Chad Hasegawa painting 'Kachusha the American,' 2020 above Blessings Ministries.  Barrett Moore
Chad Hasegawa painting 'Kachusha the American,' 2020 above Blessings Ministries.  (Barrett Moore)

Tenderloin Murals Meet their Audience at Street Level

Tenderloin Murals Meet their Audience at Street Level

Chad Hasegawa’s new mural, finished Aug. 1, is painted above Blessings Ministry, a medical marijuana dispensary with a star of David over the door. It’s right down the block from the historic Hibernia Bank Building. Across the street on McAllister, a man wearing shades and a sports coat has a lawn chair laid out. He’s playing Rhianna from a vintage speaker—loud, and he’s singing. The streets are full of people.

“People were sitting out every day watching me paint,” Hasegawa remembers, “I had fans. Well, there was nothing else they could do during the pandemic.”

Hasegawa’s mural, spread across two walls, pairs a patchworked brown bear on one section with two minimal spheres on the other. The bear, which he reasons is a symbol of California, was chosen rather arbitrarily. “Basically,” Hasegawa explains, “I started out painting all these animals, but then people wanted me to paint their pug or like a tiger and I didn’t want to be a pet portraitist so I decided to only do the bear.”

Thinking about the spectrum of browns that coalesce in the bear’s appearance, Hasegawa drew out two predominant hues that articulate different shades, red and blue. The colors illuminate extremes and the effect is radiant. “I wanted the colors to turn each other on,” Hasegawa says of his work. “As if there are energies in them.”

The panel opposite the bear features two interlocking spheres which the artist made painstakingly, with a meticulous tape stencil. It’s minimal and perfect, more like a printed image than a painting. But, Hasegawa assures, if you look closely you can see the brushstrokes.

Chad Hasegawa's recently completed 'Kachusha the American,' 2020. (Darryl Smith)

The mural, on 83 McAllister, is the latest in a series of large-scale public works commissioned in the Tenderloin and Mid-Market neighborhoods by The Luggage Store gallery and funded primarily by Someland Foundation. So far three other murals have been completed, the first was Clare RojasPROMISE on the Warfield; then in 2018, Alicia McCarthy’s Untitled went up at 7th and Market; and in 2019 Tauba Auerbach painted the colossal 2020 on 455 Eddy. A new mural is planned for October by the artist Mona Caron.

“These projects,” explains Luggage Store co-founder Darryl Smith, “are about giving people access to art at the highest level. I still see the importance of well-curated exhibitions but I love tearing down fences and putting art out there—it seems to me a more interesting way to reach many cultures and people.”

Hasegawa has painted murals in San Francisco, his home of over 20 years, for almost as long as he’s lived in the city. Before he works on a mural he always spends time scoping out the area. “The first bear I did was right down the street from The Stud. I thought since there was a big bear scene in the gay community there, they’d like it. And they did.”

With museums and galleries shuttered during the pandemic, it is, at the risk of sounding corny, a beautiful thing to see art in the company of others. Especially in a community as strong and interlinked as the Tenderloin, where everyone seems to know each other’s name. This proliferation of public murals is an antidote to the staleness of art museums, providing a lively context, formed by an engaged scene on the streets, that knocks high art out of its rarified, and often apolitical, frame.

Luggage Store co-founder Darryl Smith with Alicia McCarthy's mural in the background. (Barrett Moore)

“People really like them,” says Smith, who is constantly greeting people on Eddy. “Just being on the street, walking through the neighborhood, I encounter people who thank me for the murals. Some even talk to me about other walls that could use one.”

A longtime resident of the Tenderloin, Hasegawa wanted to honor McAllister’s strategic location as a protest route. “That’s why I had the bear throw its hand up, as a sign of hope,” he says. “Like keep going people, we still have to scream at City Hall, it’s not over yet.”

He painted the Pan-African flag in his mural as a sign of respect to the Black Lives Matter movement; he figured it was something the Black community that spends time on the block would appreciate, “even if they weren’t about the art.” The mural itself is titled Kachusha the American, in honor of a friend of Hasegawa’s who was attacked by the police in the Mission after acting as a witness to their harassment of a family. According to Hasegawa, while defending himself from the violent officers, Kachusha screamed, “I can’t breathe. I’m an American.”

“He kept saying that,” says Hasegawa, “because he felt like he was caught in a war.”

