All Aboard ‘Muni Raised Me,’ SOMArts’ Ode to Working-Class San Francisco

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A city bus painted in bright colors
'Altared SF' by Sasha Vu and Ling Ling Lee on view in 'Muni Raised Me' at SOMArts. (Nastia Voynovskaya)

Almost every longtime Bay Area resident has their favorite Muni route. For me, it’s the 38, the bus that starts downtown, then cruises past the Fillmore and Japantown to the Richmond District. When I exit through the back doors and into the heart of San Francisco’s Russian-speaking immigrant neighborhood, the smells of church frankincense and fresh rye bread awaken some of my favorite childhood memories.

As an immigrant kid growing up in the East Bay, my family’s frequent trips to San Francisco anchored me in my cultural identity. So I felt an instant connection to the intimate, poetic way 13 San Francisco-born-and-raised artists approach city life and public transit in the new group exhibition Muni Raised Me.

In the SOMArts show curated by Meymey Lee, Sasha Vu and Celi Tamayo-Lee, bus lines are the arteries that connect immigrant, Black and working-class neighborhoods — the heart and soul of San Francisco culture. The multicultural crew of artists tells collective and personal histories through installations, paintings, audio and video. In the context of record-shattering rent prices and ongoing displacement, their memories feel like precious keepsakes.

The centerpiece in SOMArts’ high-ceilinged, warehouse gallery is Altared SF by Sasha Vu and Ling Ling Lee, a real-life, decommissioned Muni bus turned into a temple with an original soundtrack of beats by Vu’s brother, Ben Vu. The Magic School Bus-esque, psychedelic ride transports viewers with its maximalist assemblages of objects, each one evoking a different San Francisco cultural touchpoint.

As I took in the hippie-raver curios, Buddhist statues and rainbow decorations, I arrived at a quiet moment of contemplation. In the back, an altar honors victims of police brutality, including Mario Woods and Alex Nieto, whose deaths galvanized San Francisco’s movement for police accountability over the past decade. Like much of Muni Raised Me, the piece feels joyful yet grounded in a sobering reality.

A circular passageway decorated with plants and rainbows ending in an altar
A view inside 'Altared SF' by Sasha Vu and Ling Ling Lee. (Nastia Voynovskaya)

The art in Muni Raised Me mimics the texture and aliveness of the City. Music videos by local artists such as Qing Qi, La Doña, A-1 and Baghead bring a house party soundtrack. Ben Vu’s short film All That and Dim Sum radiates warmth, reminding us that San Francisco is also a city of families who eat dumplings together on Sundays — not just individualistic strivers. Sophia Mitty’s custom embroidery on jackets tells stories through workwear-inspired fashion. And tanea lunsford lynx’s installation, a listening booth collaged with family photos, plays poems about connection, loss and longing from her point of view as a fourth-generation Black San Franciscan.


Muni Raised Me feels intentional and full of care, which falls in line with the three curators’ mission to be of service. Outside of their art practices, Vu and Lee are both educators, and Tamayo-Lee is the co-director of San Francisco Rising, an organization that aims to politically empower working class people of color. I spoke with them about their vision for the show, their favorite Muni routes and how they managed to fit a real bus into a gallery.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Nastia Voynovskaya: I was struck by how so many of the artists involved are also organizers and educators who pour themselves into their community. What does that say to you about the art scene in San Francisco?

Sasha Vu: That’s a fascinating question because I feel like it really speaks to specifically this art show, not so much the larger art scene in San Francisco. So many of the folks I know who stayed in the City, who have grown up here, have had to balance their identity as artists with other professions, especially if you’re a local up-and-coming artist. Then I think also looking at the world through the artistic lens, it really lends itself to seeing various cracks and injustices, which therefore puts you in a place where you’re like, “How can I have my art better serve the community? How can my being better serve the community?”

Meymey Lee: Public institutions are the things that raised us, so public transit, public schools and public parks. I think we really benefited from a really robust civil infrastructure. That really does speak to a San Francisco spirit, a very service-oriented sense of giving back to the city that raised us.

Celi Tamayo-Lee: [Muni Raised Me is] a huge shoutout to the bus drivers, the teachers, the after-school caregivers, the volunteers who worked during recess or helped us cross the street. In so many ways, we spent more time with those adults than some of our own parents. And I think for me, there’s a feeling of just wanting to re-seed that in today’s youth and share that love that we’ve been given, and getting to be that cool, weird, funky adult. It’s a piece of pride for a lot of us.

