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Up Against the Wall: Rising rents haven’t silenced San Francisco street artists. Meet seven who have beaten the odds 

Wednesday, Apr 1 2015
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Around the world, San Francisco is considered a street-art capital — a kind of Promised Land that serious artists have to visit at least once in their lifetimes. Banksy (England), Aryz (Spain), Blek le Rat (France), and Nychos (Austria) are just some of the famous street artists who've flown here to paint, stencil, or affix their works onto public walls. But San Francisco has always had a homegrown street-art community, embodied by Barry McGee, Margaret Kilgallen, and others who, in the 1990s, plastered their art around the Mission District, where artists inspired by Mexican muralism had, decades earlier, covered stretches of buildings with scenes of everything from revolution to everyday life. 

The street artists profiled here belong to the new generation of San Francisco's street artists. They all live in the city. They all paint here. They all have talent that was years in the making. All of them are in their 20s or 30s. The street art they do now is legal. The street art they've done in the past? Well, let's just say that, on occasion, a few of these artists did things that were technically illegal. But that doesn't matter. What matters is that they now see the city as a continuous canvas for art, and in turn the city — homeowners, businesses, the San Francisco Arts Commission, and arts organizations — sees them as indispensable to San Francisco's character.

The relationship, however, is complicated.

Rising rents and real estate prices make it harder for artists to live in San Francisco. In December, SF Weekly profiled Andrew Schoultz, an award-winning street and gallery artist who moved to Los Angeles after 18 years here, chased by a studio eviction and the uncertainty of finding a long-term space to paint. That month, though — and every month for the past two years — SF Weekly has profiled current San Francisco street artists in a column, Know Your Street Art, that digs into the stories behind the paintings, sculptures, stencils, and stickers that pop up in different neighborhoods. The column testifies to an unassailable fact: San Francisco has more talented street artists than ever before. And it's not just the Mission District where street art has found a home, but the Richmond District, Sunset, Haight, Fillmore, North Beach, Nob Hill, Tenderloin, Mid-Market, SOMA, Bayview, and Excelsior. Almost everywhere you look, there is street art worth noticing.

The seven artists profiled here have beaten the odds. Street art is by nature ephemeral, but these artists' works are up right now, in multiple San Francisco locations. What's more, the artists' reputations extend far beyond this city, thanks partly to the growing network of websites, magazines, and gallery spaces devoted to street work.

We live in a Golden Age of street art, when it has become embedded in popular culture. Exhibit A: Jay Z's recent "Dreams Are Made" TV commercial, which features Mill Valley street artist Zio Ziegler, whose San Francisco works — exoskeletons covered in scales, zigzags, crisscrosses, circles, and other distinct shapes — stand out for their temerity and intensity. If all art is an act of faith, to quote Truman Capote, then the street art on these pages are leaps of faith that landed well. And the artists behind that faith don't need to make long pilgrimages to this city. They're already here. Like earlier generations, their art speaks about everything from revolution to everyday life.

Mel Waters

In San Francisco, the debate about gentrification and the changing nature of neighborhoods is particularly resonant in the Mission District, which is losing its Hispanic population at a time when high-dollar restaurants and bars have cascaded in. Into this maelstrom stepped Mel Waters and his oversize painting of Carlos Santana, the Mexican-American guitarist who went to school in the Mission District and is a celebrated native son. Waters put up the painting last October, at 3107 19th St. near Mission. It's topped with a dedication in Spanish ("Para la Mission") and flanked by powerful Aztec symbols (painted by the artist named Hyde). The artwork, which was coordinated with the building's owner and the San Francisco Arts Commission, honors a musician who symbolizes cultural pride and synthesis — who combined Latin music with American rock and other influences — at a highly trafficked intersection. Waters' art has become an instant landmark.

"From when I started it, people were yelling out, 'Carlos Santana!' 'Carlos Santana!,' " says Waters. "The old Latino generations felt like I was bringing the Mission back. But old, young, hipster — it didn't matter. People were feeling it from the start."

Like Santana, Waters grew up in San Francisco. And like Santana, Waters draws on a confluence of cultural influences: He's African-American and Filipino-American, and came of age with the ascendance of hip-hop while listening to other music, including jazz, soul, R&B, and Santana.

"I went to high school with his daughter, Stella Santana," says the 33-year-old Waters, who grew up in the Fillmore and attended Sacred Heart Cathedral Prepatory high school. "She came back to the city and we met at the wall, and we had a long conversation about it. She said her dad had heard about it. He saw pictures."

Waters' street paintings are almost exclusively in black and white, giving them a texture and vividness analogous to the best black-and-white art photos. His work also can be seen at 588 Haight St. (the rapper named Kwanza, shown exhaling smoke), 559 Hayes St. (Louis Armstrong and Nina Simone), and 16th Street near Florida (Gandhi).

A tattoo artist who works in the Ingleside district, Waters says he perfected his art by making more of it. "I can't be any more thankful and blessed than to be an artist in my hometown," he says. "It's been a dream to me. I grew up in the '90s era with graffiti, which was very inspirational. And some fine artists, and tattoo artists that I've come under — I owe it all to them, because they were my inspiration."

Chad Hasegawa


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