As he walks down a street on his long journey to the United States, a man carries a bag that contains his most important possessions. He holds hands with a young woman, around his same age, whom he's leaving behind. The man has closed his eyes. His mouth is silent. The life he has known since childhood, "home," is about to disappear for an uncertain future that holds promise and peril, perhaps even death. This is the moment — the leap of faith that thousands of people take every day from countries in Africa, the Middle East, South America, and elsewhere — that Joel Bergner has captured in his Mission District work called El Inmigrante.
Painted on the outer wall of an apartment building at 23rd and Shotwell, in a district that has embraced immigrants for decades, El Inmigrante has become a kind of street-art version of the Statue of Liberty: a powerful symbol of welcome and hope for people who've beaten incredible odds just to see it firsthand. Bergner painted El Inmigrante in 2005. Many passersby get emotional when they see Bergner's work, which depicts the immigrant's homeland but also the new life that awaits him in the United States.
"When I was painting it, a lot of people came by and they'd say things like, 'Oh, this is my story. Thank you for painting this. This is exactly what my story is,'" Bergner says. "I was there quite a while painting that, so I got to meet a lot of people in the neighborhood."
That neighborhood has changed since Bergner first painted El Inmigrante eight years ago. Gentrification is transforming the Mission District, just as it does other San Francisco neighborhoods. Immigrant workers, and poor immigrant families, are finding it harder to live in an area where rents have skyrocketed. The volatile housing market was altering the Mission when Bergner lived there between 2002 and 2007, but the second dot-com boom has exacerbated things. Bergner, 34, lived in his car for several months during his time in San Francisco. He now lives in Brooklyn.
"[Gentrification] was also a problem at the time I was there. There had been the dot-com boom, which really started gentrification in the Mission and other areas, and then there was the bust. I was there after the bust," Begner says. "Gentrification had slowed down, but it was still an issue. People were really talking about it. As I've moved to different parts of the country — and the world, really — gentrification is an issue that comes up a lot. In Brooklyn, it's a huge issue — same as the Mission."
As art, El Inmigrante and Bergner's other work is influenced by a variety of styles, including graffiti, Mexican Muralism, and Abstract Expressionism. The colors are bright. The statement Bergner makes is complicated. We don't know the immigrant's exact country. We don't know the man's name. We see that his homeland has a factory with smokestacks. We see big buildings in the United States. The border between America and his homeland is porous.
"It definitely looks very Latin American or Caribbean. It's not a specific country, but it could be El Salvador or Mexico — any country, really," Bergner says. "On the right side of the painting, where he's coming from, I put a factory where people are working. That gives you an image of very cheap labor and not-very-good working conditions — some of the reasons people are leaving their countries to come to the U.S. — but I also put some of the positive things, like family. On the left side is when the immigrant is coming to the U.S. city. And he finds that there are more job opportunities but also it can be very cold, and it might not feel very welcoming."
El Inmigrante represents a major turning point in Bergner's own life. In 2005, Bergner was doing street art parttime, in addition to working at a treatment center, where he counseled students who were struggling with drugs, violence, and prostitution. He grew up in central Illinois and moved from Chicago to San Francisco to be with his son, who was then 6 and had just moved to California with his stepfather. "I wanted to move to be closer to my son," Bergner says. "I wanted to continue to be in his life and visit him often. I chose San Francisco because it's a very cultural and artistic place."
It was in San Francisco that Bergner transitioned into a full-time street artist. Now well-known in the street-art world, Bergner has had his work featured in the 2009 book, Street Art San Francisco: Mission Muralismo, in the 2010 book, Mural Art Volume 3: Murals on Huge Public Surfaces Around the World from Graffiti to Trompe L'Oeil, and in such major media as The New York Times, The Washington Post, Time magazine, NPR, and the BBC. He spoke to SF Weekly from Jordan, where he is working on an art project with Syrians at the Zaatari refugee camp, just south of the Syrian border. The ongoing war in Syria has produced a refugee crisis that is among the world's most acute. With Bergner's help, Syrian children and adults are managing a difficult time through art. Bergner is the embodiment of street-artist-as-activist.
"Zaatari is now the second-biggest refugee camp in the world; it's huge; it's got 120,000 people," Bergner says. "The idea is to work with refugees and get the kids involved and explore issues that are important to them in the camp, like water, sanitation, and hygiene, and also other things, like their hopes and dreams and the future, and going back to their country and getting their lives back. We're exploring that in workshops and creating public art about that."
Think globally, act locally. It's a truism that applies to many things, including street art. Bergner lives by that credo. El Inmigrante is his most evocative work in San Francisco. It's slightly off the beaten path, since 24th Street is the main corridor for street art in the Mission District. Walking a block out of the way is worth it to see Bergner's piece, though. You can feel that the artist behind the work also lived a life on the precipice, just like the life that's depicted. In San Francisco, Bergner eventually moved out of his car, into an apartment, where his roommate was a recent immigrant.
"My roommate was from Iraq, and I had friends from Mexico, El Salvador, Brazil, and Colombia," says Bergner. "And these were all people who had arrived later in life. So they were living the immigrant experience in their day-to-day life. I thought it'd be a good ideal for a mural. This was before the immigration issue became really big in the national media. And so I felt it was something that many people were experiencing. I had also done work in Latin America, so I had seen the other side. I'd had a lot of friends when I spent time in El Salvador and the Dominican Republic who had family overseas.
"Their daughters and brothers and whomever had left, so I'd seen it both from the immigrant perspective, from my friends," he says, "but also from the home country and what was going on there, and why people were leaving, and what it was like for people who didn't leave whose family members had left.
"I thought it would be especially interesting in the Mission."