It's just after noon on a recent Wednesday in San Francisco, and Dan Witz is driving a rental car on Highway 101 north, approaching the Vermont Street exit that leads to Potrero Hill. Just before the turnoff, he suddenly pulls over to the right-side embankment. Minutes later, he has walked to his trunk and put on a blue hard hat and green reflector vest, which gives him the appearance of an official Caltrans worker. The disguise is perfect.
Witz is a Brooklyn street artist, and after spraying the back of a painting with silicone glue, he walks south along the embankment as a California Highway Patrol car approaches in the slow lane and keeps on going. Two minutes later, Witz has secured his artwork — a hooded woman with bad teeth staring out from behind a grate — on the base of a freeway foundation. As he takes photographs of his latest illegal posting, two San Francisco police officers on motorcycles speed by and continue through the Vermont Street turnoff. Three minutes later, Witz is back in his car and heading toward downtown. "You become invisible — you become part of the landscape," he says of his freeway worker outfit. "Everyone thinks you're not up to anything. In the light of day, they don't suspect."
Witz is the latest major street artist to come through San Francisco, and like Banksy — the British stealth painter who left his mark here last April — he risks doing his work at public intersections in the middle of the day. Unlike Banksy, though, Witz has bona fide credentials: a prestigious grant from the National Endowment for the Arts; two fellowships from the New York Foundation for the Arts; and a bachelor of fine arts from New York's Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art. His age (53) and longevity in public spaces (three decades and counting) make him one of the longest-working street artists in America — a kind of godfather figure to a younger generation of devotees.
His visit here coincides with his show at White Walls Gallery, where visitors can see work similar to the painted photos he posted around San Francisco's freeways. The motif is virtually the same for each piece: People are behind grates or windows, and in an extreme state of existence — whether it's distress, ecstasy, contemplation, madness, or hyperserenity. Some of these trompe l'oeil figures ("digital magic things," Witz calls them) appear to be in bondage. Others seem half-dead. And others look right into your eyes with a glance that suggests they're either psychopathically dangerous, or they hold the secret to lifelong bliss. Seeing Witz's figures unexpectedly — whether they're on a freeway in San Francisco or (as happened in 2009) on doorways in Los Angeles and New York — is to be jarred by something from The Twilight Zone. On Highway 101 and other S.F. thoroughfares, Witz put his work in spots where vehicles tend to bottleneck in rush-hour traffic. "People are in their cars and inching forward, and they're like, 'What's that?,' but they can't get out and steal it because they'd be crazy to get out of their cars," he says.
A question worth asking of any street art — whether it's Witz's, Banksy's, or some anonymous tagger's — is whether it holds up as Art with a capital A. Most of the scrawls and figurative work on walls, subways, buses, and street signs badly fail the test. Witz's work — like the one called Penelope (Prisoner), of a woman in a Christlike crucifixion pose, or the one called John Homeless Hoody, of a man asleep on the ground — is stylish and complex, the product of an artist who has long identified with punk music, who sports tattoos on his fingers and wrists (one of which references Marcel Duchamp), and who is still rebelling against mainstream commercial culture. "Corporate vandalism" is what he calls massive billboards like the one featuring Jon Bon Jovi that's close to the Mission-Street offramp where Witz placed another of his new paintings, this one a version of Sue, which features a woman with a plastic bag over her head. He says his work on freeways reach more people than would ever see it in a gallery.
Banksy's 2010 film, Exit Through the Gift Shop, gives a cameo appearance to one Witz creation: a Do Not Enter sign in Brooklyn from 2007 that has a monster's hands attached, as if the creature is about to emerge from the signage. Witz's output can be witty and straightforward — his first big-scale street work from 1979 in Manhattan featured a series of hummingbirds in flight —but his depictions at White Walls have an intensity that might not appeal to strait-laced authorities. The officers who passed Witz that Wednesday on Highway 101 were likely too busy — and too unaware of street art — to have noticed Witz.
Mary Ziegenbein of the California Highway Patrol says that street artists who target freeways are a low priority since "our focus is on violations (related) to speed, seatbelts, and driving." San Francisco Police Officer Albie Esparza confirms that violent crimes and other serious matters take precedence over possible defacing of public walls and sidewalks, though people who damage property can be subject to misdemeanor or even felony charges, depending on the harm that's done.
There's no denying that Witz, Banksy, Shepard Fairey, and other street artists have widened the public perception of what art can be, and where it can be displayed. Witz's paintings look as good on highway walls as they do in galleries. Some of Banksy's San Francisco paintings have been painted over, but others are still up, including the giant one in Chinatown of a doctor and two hearts, which has been covered (by the building's owners) with protective hard plastic. Prestige and money have followed all worthy street artists, including Witz, whose painted photos at White Walls are fetching $900 to $5,000. Those who've grabbed them from the sides of off-ramps get them for free, though he scribbled on the back of each freeway work, "Not for Fucking Sale!" It's a game he plays. He is a partly a performance artist. His freeway theater of the absurd adds a benign layer of art where monotonous space would otherwise reign. For that, we should be happy, even if it makes some people (anti-graffiti authorities, et al.) angry as hell.