Graffiti to Gallery

Andrew Schoultz, the mural artist who's making it big in the gallery by refusing to leave the street behind

Beginning shortly after Christmas 2001 and running into the new year, Andrew Schoultz changed a long, drearily gray wall in Hayes Valley into a delightful, off-kilter universe, one in which distressed giraffes with airplane propellers tied to their stomachs floated above a dense, ramshackle world of intricately corkscrewed buildings; blue birds sporting green tufts of hair blew into trumpets. If the themes were geared toward neighborhood children, the mural — with its complex anthropomorphism and deceptive cuteness — was indicative of the style that has earned Schoultz a reputation as one of the most promising artists to emerge from San Francisco's mural-art scene.

To passing kids, Schoultz — a large figure with a dopey warmth and a thick, gnarly, blond beard — must've resembled a hipster version of Santa Claus. Many of their parents had already met Schoultz; on the first day of his project, he went door to door, telling them he had received permission for the mural and asking them for feedback on its design. One parent had even gone so far as to organize a group of neighborhood kids to paint their own drawings into small picture frames that Schoultz incorporated into the mural.

In the back of his mind, Schoultz wanted to transform this stretch of wall, previously a space for gang graffiti, into a smaller version of Clarion Alley, a former heroin shooting gallery in the Mission District that has become, arguably, one of the nation's finest testaments to the possibilities of public art. But in the back of his mind, he also knew he'd screwed up, and badly.

On the afternoon of Jan. 7, 2002, a car shrieked to a halt near the wall Schoultz was painting.

“Who gave you permission for this?” a gruff male voice barked out.

“The owner did,” Schoultz replied, putting down his brush and shielding his eyes from the sun.

“And where is the owner?” the man asked.

“In Russia,” Schoultz replied.

“No,” the man barked back, “he's not.”

The man was the owner of the wall, Mike Berline. Although Schoultz had told everyone his mural was part of a “neighborhood beautification” effort, he had never asked for or received permission to paint it. The owner was supposed to be in Russia, that much Schoultz had learned from a friend. Apparently, though, the friend had been a little vague on the actual date of Berline's return. “I always thought that if I was caught in the process of painting a really beautiful mural, the landlord would be like, 'This is bitchin'! Please proceed,'” Schoultz says with a slow, stoned-sounding SoCal drawl that belies his workaholic mentality.

The mural may have been bitchin', but two days later Schoultz received a letter from Berline's lawyer. It said, in part:

“You say the neighbors like what you are painting. That may or may not be true. But it does not contravene our right to paint our wall as we please. You are using our wall to solicit money. You suggest that your graphics remain in perpetuity. You 'guarantee' your work will displace the graphic trespasses of the gang tags. You agree that their tags are a graphic trespass but find it offensive that we consider your symbols a similar trespass. What endorses your work above others?”

Schoultz presented his artistic credentials — including a series of gallery showings and favorable mention from local art critics — but Berline held his ground, and early on the morning of Jan. 9, 2002, before the neighborhood awoke, Schoultz negated his meticulously construed universe with a deep coat of drab gray paint. Later that day, callers flooded a voice mailbox set up for the project, but Schoultz — realizing that though his heart had been in the right place, his actions had been wildly irresponsible — couldn't bring himself even to answer the calls.

This would be the last clandestine mural Schoultz painted.

Although it's doubtful that Berline knew it, he had presented Schoultz with the central question any street artist must answer: What distinguishes your work from what thousands of muralists, graffiti writers, and outright vandals are slapping up around the city? At their best, street murals provide an aesthetically pleasing forum for political dissent and personal expression. But on the street, there are no curators separating wheat from chaff, no financial infrastructure to reward quality work, and the result is a lot of bad art, perpetrated by anonymous and indistinguishable artists.

Schoultz is different, and not just because the fine art world is taking note of his work. It's true that many so-called experts — including curators at SFMOMA and Yerba Buena Center for the Arts and owners of major galleries in San Francisco and Los Angeles — believe he may be the next artist to make the crossover from the streets to the gallery in a big way. But Schoultz's art is anything but gallery-bound. Fusing the vitality and renegade approach of graffiti, the social consciousness of Chicano muralism, and the formal flourishes of fine art, Schoultz brings a little street into the gallery, but the reverse is also true.

Schoultz's desire to have an impact outside the world of fine art is real and impossible to miss. His speech is peppered with references to community and social responsibility, and though these are slippery notions, there's no denying that Schoultz spends most of his time trying to inspire people who don't spend much if any time inside art galleries. The street work pays him next to nothing — and only marginally helps his career — yet Schoultz still sees it as the most important thing he does.

