The term “urban” evokes images of grey buildings, bustling intersections and crowded streets, and at first glance, perhaps downtown San Francisco fits this definition. Upon further investigation though, colorful art appears in these public spaces. Walking through the Tenderloin and looking up instead of down, something may catch your eye. The building in front of you is multifaceted, adorned with complex lines and shaded spaces. The entire wall is taken-up by this piece, with windows incorporated into the design. Local residents move hurriedly by, not taking any notice, but you are stopped in your tracks by this unexpected massive work of art.
San Francisco’s Mission district is well-known for its brightly painted public spaces, murals with messages addressing social issues like gentrification and the displacement of the city’s Latino community. However, the Tenderloin has a different relationship with the art in public spaces. The most noteworthy pieces are not created by residents and the art is not a statement directed at a social issue in the city. While the Mission District is a local gallery, street art in the Tenderloin is a traveling exhibit, each piece reflecting the individual style and value of the international and often anonymous artists. Street art is an evolving medium. Once viewed as graffiti or vandalism of public space, artists and murals are now gaining international fame. Documentaries like “Exit Through the Gift Shop” and artists like Banksy and Shepard Fairey are taking the “street art” off the street and allowing it to be a respectable medium.
Street art has a complex relationship with its surroundings and the space it uses as its canvas, and that’s what makes the street art in the Tenderloin so fascinating. 1AM Gallery, located in downtown San Francisco offers tours of the street art in this neighborhood and understands the relationship between the art and these spaces. Artists come from around the world to add their art to these public spaces.
The art of graffiti spans across a long range of history through centuries of its existence. From prehistoric cave paintings to political statements in the 1960’s, graffiti in the form of tags by kids gained popularity in the 70’s in New York and is often found on buildings, street walls and public transportation systems in cities across the world. Street art differs from graffiti as it is recognized as more artist based images. Street art and graffiti are most often completed without permission but the occasional commissioned legal project does happen. These projects are often agreed upon between the business owner and artist, but other times the artist is allowed to paint freely.
Graffiti or murals on walls give the city color and life. It tells people that we are here and we are not going anywhere. It’s good to have art in young kids lives. Music, art, dancing whatever it may be, it is a must,
explains Matthew Oglesby from 1AM Gallery, ”there are deep roots to this and it’s not for everyone and not everyone understands it.” Street art remains true to its originality and purpose as viewers often unknowingly take something with them after looking at piece. “I feel that as long as the murals are there and people see them everyday it imprints these positive messages in their minds, hopefully bringing together the neighborhood and making their lives better,” states Oglesby.
Street art in the Tenderloin and SOMA districts of San Francisco sends a fundamentally different message than the art in the Mission district. The pieces in the Mission generally reflect the values and sentiments of the residents, while the pieces in the Tenderloin are much more centered around showcasing the artist's style. The objective of the street art in the Tenderloin is not community centric, it's an international art gallery. Public art is a means through which the city expresses it culture, and in a rapidly evolving city like San Francisco it is the culture itself that is changing. The Mission District uses its art as a sounding board to create awareness about the struggles within the community, such as murals fighting gentrification and advocating for Latino rights. The popularity of the Mission District makes this public struggle possible though, the gentrifiers are forced to confront what it really means that the Mission is “trendy.” The message of the art in the Mission gives visitors a sense of the values of the community and to the sentiments regarding the changing demographic.
The Tenderloin is on the cusp, changing quickly, but it does not yet contain the same general, touristic appeal as the Mission District. San Franciscans see the Mission as part of their territory, but the Tenderloin is regarded as gritty, rough around the edges, and does not contain the same inviting feel as the Mission. This is not to say that the culture in the Tenderloin is not worth notice though. Many inhabitants are third generation San Franciscans, they have been a part of the city for decades and are witnessing its transition first hand.
