Tourism For Locals: The TRUTH-ful Art of Rigo 23

It's a well known statement that art, in and of itself, is political; as stated by artist, activist, and essayist Mark Vallen. Since artists do not create in a vacuum, they are indisputably coupled to the society and times in which they work. But Vallen innocently omitted that the very location of art also provides an equally valid subjective commentary and observation on the state of the world.

Although there are plenty of examples of geographically oriented political art, San Francisco has one artist who synthesizes complex messages and themes into monochromatic lines and a single word statements that draw attention industrialization and world politics (among other items).  

This is the streamlined world of Rigo 23.

[jump] Born Ricardo Gouveia in 1966 on Madeira Island, Portugal, he came to San Francisco in the early 1990s to attend the San Francisco Art Institute and Stanford University; he earned his BFA and Masters, respectively, from each institution. From 1984-2002, Gouveia used the last two digits of the current year as part of his name (such as Rigo 98) or the first and last number during the new millennium, until finally settling with the permanent “23” in 2003.

According to Gallery Paule Anglim ( who represents the artist), Rigo 23 places murals, paintings, sculptures, and tile work in public situations where viewers are prompted to examine their relationship to their community, the site notes “their role as unwitting advocates of public policy or their place on a planet occupied by many other living things.”

In the City , his most famous installations are his pop-art inspired traffic signs that are deceptive in their simplicity. One of his early and iconic works is 1995's “One Tree.” The mural is located at 10th Street and Bryant at the entrance to HWY 101 South. Situated in a desolate industrial area in SoMa, it features a one-way sign that reads “One Tree” and is indeed pointing towards a single elm. It's the stark juxtaposition that acts as a reminder of the natural world when the viewer is confronted with one of the chief symbols of industrialization: a freeway. 

In 1994, Rigo 23 teamed up with The TODCO Group, a community-based housing/community development nonprofit for San Francisco’s SoMa neighborhood, to paint the massive “Innercity/Home” on the side of an affordable housing high rise building. The mural can be seen from the HWY 101 and I-280.

So, naturally, 23's large “Truth” mural located near the Civic Center and UN Plaza would seem to have some connection or message with it facing City Hall, San Francisco Superior Court, the California Federal Court House, and UC Hasting's Law School.  
Although a spectator could easily nod in agreement of this interpretation, Rigo 23 is drawing attention to a specific incident, and in that, maybe a much larger truth. He draws from world politics and political prisoners of the Black Panther Party and specifically the Angola Three. And in this piece, “Truth”commemorates the vindication of Robert H. King.

King, a former member of the Black Panther Party, was one of two of the Angola Three to be released from prison after spending 32 years incarcerated in a Louisiana prison — 29 of these years were spent in a solitary confinement cell with the dimensions of 6 x 9 x 12-feet. King’s conviction was overturned in 2001. (Below we've included a video where King and Rigo 23 discuss art, politics, and freedom during a panel discussion.)

Most importantly though, Rigo 23 has not only graced San Francisco with his works, but he has given back to the arts community as well. He was was one of the founders of the Clarion Alley Mural Project and his mosaic work graces a Tenderloin playground. 

So next time you run into one of his murals, pause and think what the message of the work is and how it relates to your life, because the complexities and chaos of our society can easily be expressed with a navigational street sign and one word phrase, but it takes open minds and hearts to see the inspiration behind the work.


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