Born in 1974 in a lower-class district on the north side of Milwaukee, Schoultz began his art career as a graffiti writer. After seeing the seminal hip hop film Breakin', he put up his first tag — the twisted signatures that define graffiti lettering — in third grade. Though graffiti played a prominent role in Schoultz's life, his interest in the more respectable side of art was piqued when he began attending Pius XI High School in Milwaukee, which had a progressive art program that provided Schoultz his first formal training. One of Schoultz's pieces from that class was displayed in the Milwaukee Art Museum, and he went on to win a scholarship that entitled him to a free ride at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee. [page]

More concerned with petty vandalism and skateboarding than art, he rarely attended classes and was out of college within the first semester. He turned his attention to skateboarding and toured with a group of professional skaters, on and off, from 1993 to '98, helping construct skate parks along the way. During that time, however, he retained an interest in graffiti and public art, viewing some of the nation's finest urban art and contributing a few pieces of his own.

In 1996, knowing that San Francisco had lax graffiti laws and a great skateboarding scene, Schoultz relocated. Although never formally connected with the graffiti crews that roam the city (“I've always been more of a loner”), he immediately felt the influence of the Mission mural-art scene and began putting up his own clandestine work, gradually developing a sensibility that still informs his street painting. Along the way, he birthed a cast of characters — among them twisted elephants, blue birds, distorted buildings, and tornadoes — that he uses repeatedly.

Schoultz's art failed to receive widespread recognition, blending with the work of countless graffiti writers and part-time muralists adorning the city, until he approached Aaron Noble in 2000 about painting a mural in Clarion Alley. Noble and other artists had founded the Clarion Alley Mural Project in 1992, changing Clarion — a narrow lane off Valencia, between 17th and 18th streets — from a heroin shooting gallery into three blocks of walls dedicated entirely to murals. Recently displaced from his house in the Lower Haight, Schoultz desperately wanted to contribute something to Clarion that referenced the dot-com gentrification debate then engulfing San Francisco.

Noble, one of San Francisco's most widely known muralists, hadn't heard of Schoultz. “Lots of people come up and see if they can do a piece on the alley,” Noble remembers. “I ask to see some examples of work or a proposal, and that usually weeds out 70 or 80 percent, right there. Of the remaining who do get me something, it's usually some old pictures or vague idea of what they want to do. But Andy came back the next day with a huge, incredibly detailed and specific drawing of the mural he wanted to do.”

Schoultz's mural focused on an iconic yuppie image — the coffee machine — but its normal settings had been replaced by orders to “control,” “conquer,” and so forth. Topical and poignant, the mural was quickly pushed through the Clarion committee. Afterward, Schoultz could be found first thing every morning standing on his ladder and painting the piece that would bring him into San Francisco's public art scene and, most important, to the eye of Ray Patlán.

It's the sort of San Francisco summer day that you'll only see in the sunny Mission. Random hipsters and tourists with water bottles and digital cameras drift, displaying an array of expressions that vacillate between curiosity and sheer wonderment. Mexican garage rock bleeds from outdoor speakers. It's so hot that my shirt clings to my body and my sneakers stick to the black asphalt of Balmy Alley, the extraordinary mural exhibition that Ray Patlán founded in 1984.

Patlán has a fiery, larger-than-life history. After all, he is the man who, when sent to Vietnam as a soldier, painted a giant anti-war mural in Saigon. On his return to Chicago after his tour of duty, he helped birth that city's Muralist Movement, encouraging artists and nonartists alike to use murals to express their dissatisfaction with racism, poverty, and war.

Patlán arrived in the Bay Area in 1975, teaching at UC Berkeley and Stanford before creating Balmy Alley, the first streetscape dedicated exclusively to murals in the United States.

Schoultz sees Patlán as a mentor, although the connection may be more philosophical than artistic. Through his life and his words, Patlán has shown Schoultz that public art can have a direct and substantial impact on the community. Schoultz speaks of Patlán constantly and in reverential terms.

As we walk through the alley, Patlán explains the beginnings of the Balmy Alley project, when he organized 36 artists from around the country to paint 29 murals over the course of nine months. Those initial murals dealt with the theme of supposed U.S. imperialism in Central America, a timely subject, given the Reagan administration's policies in the region. The murals are not polite. Patlán's first mural, for example, portrays Latino women in their 50s walking up to soldiers; the women have automatic rifles stealthily tucked under their shawls, as if ready for ambush.

Only six of the original Balmy Alley designs are left. It's nearly impossible to preserve murals, which are subject to both natural wear and tear and defacement by vandals of varying agendas. It's the nature of the genre, and while they take great pains to protect their work, Patlán, Schoultz, and Noble have accepted the temporary quality of their chosen field.

Schoultz has three murals on Balmy, one solo and two collaborations. The solo mural was painted in the first months of 2001 — shortly after his Clarion Alley piece — and it also deals with the themes of gentrification and displacement.