And this is why the street art in the Tenderloin creates such a unique intersection. Its message is not about the community. These works of art are part of the daily existence of the residents, and yet hold little significance to them. 1AM Gallery offers street art walking tours in San Francisco, and guide Matthew Oglesby stated the difference in experience between spectators and residents, “I feel that when you're in a new neighborhood and being guided through what to look at you're able to see more things. When you live in a neighborhood for a long time you tend to not notice things that are around you everyday.” When spectators are brought into the Tenderloin it is not to participate in the experience of the community, it is to observe art in an urban setting. In many ways, this disconnect embodies the changing city, where affluent art enthusiasts can pay for a tour in one of its least affluent neighborhoods. This tour makes the participants feel comfortable in an area they may not have explored out of the tour. They are in a new, rougher neighborhood but they are secure because they are only there for the art. These tours are an experience of privilege that allow the walkers to be onlookers rather than participants in the community.
Public art and street art are invaluable components of the city, they refocus attention in less frequented urban areas and add life to otherwise dull buildings and walls. But as graffiti and street art have become popular and commercialized, and as artists become famous, pieces in neighborhoods like the Tenderloin shed light on the physical walls of the community, but have yet to bring the residents into the picture.
As an interactive component of this piece we focused on the work by four artists from Spanish speaking countries so that community members can more intentionally seek out the public art in the Tenderloin.
Virtual Street Art Tour
Aryz: Eddy & Polk
Aryz, a Spaniard who lives in a town near Barcelona, is only 26 and is already one of the world’s top street artists. He has been doing street art — starting out with graffiti — for a decade now. His work also shows up in places like the cover of San Francisco hip-hop artist Aesop Rock's Skelethon album. According to SF Weekly, his Tenderloin girl is his first piece completed in California, after a busy few years transforming buildings across Europe and other parts of the Americas. Aryz is known for his surreal animals, like the bicycle-riding horse he put on an apartment complex in Buenos Aires, and for human figures in odd situations, like the woman who seems to be choking a man as his mouth reaches for a cigarette — a scene that Aryz painted on a prominent five-story brick building in Copenhagen.
Os Gemeos: Turk and Taylor
“Os Gemeos” is a Portuguese word meaning “the twins.” These duo street artists are identical twin brothers Otavio Pandolfo and Gustavo Pandolfo. The brothers were born in Sao Paulo, Brazil in 1974. Os Gemeos began their career by getting involved in spray-painting graffiti in 1987. Slowly but surely they gained recognition in the underground urban scene. As their influence spread across the urban graffiti community they helped define Brazil’s very own unique style. Their style evolved around traditional hip-hop and Brazilian culture. Their work involves complicated murals, family portraits, commentary on Sao Paulo’s social and political circumstances, and even Brazilian folklore.
How and Nosm: Hyde and Eddy
Raoul and Davide Perre are another pair of identical twin brothers better known as How and Nosm. These brothers from Spain paint city walls around the world, including this space on Hyde and Eddy here in San Francisco. Their images and the flow between each brother’s lines create compositions of interwoven stories of alcoholism, betrayal, and abuse of power. Self-destruction shown here was painted in 2013 and exemplifies How and Nosm’s skill of depicting interwoven feelings and stories, which are embedded beneath each layer of paint. Their style and influence redefine the spaces they invigorate with color and push deeper into the idea of graffiti and public art.
Jessica Sabogal: 6th St & Stevenson St
Jessica Sabogal is a first generation Colombian American and well-known graffiti artist. Sabogal’s art maintains a theme of tribute to the female identity through her strong artistic statements. Sabogal revolutionizes the male-dominated graffiti medium while she offers a deeper empowerment of untold stories of the struggles many women have faced. Her art shows a powerful and beautiful image of her subjects exemplified by her newest campaign. Perfection is my right shown above, is a part of this recent campaign, “Women Are Perfect (If You Let Them)”. Sabogal is an internationally respected artist, recognized for putting up public street art with a clearly motivating purpose.