is at Upper Playground, where racks of T-shirts silkscreened with artwork line up like wearable canvases. And the artistic thrust of the store might not be so obvious when you enter RVCA's slick, warehouse-chic space. It's only when you get to the small white room in back that you feel as if you've left Urban Outfitters. For the “Family Tree” show, the gallery is stuffed with McGee's Op-Art panels of stepped-cube patterns and Frost's stenciled tiki totem poles. McGee's familiar cartoony men dot the crowded walls, along with photographs of skate and surf scenes by Craig Stecyk. A raft of McGee-decorated surfboards leans against one wall.

It's a beautiful and transporting show, but there's no denying that the proximity of art to over-the-counter capitalism is, well, discomfiting. The Diggers might not approve, but Andy Warhol would love it. As he once said, “Being good in business is the most fascinating kind of art.”

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