For another mural, Schoultz says, he collaborated with Sirron Norris, who paints in a style that he calls “cartoon literalism,” in the hopes that Schoultz's graffiti-esque technique (and personal touch) would keep clandestine taggers from defacing Norris' work. “They don't touch my murals,” Schoultz tells me, smiling. “I handle my business.” [page]

The third Schoultz mural in Balmy Alley was a collaboration with his students at Precita Eyes, one of three community mural schools in the nation. True to the topical nature of Balmy Alley, the mural was painted just before the Iraq War and reflects Schoultz's deep belief that Bush's pre-emptive strikes were a tragic mistake.

“The times change, the world changes, and the alley changes,” Patlán comments. “It lives and breathes with the community.”

Around the time that Schoultz finished the Balmy Alley murals, he began to collaborate with Aaron Noble. The murals that they've done together have transformed their personal styles and represent some of their best work to date. The final collaboration, at 18th and Lexington streets, is recognized, here and elsewhere, as one of the most striking in the city. In fact, the histories of Noble and Schoultz have become so closely intertwined, it's almost impossible to understand the art of one without studying the art of the other.

Although a founding member of the Clarion Alley Mural Project, Noble, before meeting Schoultz, was perhaps most widely recognized as a performance artist. In one of his best-known works, Confession, Noble spent the duration of the performance denouncing his sins as he crawled across the stage, naked, with a guitar amplifier tied to his back. It was a stark and confrontational piece, drawing the ire of the anti-federal arts funding crowd after police in Las Cruces, N.M., threatened to close down Noble's show at the University of New Mexico on an obscenity charge.

The first Schoultz and Noble attempt at a clandestine mural — at the intersection of Sixth and Howard streets — was a bust. Schoultz finished his panel, but Noble was caught and had to paint over his mural. For the next mural, they bicycled to Mission Bay, finding a removed spot unlikely to be immediately detected by the property's owners. “I knew the landlord didn't care,” Schoultz recalls. “I knew that the wall would be torn down within the next year, and I knew certain information about the location where I could [pretend] that we were legitimate.”

The relative isolation allowed them to develop their styles in a safe environment, and the mural contains some of Schoultz's most compelling imagery; Noble credits it as a turning point in his career. Though the individual elements in the mural are sharp — notably, Schoultz's twisted elephants and Noble's abstract, comic-book creatures — the images bear little relation to one another.

If the Mission Bay mural was more or less a trial run, then the mural at Lexington and 18th streets is the realization of the trial mural's potential. The owners approached Noble and Schoultz about painting a mural to displace the gang graffiti that adorned their house, a large Victorian that was in a severe state of dilapidation; much of the paint had peeled off, and structural cracks were visible. Instead of trying to hide the decay by repainting the entire building, Schoultz and Noble incorporated the cracks and fissures into their mural.

The mural's central images are two large birdhouses that haphazardly spiral into each other. Smaller structures jut from the two main houses, and groups of smaller houses and buildings sprout from the larger birdhouse's various orifices. Some of Schoultz's blue birds, wearing exasperated expressions, can be seen fleeing the structures. Some of the birds have long sticks tied to their necks; the sticks dangle dollar bills in front of their faces, ever out of reach.

To the right of this chaotic scene, Noble's taut creatures — collages of comic-book characters reassembled as clusters of muscle and prosthetic weaponry — loom over the proceedings, while wires protrude from generators above them and into Schoultz's scene. Just as Schoultz's world is defined by its intricate imperfections and chaos, Noble's creatures are studies in abstraction and exactness. When taken as a whole, Noble's images refer to nothing outside of themselves and serve no apparent function, but the cold precision of his lines suggests technological functionality, which acts as a nice counterpoint to Schoultz's industrial disarray.

The mural was recently featured on the cover of the hipster journal Alarm Magazine and provides an important landmark for an area of the Mission District. “It's incredibly striking,” says Kevin B. Chen, program director for the visual arts at Intersection for the Arts, San Francisco's oldest alternative art space, which is known for presenting new and experimental work. “Most people walking down 18th do a double take at first. Just the colors catch your eye, and then you realize that it runs the length of that entire building.”

Schoultz and Noble's next adventure — undertaken during the summer of 2003 — took them far outside the Mission, into the Third World outback of Yogyakarta, Indonesia. The trip was organized as part of a cultural exchange project between San Francisco artists — particularly those involved in the Clarion Alley Mural Project — and Apotik Komik, a contemporary alternative arts collective based in Indonesia. Schoultz's time in Indonesia shaped his worldview — which his art mirrors — and prepared him for his solo show at the Bucheon Gallery the following summer.

Schoultz initially had a difficult time acclimating to his surroundings. “It was the first time that Andrew had been out of the country, and it was definitely a severe culture shock for him,” Noble remembers. “It was a much less capitalist country and had totally different cultural values.”

