It was 1993 when Jeff Marshall, a 35-year-old born and raised Houstonian, had enough of the Texas heat. So he hitched up his motorcycle and headed for Seattle.
Except he never quite got there. Twenty-five years later, Jeff is an irreplaceable member of his Tenderloin community, a painter with a contagious passion for kites. When his creative impulses get bigger than his one-room apartment, he takes to the streets and flies his paintings across the San Francisco skies, proving art can thrive in even the most improbable places.
Initially, San Francisco offered a momentary break from his long-ago journey to the Northeast. “I was a little rattled by the time I got this far—I figured I’d find a redwood tree to take a nap under.” He found a job at the now-defunct Fox Photo lab, and never left. “That was a long time ago. But it was how San Francisco kind of sucked me in.”
In the city, Jeff found inspiration for his work. And as he painted, his artistic vision transformed, shifting away from the technological demands of photography to more free-form paintings, informed by whatever catches his eye.
For Jeff, art is a compulsion, not a choice. “I continuously think of a different path to take," he says. "I make more art than is very smart. It is part of my M.O.—to just keep creating.”
Over the years, Jeff watched the city’s artistic character change. Even in 1993, San Francisco wasn't cheap, but thanks to the current tech boom and sky-rocketing rents, it's ever-harder for artists to make ends meet. As high-rise apartments and new restaurants move in, artists are steadily priced out.
Jeff bounced around the city, renting $400-per-month office spaces and living in his studio until he finally found a home in the Tenderloin, one of San Francisco’s densest neighborhoods. Despite its reputation for crime, the Tenderloin has a rich history—entertainment and the arts are woven deeply into its cultural fabric. This, coupled with its low-cost housing options, allows the neighborhood to resist the gentrification seen throughout the rest of San Francisco.
Jeff now lives in the Boyd Hotel, a single occupancy resident hotel, or an SRO. Such repurposed hotels make up a large portion of the Tenderloin’s housing stock; nonprofit housing programs and zoning laws keep rents below market rate and a viable option for artists like Jeff.
For many members of the city’s low-income communities, such as the formerly homeless, recovering addicts and disabled veterans, SROs are a vital affordable housing solution. As Jeff says, “All of the people who live in this building... they’re not here for no reason.”
SRO rooms are like a standard dorm room: a single bed, a sink and a desk. The Boyd has 79 units with a communal bathroom on each floor and a laundry facility to serve its residents.
Living at the Boyd was never supposed to be a long-term solution. “I was under the impression when I moved in here that this was interim housing, a step before public housing," Jeff says. "But I haven’t got there yet.”
Even securing a room in an SRO is a long, tedious process. Obtaining a larger unit, like Section 8 public housing, takes even longer. Jeff has been on the San Francisco’s Housing Authority’s list for 13 years—since he first moved into the Boyd.
But space limitations don’t quell his urge to create. Jeff’s walls are plastered with artwork: cartoon-like portraits of William Burroughs and Jimi Hendrix, abstract canvases of repeating number nines, and next to his single window, a burlesque-style portrait of two men, posing in lingerie.
“That’s Vladimir Putin and Erdogan; he’s the prime minister of Turkey. I saw that on Google Images.”
His small space also led him to get outside into nearby parks and revive a favorite childhood activity: kite flying.
“When I was a kid, I had to beg my dad for 50 cents. It cost 25 cents for string and 25 cents for kites. There was a company called Kite Flyer, out of Boulder, Colorado," he says. "I remember the specific kites, diamond-shaped ones like this. And I would get hours of fun out them.”
In American culture, a diamond shaped kite, an “Eddy” kite, is the most iconic and recognizable style. These are also the quickest and easiest to create—Jeff can whip up an Eddy in less than 10 minutes. But after researching kite flying around the world, he realized the rectangular-shaped format of Chinese kites was the perfect surface for a piece of art.
Experimenting with bamboo sticks and tape, Jeff taught himself how to make rectangular kites. The format allows Jeff to combine his two passions, painting everyday objects and notable figures (like Barack Obama) on the three-dimensional "canvas" and flying them across San Francisco. But he didn’t stop there.
“I discovered, in Japan, they have this giant kite-flying contest yearly," he says. "These kites were two and three stories, ya know, huge. Fifty people pull on the end of the string with someone to direct them which way to go. So I thought ‘Wow, this makes my kites look puny!’”
Jeff realized the rectangular shape also enabled him to build and paint larger works, so he stepped up his game. His biggest kite to date is an 8-by-14-foot portrait of Harvey Milk, exhibited at the de Young during one of the museum's community nights.
Jeff's kite flying has earned him near-celebrity status in the Tenderloin. Rick Darnell, community arts manager at CounterPulse and a long-time neighborhood resident, refers to Jeff as a “Tenderloin Treasure.” Eager to share his childhood joy of kite flying with others, Jeff hosts kite-making workshops at Hospitality House, a free community arts center in the Tenderloin.
Jeff’s favorite spot to fly? Just a few blocks away from the Tenderloin, right in front of San Francisco’s City Hall. “People always ask, “Why don’t you go to the beach? But I don’t want to go to the beach,” Jeff says. “This is my neighborhood.”