A Night on the Town With the Velvet Bandit

The Velvet Bandit's street art has been prolific all across the North Bay, addressing COVID-19, voting, and other issues.  (Courtesy the Velvet Bandit (L) / Gabe Meline (R))

The Velvet Bandit looks to the left, sizing up the street, and eyes a line of cars stopped at a red light in downtown Santa Rosa.

“Let's wait for the light to change,” she says. “There looks like a lot of...”

“Naysayers?” her assistant asks.

“Yeah.”

Soon the light turns green, and the two speed-walk to their destination: an alcove of an abandoned building, highly visible, where thousands of people pass each day and a bright light shines at night.

Visibility is a risk for the Velvet Bandit, a street artist who doesn't fit the stereotypical profile of a “street artist.” I can't really tell you who the Velvet Bandit is, exactly; she operates under cover of night, and placing her art on public and private walls is, technically, not legal. This much is known: she is a single mom living in Sonoma County, and before COVID hit, she worked as a cafeteria aide at a local school, preparing lunch for schoolchildren.

As we reach the alcove, I take note of a “No Trespassing” sign, and quietly alert the Velvet Bandit.

She keeps walking briskly, unconcerned, and in a small burst of freedom—from shelter-in-place, from our toxic political climate, from her day job—she quips: “Lunch ladies don't give a fuuuuuucccckkk!”

A minute later, the deal is done, and the wall bears a hand-painted image of Uncle Sam, wearing a face mask, with a simple message: “VOTE.”

The two women step back to assess the job. “Oh, yeah,” one says to the other. “Yeah. That looks awesome.”

Artwork by the Velvet Bandit, made during shelter-in-place, addresses the chaos of 2020.
Artwork by the Velvet Bandit, made during shelter-in-place, addresses the chaos of 2020. (Courtesy the Velvet Bandit)

I started to notice the Velvet Bandit's colorful paintings a few months ago, wheat pasted to walls and poles, with their positive messages for the pandemic. At the start, they bore simple reminders, like “Stay Home” and “Wash Your Hands.” Then, while everyone waited for stimulus checks, I noticed one in my neighborhood of a woman holding a check, with the phrase “Mitch Better Have My Money.”

Later, people told me they'd seen her work in other cities too: as far north as Ukiah and Willits, and in Sonoma, Sebastopol and Petaluma. It evolved, also: her paintings have lately amplified messages of the Black Lives Matter movement and the need to save the Post Office. Most of them simply acknowledge the struggle, for everyone, that is the year 2020.

So far, out in the streets at night, she and her assistant haven't gotten caught—which is impressive, considering her work is prominent, colorful, and prolific.

“I always dreamed, like, 'It'd be really cool to have this mom graffiti gang that goes around and puts these positive messages out,'” the lunch-lady-turned-street-artist tells me when we meet up on a recent weekend night.

In March, she says, like many, she was furloughed from her job. Shepard Fairey's wheat-pasted art had been a longtime inspiration, and she'd kept a pile of newsprint in her studio, ready to paint. So, she says, “when I had nothing but my art supplies to keep me sane, it was the perfect opportunity.”

The Velvet Bandit takes a photo of her work on a recent night in Santa Rosa.
The Velvet Bandit takes a photo of her work on a recent night in Santa Rosa. (Gabe Meline/KQED)

The Velvet Bandit has made about 600 pieces since, she estimates, putting up most of them in cities across the North Bay. Astonishingly, all of them have been painted individually, by hand. She tried making copies of her work like other street artists do, but “the vibrancy isn't there,” she says.

So far, reaction to her work has been relatively positive. Rather than scraping her work from their walls, several area businesses owners have contacted her, either donating money or even requesting that she come put it up on their storefronts.

At the former Dollar Tree building in the Roseland district of Santa Rosa recently, a man came out and gruffly asked, “What are you doing? What agency are you from?”

She explained she was putting up art, and when he saw her work, he asked if she had any more. “And he said, 'Put it around the whole building!'” she explains. “'And in fact, put it on those two taco trucks over there!'”

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I witness the same reaction in person later, when I accompany her and her assistant around downtown. While they dip into the supplies stored in their inconspicuous purses, and paste a “REGISTER + VOTE” painting in an alley, a man and a woman walk by. The woman points. For a flash of a second, I think we're busted.

“Oh, look!” she says, pleasantly. “We're getting a mural!”

The Velvet Bandit's work touches on a variety of social issues during a tumultuous year.
The Velvet Bandit's work touches on a variety of social issues during a tumultuous year. (Courtesy the Velvet Bandit)

Public art is always a source of debate, but it reached high temperature in Santa Rosa last month when a giant marble hand in front of the mall was painted black by Black Lives Matter activists. On one side of the issue, people argued that one should never vandalize art, and that the artist had intended the giant white hand to honor the region's farmworkers. On the other side, people, mostly young, argued that the entire concept of public art should progress beyond staid marble sculptures that stay in place for 30 years and lose their relevance.

The Velvet Bandit wants public art to be “more fun.” She knows the city often looks for artists to participate in sanctioned art projects, “but it just seems like a lot of work to fill out an application,” she says. The idea of having to outline a project and its goals beforehand is cumbersome, too: “I just like to do it as I go, and not put too much thought into it.”

What about grants, or the money she could get from the city for art? “Maybe I'll warm up to that idea,” she says. “But I get a thrill out of the fact that I'm not supposed to be doing it.”

At any rate, the Velvet Bandit has goals beyond mere recognition. She truly does want people to wear masks, and to take COVID seriously. She wants Trump out of office. She wants people to register to vote. She wants people to take care of themselves, and each other; the very first artwork posted to her Instagram reads, simply, "Free Hugs."

Later, when she puts up a trio of raised fists in the center of town in Courthouse Square, I notice just how quickly and discreetly the Velvet Bandit works. In just half an hour, she and her assistant have pasted nearly 20 pieces downtown. Two dozen or so people mingle around the square, which is itself surrounded by plenty of chatty, unmasked outdoor diners. A man walks by with a stroller. A woman listens to Sheryl Crow nearby in her parked blue Hyundai. No one seems to notice us.

It's then that I realize: why would they? The year 2020 has been such a turbulent mess. The news is a rollercoaster, everything changes quickly, hope is illusory and our attention spans are mush. And in that way, the medium is the message—the Velvet Bandit's quickly changing, here-today-gone-tomorrow wheat pastes match this chaotic year, and simultaneously, they're a liberating change from overthinking everything.

“Because all of this work is fleeting, and I don't know the lifespan of it, I don't get hung up," she says. "If it works, it works. And if it doesn't, whatever. Who cares? It's all gonna get taken down anyway.”

Find more at the Velvet Bandit's website.

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