When I ask Schoultz about the experience, he agrees: “You're struck by how little the people have and how little they waste,” he says. “By the end of the trip, I'd become more accustomed to that lifestyle, and when I got back to the States, I had to go through the culture shock all over again.”

Though traumatic, Schoultz's trip allowed him to see the contrast between a wealthy, consumer-based society and a very poor part of Indonesia. It also allowed him to refine some of the political ideas that figure so heavily in his artwork. [page]

When Schoultz returned in August 2003, he focused increasingly on growing as a gallery artist. He'd already done group shows at the Luggage Store — which introduced the world to such transformative graffiti/gallery artists as Barry McGee — and Yerba Buena Center for the Arts and would soon have a collaborative show, with Noble, at L.A.'s Track 16 Gallery. Still, Schoultz hadn't hung a solo gallery show, or really tried to navigate the gray areas between gallery, mural, and graffiti art.

This changed with his solo show in June at Bucheon, a gallery in Hayes Valley.

The influence of Schoultz's trip to Indonesia is evident in one of the most striking pieces from the exhibit, titled Riverbank Elephant. In this piece, one of Schoultz's elephants stands in a doorway at the bottom of a wobbly heap of ramshackle buildings, composed in Schoultz's densely layered linework. There's a ladder nailed to the middle of one of the building's floors, but it leads nowhere and serves no apparent purpose. Although the structure has loose wood beams and uneven windows that allow rain and nature's other elements inside, the only exit is a bottom corner door, where the boxed-in elephant peers out. The building's other doorways have been bricked up.

“There's a sadness in his work,” Bucheon owner and curator Sheila Cohen says. “You can get an immediate reaction that, 'Oh, this is cute.' But there's a whole lot more going on.”

If many of the themes and imagery of the Bucheon show were derived from his trip to Indonesia, Schoultz also incorporated elements of his graffiti and mural background. “To me, what I do is a collaboration between street art, graffiti, and fine art. A lot of what I've done with my art is to create iconic images and use repetition, which is a trait of graffiti,” Schoultz says.

Laurie Steelink, of Track 16 Gallery in Los Angeles, compares Schoultz to seminal crossover graffiti artist Barry McGee, also known by his tag name, TWIST. “[Schoultz's] work contains his codex of images that he uses in the same way as a Barry McGee or a Margaret Kilgallen did, where they're reproduced again and again and build upon a theme. The tornadoes and buildings and birds are all very impressive, and it's something that you haven't seen. Just the image of the tornado speaks on multiple levels.”

Schoultz has had little formal artistic training, but his work at Bucheon conveyed both compositional sophistication and raw energy. “Andrew is part of the same sensibility that has a strong relationship with punk rock and hip hop,” says Yerba Buena Center for the Arts curator René de Guzman, who considers Schoultz a rising star in the San Francisco art scene. “A lot of artists like Andrew make the transition from private studio to street interventions to the gallery space. … Symbolically, it's important to acknowledge that aesthetic development can occur at the grass-roots level. Often the best and most authentic artistic development comes from that, rather than from a formalized academic setting.”

Eduardo Pineda, assistant director of education at SFMOMA, agrees: “Andrew recognizes the pristine environment of the gallery, and he's able to make that transfer of his rustic work in a way that is refined. I was really impressed with how the work looked and functioned inside the gallery. It's just as strong as it is in the streets.”

In the Bucheon exhibit, Schoultz subverted one of the key elements of gallery art — its portability — turning the entire space into a single mural. Most of the paintings bled into one another; there were few solitary pieces. “Schoultz really utilizes the gallery's space, rather than just trying to hang paintings on a wall,” Steelink notes.

If most of the pieces worked individually, there was also a sense that they were working for the collective good, which would reflect Schoultz's political sensibilities. “Every picture feels like he could connect it to another picture,” Noble comments. “He even hangs his work that way. Sometimes there's a literal connection between [the paintings in his exhibit], and sometimes there's not, but it's all in the same world, a world that is constantly generating itself, over and over.”

Although the Bucheon show was a success both artistically and financially, Schoultz remains ambivalent about his future in the world of fine art. “If I was able to make a living just doing public art,” Schoultz confides, “I would still do gallery stuff, but it would be way less.”

That comment isn't as much a cut at the gallery world as it is an acknowledgment of his love for public work and public spaces, where, to say the very least, Schoultz has his hands full. Earlier this year, he spent two months in Portland, Maine, painting a mural and helping refugees from Somalia and Sudan create their own. He is now one of the directors at Clarion Alley Mural Project, handling most of its day-to-day affairs.

At the same time, he's preparing to collaborate on a seven-story tornado in the middle of the Tenderloin with the artist Apex. It will be one of the largest public murals that San Francisco has seen, larger than any gallery or gallery exhibit could ever be.

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