On a hot Saturday afternoon, the celebrated street artist Aryz is perched 100 feet above Polk and Eddy streets as he paints a farm girl onto a Tenderloin apartment building. Below, two boys walking to the nearby KFC squint into the sun to gaze at Aryz's newest creation. Across the way, a clerk in a liquor store says — in between selling customers a bottle of whiskey, a pack of cigarettes, and some lottery tickets — that Aryz's painting is a welcome addition to the neighborhood, gushing, "It's pretty good!"
Such effusiveness is rarely used to describe the corner of Eddy and Polk, where the smell of urine and the presence of "bag men" (denizens drinking from paper bags) is like something straight from The Wire. But Aryz's street art, which went up between April 26 and May 6, has already transformed the atmosphere of this high-traffic corner, and Aryz (pronounced "Areez") is grateful, knowing that his gargantuan five-story farm girl — and her gargantuan bushel of apples — will look over the intersection for the foreseeable future. Aryz deliberately uses muted colors, especially flesh tones, to paint his figure onto the beige building.
"I feel it's really aggressive when you paint in a public space, so I don't really want to play with bright colors. It would be too much," Aryz says. "I'd prefer that people who are observing [the scene] find the work by themselves. The last few walls I've done like this."
Of the world's top street artists, Aryz sits alongside names such as Banksy, JR, ROA and Blek le Rat. Aryz, a Spaniard who lives in a town near Barcelona, is 24 years old and has been doing street art — starting with graffiti — for a decade. His work also shows up in such places as the cover of S.F. hip-hop artist Aesop Rock's Skelethon album. His Tenderloin girl, at 665 Eddy St., is his first street work 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 edifice in Copenhagen.
Bones are a reoccurring motif in Aryz's work, and his concurrent exhibit of two dozen indoor works at Upper Playground's Fifty24SF Gallery (218 Fillmore St., through May 31) feels like a celebration of the dead, highlighted by a series of finely drawn burgundy skulls and a large sculptural head, called Overdose, which is both eerie and comical. Much of Aryz's art is slyly humorous — his farm girl has a small top hat flying off her head — and when you combine that sly absurdity with his obvious painting talent (Aryz studied art in college) and his eagerness to exhibit in the open air, it's no surprise that Aryz would have a growing fan base stretching far beyond the usual street art crowd, and far beyond Spain. Art mag Juxtapoz documented Aryz's local adventures.
Aryz's Tenderloin project was accomplished through behind-the-scenes negotiations and timely generosity. Chris Shaher, a San Francisco art curator and art activist who runs the organization WallSpaceSF, has an agreement with the owners of 665 Eddy St. to put select street art on the building's western facade. To let Aryz work from the roof of the KFC next door, Shaher's team also had to secure permission. Deborah Munk, director of Recology's Artist in Residence Program, donated the paint for Aryz's Tenderloin project. This community approach to street art meant that Aryz could — unlike, say, the stealth-oriented Banksy — work in the middle of the day, without disguise, without interruption. Even in his hydraulic lift high above Eddy Street, Aryz greets anyone who shouted to him from below. Aryz says he doesn't want to be a "celebrity" street artist, and doesn't want the trappings of museum shows, where audio guides detail every facet of the art on display. His farm girl has no formal name.
"I don't really care about saying what it is — I just want people to see it," says Aryz, who was born in Palo Alto, where he lived until age 3, when his family moved back to Spain. "The problem in the art business is that you have to create your own 'character,' and the art business sells your art as a whole thing. Of course the artist is a whole thing. Everything affects your art and the way you do things. But in the end, what remains is the art, not the artist. So that's what I think is important. It's not important how I look like. Or how I am. In the end, what's important is what I do."
And what Aryz does is turn private buildings into public canvases. While his small drawings now command thousands of dollars, and his elaborate sculptures sell for tens of thousands of dollars, his public work is free to enjoy. San Francisco now "owns" a genuine Aryz. The neighborhood it's in is slowly changing, but the neighborhood's grit and grime make an ideal home for a winsome farm girl who suggests that the world is still a bountiful place to be.