On a rainy afternoon in San Francisco, “Little” Eddie Sanchez hunches over a work table at the back of Hospitality House’s Community Arts Program center on Market Street, his flamboyant top hat bopping up and down as he lays out his goods. For the past two years, selling artwork on the street has helped the previously homeless San Francisco native afford an SRO senior housing unit on 6th Street.
To make the art, Sanchez says he’s been visiting the public art studio every day for the past two-and-a-half years. The practice acts as a kind of self-driven art therapy for him. “I’d rather be constructive than destructive,” he says.
“I’ve never been able to beg,” Sanchez continued. “I don’t want to ask for something for nothing.” By creating and selling art, he’s able to contribute to the culture of the city. Much of the money he makes goes back into buying art supplies, some of which he distributes to homeless youth he meets on the streets. During the holidays, he devotes a chunk of money to making copies of his Santa Claus poster to pass out to homeless children.
“The main reason I [make art] is to put a smile on people’s faces,” says Sanchez.
That day, Sanchez had covered an entire table with his work: vibrant visual love letters — and notes of criticism — to San Francisco. On the right, are his signature San Francisco post cards, featuring Betty Boop posing in front of the Golden Gate Bridge and a banner with the nickname “Frisco” across the top. He originally created the scene as a large painting, but made small copies so he could sell them for $3 a pop to tourists. Like the rest of his artwork, the image is rendered in an aesthetic nostalgic for the San Francisco of the ‘60s — a playful, gritty illustration style reminiscent of early underground comics, mixed with a psychedelic palette harkening back to Haight and Ashbury’s heyday.
Despite his stylistic allusions to the past, Sanchez’s content is cleverly contemporary. On the left, a clock with a painted face features a comical critique of texting: Two skeleton-like figures are drawn with their eyes literally popped out of their sockets and glued to their smart phones; In the center, a massive hand emerges from the ground like an awakened zombie, clutching a phone chained to its wrist.
“I get inspiration from the news,” said Sanchez, pulling out a poster that comments on house flipping practices, featuring a caricature of mayor Ed Lee with his hands up in a panic. “Luckily, the mayor looks like a cartoon.”
Sanchez says he pushes his artwork around in a mail cart and sells it wherever he happens to be: “On BART, in a café, on the street.” Aside from cards, he has a huge selection of posters, which he gets printed at a copy shop. He also sells screen-printed shirts and hand-painted jackets with his original designs. And, once in a while, his illustrations are published in the newspaper Street Sheet, which focuses on problems that homeless people face.
When speaking about the past, Sanchez maneuvers around the less savory stuff, always staying positive. He speaks only sparingly about his time living on the streets and in his car, and how seeing kids attempting to light homeless people on fire drove him to finally find housing.
Instead, he talks about being born on Candlestick Drive into a family with 11 kids, riding bikes around the city with his siblings and being thrown free peanuts from the salesman at Candlestick Park. A poet and musician before he was ever a visual artist, Sanchez also recalls jamming at big bonfire parties in the late '70s and reading poetry at City Lights bookstore. Sometimes, he would make art under a now towering tree in Golden Gate Park that he and fellow classmates planted 45 years ago as a seedling.
But in the decades since, Sanchez says that his daughter and grandkids were evicted from their home on the basis of the Ellis Act and forced to move out of the Bay Area because they could no longer afford it. So, his primary goal is to acquire a vehicle in order to visit them.
“San Francisco isn’t the same as it used to be,” he says.