STREETS OF SAN FRANCISCO In the late 1960s, when the muralismo movement began gaining strength among artists and community organizers in the Mission District, or in the 1970s when pioneer female street artists Mujeres Muralistas first picked up their brushes to trick out Balmy Alley, they probably weren’t thinking about the de Young Museum and slick coffee table books.
But, to appropriate Jay-Z, street art’s got a new bitch — the fine art world. With the 2009 release of Precita Eyes’ eye-popping Street Art San Francisco: Mission Muralismo (www.missionmuralismo.com) and the corresponding year-long event series the picture book of the storied mural hood has spawned at the de Young museum, neighborhood tags and tableaus are gaining a stronger foothold in the world of high art. That is to say, the world of art that people pay big money for.
Banksy’s recent film, Exit Through the Gift Shop, and the attendant media frenzy about several tie-in works appearing around town, is the hyped-out crest of spray-can crazy that’s got San Francisco in its grip. Galleries like Project One, White Walls, and 1AM are selling works for hundreds and thousands of dollars that you once saw on the wall of your neighborhood elementary school or liquor store. High class Union Square Hotel Des Arts offers visitors the chance to sleep in well-appointed rooms designed by “street” artists Apex, Shepard Fairey, and Chor Boogie. It’s hip to be street, stay up to get down, yadda yadda.
So what’s new? After all, Jean-Michel Basquiat zoomed from asphalt to canvas, sparking a meteoric career that collectors loved to cop a piece of in the 1980s. In graffiti’s early days, New York taggers struggled to retain control of their art in the face of soaring price tags, grasping middlemen, and ad execs who recognized the power of the bubble letter to sell. Past generations of SF artists like Twist and Mars One have graduated from the streets entirely. “You need money to do bigger and better things,” White Walls curator Justin Giarla told me. “Galleries are another possible venue to find yourself in history books, museums.”
Mission Muralismo offers a seductively jumbled history. Its pages, a nonlinear whirl of street art celebrated in situ, are perfect for a disparate neighborhood art movement that includes Latin American freedom songs, urban rustic neo-folk, and unapologetic civil disobedience. Editor Annice Jacoby says it took years of “digging through people’s closets” to create.
“You have to find a container that reflects the contradictions and surprises of the street,” Jacoby told me. “This whole place [the Mission] is like a gallery, proliferating and procreating.” To encapsulate the movement’s feel, she took images of temporal art — murals tend to last no more than 12 years before they start to deteriorate — and laid them alongside thoughtful essays by artists and other key Mission figures.
It would be easy to mistake the whirl surrounding Muralismo as another round of outsider art profiteering. Easy, that is, if you didn’t know Precita Eyes’ history of sponsoring social justice-based community murals. Easy, if you forget that the de Young events don’t directly commodify in the murals depicted in the book by swallowing them whole — those murals are pretty well stuck to their walls. Easy, if you’ve never seen the diverse crowds the events draw and the enthusiasm and respect shown by all sides.
“You mention Basquiat, and what happened there is that collectors started recognizing his work and showing it. This is different — we’re not bringing in the art,” de Young director of public programs Renee Baldocchi. Her museum’s First Fridays Mission Muralismo events, part of its Friday night “Cultural Encounters” series, are more than opportunistic book tie-ins. They aim to focus on the culture of the artists themselves. Key figures in the mural movement featured in the book like Juana Alicia, the Billboard Liberation Front, and Jet Martinez (muralist and artistic director of the Clarion Alley Mural Project), come in to lecture — street artists, lecturing? — to packed crowds on what they do, why it’s important, and how you can do it too. “We’re hoping that by inviting them in to talk about their art, it makes more people aware of them in the world,” Baldocchi says.
“The [de Young] events, I see them attracting a lot of young people,” says Jaime Cortez, an artist who coordinated the Galeria de la Raza digital billboard campaign in the 1990s and AIDS awareness mural projects. “I think that’s because of the big name graffiti artists the events draw.” Perhaps these functions are less about changing the meaning of the murals they celebrate than the high art venue they’re being celebrated in.
“It’s not like they’re having a show of muralists [at the de Young],” says Martinez, who has feet in both the street and gallery art worlds. Jet spoke at the Mission Muralismo event highlighting Clarion Alley. “They’re providing a forum where we can speak about this art,” he said.
Hopefully there are some lifted conversations going on, because the color and uniqueness of the Mission’s public art is pretty dope. “You’re dealing with a monumental subject,” Jacoby acknowledges. “You have to find a container that reflects the contradictions and surprises of the street.”
Debates don’t get much weirder than ones about where art “belongs.” But what’s certain is that with all the attention — the de Young events, the Banksy histrionics — more people are seeing the writing on the wall. “Oftentimes we’re in a hurry; we don’t stop to look at the murals,” Baldocchi says. “This is providing a forum so that when we do go down into the Mission, we can look at them and think about what’s being said — especially the social justice side.” *
First Fridays, 5 p.m., free
de Young Museum
50 Hagiwara Tea Garden Dr., SF.