Handmade black and white jacket with symbols of city life embroidered
One of the garments in Sophia Mitty's installation 'Ode to SF,' on view in 'Muni Raised Me' at SOMArts. (Nastia Voynovskaya)

So many of the pieces in the show feel nostalgic and centered on childhood memories. What’s the importance of that to you as curators and artists?

Sasha Vu: So much of this show is pulling from a deep-seated nostalgia that really comes from having roots here. It’s an accumulation of 20 to 40 years of being in the same place. Being able to pull from childhood is such a unique lens because there are so many people here who didn’t grow up here, who are transplants in various ways and will never see the city through the same lens that we see it. And this is kind of offering a peek into that world.

Meymey Lee: I felt nostalgia when I was like 17. Nostalgia is such a forced emotion when you grow up in San Francisco because the change has just been so rapid and incredible. And maybe that’s just the nature of cities. But also there was definitely a malicious edge to it, you know, watching the tech industry come in, watching so many working-class families leave — so many of our friends and family. There’s a lot of sadness. We wanted to honor the pride and the sadness and the joy we have here.

Celi Tamayo-Lee: And to romanticize the ’90s in San Francisco. It was coming off the coattails of the AIDS epidemic and the war on drugs. There was such a vivacious and growing queer community. I felt like my childhood was very infused with a lot of music and art and street festivals and free concerts in the park. I feel like it takes a lot more effort to find that and build that nowadays.

Colorful collage of bus tickets with text about Halloween in the Castro
A close-up of the family photos in tanea lunsford lynx's oral history audio installation, 'I Used to Live Here.' (Nastia Voynovskaya)

It seems like collaboration played a pretty big role on the show, in some of the pieces themselves and also in your process as the three curators. Could you tell me a little bit about that and how it relates to the spirit of this exhibit?

Meymey Lee: So much of this show has been really about looking around and realizing that I’m in community with so many amazing people, artists and educators and curators that don’t really have a place to shine. So many of the artists we’ve known since high school. I’ve known Sasha since I was five and Celi since middle school. Having these relationships that go really far back has definitely been the backbone and the saving grace. It’s been so amazing to see these wonderful people in a whole new light.

Celi Tamayo-Lee: I think it was also a beautiful process of learning about each other outside of just being friends. Mey was like, “You know what? Like, screw it. I’m just going to try and apply to [SOMArts’ Curatorial Residency Program]. Here is my vision.” And we were like, “OK, we will follow you.” A third of the gallery is pieces by Sasha. Sasha has just had that artistic ambition to bring a lot of her skills and vision to a single place. I was the admin dom in terms of, “Are we meeting deadlines? Are we crossing our t’s dotting our i’s?” Learning how to work together has also just been like a big part of community building.

Sasha, could you tell me about the bus?

Sasha Vu: My initial idea was like, maybe we can laser cut a bus and paint it, like a mini bus. But Celi was able to call someone who knew somebody who was able to get us in touch with the SFMTA. And we were able to have the bus donated. That was a huge blessing, completely unexpected in so many ways. And it became the centerpiece of the show.

A lot of love and planning and time was poured into the bus. We’re showing our vision of the temple bus, the altar bus, the ultimate psychedelic bus experience. And in so many ways it’s the true bus, the bus of our deep consciousness. I did the exterior art on the bus. And Ling Ling [Lee], who is Mey’s sibling and my close friend, designed a lot of the interior. The bus is meant to be a transformative piece that really ties together all of the nostalgia of the past with the possibilities of the future.

Close-up view of plants and photographs in altar arrangement
A close-up shot of the altar aboard 'Altared SF' by Sasha Vu and Ling Ling Lee. The photo on the left features Alex Nieto, who was killed by San Francisco police in 2014. (Nastia Voynovskaya)

Before we wrap up, what are some of your favorite bus lines and destinations on them?

Meymey Lee: I’ll talk about the 44 because that’s basically how I met my best friend. She grew up in the Bayview. The 44 goes from the Bayview to Geary and California, it traverses the city. It’s such a journey. We would see each other in the morning, we would wait for the bus together after school. These were the moments that solidified our connection. She’s been my best friend for the past 15 years, and I really have the 44 to thank for that. And some locations along the 44 — Green Apple Books. Hing Wang Bakery on 9th and Judah. Yeah. Golden Gate Park. We would all go to the arboretum after school.

Sasha Vu: For me the line I took home was the K Ingleside. It travels a very foggy, liminal route unreached by a lot of other buses. I grew up in the Mission and Ingleside, but during high school my family was in Ingleside. I would take the bus from my house to Castro and I’d get a slice of pizza at Marcello’s. And then I would walk down to Dolores Park, where all the homies were.


‘Muni Raised Me’ is on view at SOMArts through April 9, 2023. Details here.