Tauba Auerbach's '2020,' 2019 on Mosser Towers. (Jay Jones)

Color and Form on an Epic Scale

A girl with “Elon Musk” written on her arm in thick black marker is marveling at 2020, Auerbach’s hypnotic black and white mural. She has a pile of high heels in front of her and is modeling a particularly nice pair of red pumps. Gliding back and forth impressively, lightly encouraging people to buy them off her feet, she engages someone about the mural. She says she thinks it’s beautiful, then, softly, and only to herself, she whispers, “Best art ever.”

Auerbach’s mural depicts what looks like a rectangular piece of glass being dipped into inky milk. Adroit painted shadows falling from the glass give the mural a disconcerting trompe l’oeil effect and from a distance it’s as if the building is caught in a perpetual collision.

The largest work Auerbach has ever done, the mural was made with the assistance of a two-person crew from New Bohemia Signs, where Auerbach worked early in her career. The geometric precision and dedication to work by hand for which Auerbach is known wrap around the building with staggering care.

A few blocks away sits Alicia McCarthy’s 100-by-100-foot untitled mural. Made with foot-long rollers acting as stand-ins for brushes, it’s a net of interlocking stripes painted line by line. Each color in the painting is unique, mixed by the artist. Following a line horizontally or vertically lends the mural a visual undulation; each color is constantly re-contextualized by its intersections. McCarthy, who worked with a crew of artists to put up the mural, notes the pure pleasure of watching colors interact with one another.

“I’m not trying to illustrate anything,” says Oakland-born McCarthy. “It is just color and lines and you see exactly what goes into it. There is no manipulation. My work is just about adaptation and context.”

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Street Art and the Battle for the City’s Soul

The Tenderloin and Mid-Market murals are funded by Sara Williams and her foundation Someland, which she started with her husband Evan Williams, a co-founder of Twitter. While political justice and education seem to be the primary recipients of Someland’s donations, they’ve supported the arts in San Francisco by contributing to 826 Valencia and the FOR-SITE foundations’s Home Land Security.

As the area has long been a site of discontent, where new money meets a resilient community, there is an inherent tension between tech companies and the shrinking viability of small DIY and nonprofit organizations. On top of that, street art has recently become a kind of code for “gentrifying neighborhood” in the vernacular of start-ups like Airbnb or Tripadvisor.

Someland’s decision to directly support a steward of the community like Luggage Store—and in turn, the people they serve—marks an unusual and somewhat optimistic moment. By working with artists who have deep roots in San Francisco, and are politically attuned to the responsibilities of making public work, Smith is helping restore the Mission School’s long history of painting artwork on city walls, for free and for everyone.

“We look at Mid-Market and the Tenderloin where there is a strong African American community and we are proud that a number of murals have been done by Black people, people of color and women,” Smith says.

The artists he’s curated have taken care to be politically conscious, weighing a number of factors before committing to a mural—and its location. The luxury hotel Proper that hosts Alicia McCarthy’s mural used to be an SRO. “That was a difficult decision for me,” McCarthy says of taking the commission. “I did it on the condition that half my artist fee be donated to a nonprofit.” Ultimately, she reasoned she could trust the The Luggage Store, where she has shown and viewed art for decades.

“I’m not in the field for any professional reasons, but it means a lot to work on this with Darryl and Laurie,” McCarthy says of the co-founders. “Luggage Store is family. They are one of my core influences, I don’t think anyone could do what they do the way they do.”

Alicia McCarthy's 'Untitled,' 2018 on the Proper Hotel. (Jay Jones )

Art and Access

The term “art market” has always struck me as strange. It’s as if art is a naturally occurring resource like oil or corn. As if it can be mined, processed and commodified, and isn’t the result of deeply personal and political expression.

The Luggage Store is committed, in its own way, to protecting the Tenderloin from gentrification and the looming recession while bringing art to its neighbors. In this mural project, public art is not a stepping stone towards gentrification, but a way of improving the daily lives of the people who are already there.

The pandemic has irrefutably highlighted the link between wealth and access to art, as works become further entombed within galleries open only by appointment and museums, still closed. But in the streets of the Tenderloin, there is a vitality to these freely accessible murals—curated with extreme care and hand-painted by artists who love San Francisco—that no economic crisis or pandemic could extinguish.

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