By Kenna Shapiro
Underground art is our identity, tattooed onto our collective subconcious as a fiercely alternative city. So it is fitting that we can’t walk a block without seeing our reflections in the everyday art around us.
Every inch of our visually decorated environment is an altar to what we love, where we came from, and what we stand for.
Above: Mural by Eine, across from my apartment. Photo by Spencer Keeton Cunningham.
Left: Red hearts by Anna Rivero Rossi dangle from telephone wires in every neighborhood, including mine. Sneakers over wires are full of urban myths about drug deals and gangs, so Rossi uses the language of the streets to display love wherever needed.
Below: Another favorite mural within walking radius of my apartment is this collaborative project by artists of 1:AM Gallery. This three-headed monster is rumored to feed on fearful emotions in the neighborhood.
Street art isn’t about face-time, fame, or personal gain.
There is no cover charge, no admission ticket, no membership fee. And probably no fancy wine reception, unless you brown-bag a Jameson. (We won’t tell.)
In a world of social castes and censorship, street art is truly free, and it is for everyone.
Enter Roberto Gonzalez. At first glance, one might not assume that the UC Berkeley graduate in a peacoat enjoying jazz at the bohemian Revolution Cafe is a graffiti artist. Born in El Salvador, Gonzalez works for a non-profit organization, is an Aztec dancer, and has a bicycle named Betsy that he bought from a crackhead in the Tenderloin. His public murals are bold illustrations of indigenous Mesoamerican histories. His work is found on busy street corners and buildings all over the Mission district, including the famed Clarion Alley.
The art is legal and done with permission, although that hasn’t stopped police from questioning him when toting his spray-cans in broad daylight. Like any good citizen, Gonzalez attends community meetings and plays by the rules. But that doesn’t mean some people won’t be offended. One mural, retelling the history of the Spanish conquest from an indigenous perspective, was painted over with a Virgin Mary. “You can’t change history,” says the artist, who has a zen-like acceptance of the temporary nature of murals, much like history itself.
Street artists love their communities. And the community generally loves them back. (One of Gonzalez’s murals was so admired that it was physically ‘peeled off by hipsters’ who wanted to enjoy it on their apartment wall.) With this kind of extreme fan-base, graffiti artists are obviously doing something right.
Having attended museums everywhere from Europe to the Middle East, I can safely say that every city has elaborate institutions dedicated to shiny priceless art hidden under glass with a security guard looking over your shoulder in case the mist from your breath corrupts the value of the art. But if you want to really understand the soul of a place, take a walk outside.
Sometimes you don’t go looking for art. Sometimes the art comes looking for you.