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A Movement Defaced: Queer Street Art Fights for Legitimacy 

Wednesday, Jun 15 2011

Cover photo by Michael Cuffe/Warholian.

Inside his art studio in San Francisco's Bayview District, Jeremy Novy surrounds himself with the stencilwork that has burnished his reputation as a street artist of note. Of course, the koi are there. Even people who don't know his name know his aquatic vertebrates — colorful creatures that can be found on sidewalks across San Francisco, most prominently at Market and Laguna streets, where scores of the fish swirl outside the Orbit Room. In Novy's studio, though, the animals are crowded out by representations of people. Men, mostly. Queer men like the drag queen with the yellow beehive and bright red panties, and the young wrestlers grabbing each other's flesh. Then there's the stencil of a big pink erect phallus.

"That's my cock," Novy says matter-of-factly.

The stylized erection has appeared on walls inside select San Francisco venues like the Stud, a gay South of Market bar at Ninth and Harrison streets, but Novy has a greater mission: to make queer-oriented street art and artists more visible. The mainstream, as it were.

"Queer street art has always been an oppressed art form," he says. "We are not taggers. We're street artists. This is for social change. It's about doing something better."

A sign of Novy's growing influence: A new exhibit he organized and curated received indirect funding from the National Endowment for the Arts and the San Francisco Arts Commission. "A History of Queer Street Art," on display through June 25 at SOMArts, features gay, bisexual, lesbian, transgender, and a few straight street artists from around the world who — like Novy — are plastering public spaces with in-your-face imagery with overt gay or queer themes. The Los Angeles artist Homo Riot, for example, is known for his stencils of kissing bearded men.

These artists — most in their 20s, 30s, and early 40s — claim to be at the forefront of a new street-art movement that is centered in metropolitan areas in Europe and the United States, including San Francisco. Their work, they say, is fighting homophobia.

"I'm really doing it to communicate, predominantly with gay men, that we're out there and we can be bold and we can be visible, and that's okay, and that's a good thing," says Homo Riot, who signs his work with the moniker B A Homo. He also argues that his work carries a message to heterosexuals: "Don't take us for granted. Don't belittle us. We're out here, and we could be on your street corner, and we're about this far from taking to the streets and causing trouble."

"Trouble" is what authorities say these artists are already causing. "The official position of the Arts Commission is that we're against tagging and the placing of artwork on surfaces without the permission of the property owner," says Luis Cancel, the commission's director of cultural affairs and a former director of the Bronx Museum of the Arts. "We don't condone this at all." He says millions of dollars are spent every year to rid city properties of graffiti, tags, and other unwelcome additions.

But the artists in "A History of Queer Street Art" can say their work is both legal and illegal. Novy puts his art legally on some city spaces (such as the Orbit Room) and illegally on other spaces (as a SOMA billboard that months ago was stenciled with Novy's bodybuilders). The artists say their illegal work is necessary to make their message visible to a wider audience.

The show at SOMArts is part of this wider campaign, but the Arts Commission does not necessarily condone Novy's exhibition, whose racier images include a sticker in the style of a street sign showing a man giving a rim job. The Arts Commission awarded monies to San Francisco's Queer Cultural Center for its "Creating Queer Community" campaign; in turn, the center funded Novy's exhibit, which opened June 4 as part of its annual National Queer Arts Festival. The center also supported the exhibition through a portion of a $10,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts — an agency with a history of art-funding controversies. Whether "A History of Queer Street Art" will number among these remains to be seen.

Street art is dominated by straight men," says Homo Riot, who came to San Francisco in January to festoon the Haight and Castro districts with stickers of his bearded kissers. "There's a lot of misogynistic stuff that passes for street art. There are images of women in provocative setups; there's tits and ass all over. As a gay man, and even as a young boy, I wanted to see images of men. That's what I was attracted to. But in our culture, we have such taboo surrounding the penis and male sexuality that's not directed at women."

That taboo is evident when Homo Riot puts up his stencils in popular L.A. street-art spaces and within hours sees his work violently defaced. He says the attacks happen to a small but significant portion of his work. The men's faces get Xed out or scratched off — which is hard to do, since he uses a special paste that adheres the work tightly. Still, he says, some straight street artists have given him "support and encouragement," even lauding his kissing figures, who go by the name Homo Duo.

Other queer street art is less confrontational — and less noticed. The San Francisco artist known as Pixelstud has a series of works centered on pill bottles. One work has a bottle containing a buff male body next to wrappers of Juicy Fruit gum. Another has a bottle containing yellow and gold pills over the word "Bareback," a reference to unprotected anal intercourse. Ten days ago, these stickers were all over the Castro — on news racks (including one of SF Weekly's), fire hydrants, and street signs. Three weeks ago, when he was in the Castro Street Muni station during morning-commute hours, he took out one of these stickers and — in full view of other riders — slapped it on a billboard, he says. It didn't stick the first time, so Pixelstud (again in full view of other riders) had to redo the attachment. "I rubbed my back up against it," he says, laughing. "I haven't had anyone come up to me [during my street-art postings] or even smirk or smile. Either people are oblivious or they don't really care."

About The Author

Jonathan Curiel


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