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George Crampton Glassanos has Pendletons, Paint and Passion

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George Crampton Glassanos posing in front of his mural of a black droptop lowrider and the Mission staple, Doggie Diner.
George Crampton Glassanos posing in front of his mural of a black droptop lowrider and the Mission staple, Doggie Diner. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

View the full episode transcript.

Let George Crampton Glassanos tell it, he isn’t an artist.

Despite this, he’s painted numerous signs and murals throughout San Francisco’s Mission district— including one depicting a fly, black, droptop lowrider in front of the once beloved eatery, Doggie Diner and another of the legendary, charismatic gorilla logo of union-made work clothing company, Ben Davis.

George is firm on this: he isn’t an artist, he’s a painter.

Person in plaid button-up shirt standing in front of the Ben Davis sign, where the iconic logo of a yellow gorilla with a charismatic smile serves as the main image, and the words "World's Toughest Work Clothing" sits atop the sign.
George Harry Crampton Glassanos standing in front of the Ben Davis sign he restored. (Pendarvis Harshaw/KQED)

His work, full of eye-catching colors and symbols representative of the Mission’s culture, is utilitarian in nature. It’s born out of both a need to serve others, and George’s personal urge to create.

Raised on Lexington  and San Carlos streets, George was an imaginative kid. His parents introduced him to the creative process and gave him basic art tools and a foundation to express himself (including comic books like Love and Rockets).  That coupled with his memories of frequenting eateries and hanging out with friends, serves as the backdrop to his work.

Even when he wasn’t outside, George’s unique perspective on his neighborhood was further tailored by watching the world through a window overlooking 18th and Valencia streets. From that perch he began to create.

A person wearing sunglasses holds up a jacket with "International Longshoremen's Warehousemen's Union" written on it.
George Harry Crampton Glassanos holds up his International Longshoremen’s and Warehouse’s Union (ILWU) jacket in front of a mural he painted in Clarion Alley in San Francisco’s Mission District on Nov. 28, 2023. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Years later, George is a proud member of The International Longshoremen’s and Warehousemen’s Union (ILWU). He gets creative inspiration from getting up early to take in the sunrise and listen to the birds. He’s also driven by the need to advocate for the rights of working class people, locally and abroad. This all adds to his paintings and drawings, but don’t call it artwork.

He recently stopped by KQED’s headquarters to share a bit of his story, then he took us on a short ride to see a few of his hand painted signs and murals— his work.


Episode Transcript

 

Pendarvis Harshaw, host: Hey, what’s up Rightnowish listeners. It’s the dream team Pendarvis Harshaw

Marisol Medina-Cadena, host: and Marisol Medina-Cadena!

Pendarvis Harshaw: Today’s episode has us locked in The Mission, starting at a parking lot off 18th and Valencia. 

Marisol Medina-Cadena: That’s where I caught up with painter George Crampton Glassanos putting the final touches on his latest mural.  

Pendarvis Harshaw: That parking lot is near and dear to George because it’s the main intersection where he grew up 

George Crampton Glassanos, guest: This street’s completely changed. You know, it’s like you’re in the Marina now or something. It’s completely wacky. I don’t think anyone ever thought it was going to be like this when I was a kid, you know? Growing up right here, Valencia Street was no man’s land, given the few auto body shops. But it was like a lot of gas stations, auto, uh, used car lots, a lot of appliance stores. Which is cool that we’re painting this mural on, on the Cherin’s, in the Cherin’s parking lot. Cherin’s has been here since 1892. They sell refrigerators and washing machines and stuff. 

I remember this whole street just being like, a crazy mix of working class people, you know, different families. There was a guy next door to us that lived on the ground floor, corner apartment, right there on Lexington. And his family came up from the South during World War II to work in the shipyards. We had all different types of neighbors from different countries, you know. It wasn’t just Latinos. There’s a lot of Asian folks and I do remember Eastern Europeans in the neighborhood. 

Marisol Medina-Cadena: George’s memories of the way the neighborhood was back iin the 90s, find their way into his work. Living in the bay, where murals are a-plenty, I think we residents take these large scale works of art for granted. They become like wallpaper. But when you stop to really look at the stories these walls tell, you can learn a lot about a place, its history and the people who came before us.

George Crampton Glassnos: To be able to paint right here on this corner has been a real treat, completely different from painting at home, you know. Painting outside, you you’re on a ladder and there’s cars flying by and people walking by, and it’s a whole other experience than painting on a canvas at home. 

[Music]

Marisol Medina-Cadena: George and his friend named the mural the “Four-Fifteenth Dimension.” It portrays a night out at a drive-in movie theater. Parked lowriders face a projection screen. And in each corner is a depiction of different Mission institutions like Doggie Diner, Hunt’s Donuts, and the 500 Club. It looks like a scene straight out of a comic book.

George Crampton Glassanos: I wanted to stick with, like, the theme of, like, new and old and, like, ancient civilizations fitting in with, like, modern or, you know, 1980’s burger stand. So I put the pyramid in just to kind of pay respects to, you know, the people that were here before us. 

Pendarvis Harshaw: We’ll hear more about George Crampton Glassanos’ work and the message of caretaking that he’s spreading, right after this message.

Marisol Medina-Cadena:  I thought we could start by just talking about your… your threads. [Laughs] Because every time I see you in the mission, you’re always wearing really cool outfits. Like jackets. 

George Crampton Glassanos: Oh, yeah. 

Marisol Medina-Cadena:  So what are you wearing today? 

George Crampton Glassanos: I wore a Pendleton. I dressed up because I wear my work clothes all week long, so when the weekend rolls around, I like to put on a nice outfit. It’s also the, you know, it’s that time of year it’s cold out, and Pendleton keeps you warm. 

Marisol Medina-Cadena: Well, back in November, when we first started talking to you, I caught up with you and your friend, 18th and Valencia. 

George Crampton Glassanos: Yeah. 

Marisol Medina-Cadena: Painting that mural. It’s finished now. So what’s the reception been like?

George Crampton Glassanos: The other day I drove by it after high school got out, up at Mission High school. And there’s a big group of kids in there, you know, with their backpacks and skateboards, and they were all checking it out, so that makes me feel good, driving by and seeing the youth checking it out. That’s who it’s for: it’s for the kids. And, you know, my neighbors that are still there on that street that I grew up on a lot of… a lot of people left. A lot of people got pushed out. 

Marisol Medina-Cadena:  Why is that street corner significant to you? 

George Crampton Glassanos: I have memories of standing in the window as a kid, and I came up to, like, right at right to, like, the window sill when I was a kid. So I’d sit there in that fucking window for hours, and I’d look at cars driving by on the street, and my mom was like, “I couldn’t figure out what your obsession was with cars.”

And we chewed on the window sill and, you know, this, like, lead paint, okay?And so, I just sit up there in that window, chewing on the window sill, and I could see that parking lot from my window. And across from the parking lot there was another, empty lot. It’s a condo now, but that was a used car dealership.

So I had a whole view of that street, and there was a puddle that would form across the street from my house. And this was back in the day, so they had rush hour. They make you move your car at a certain time in the afternoon. It was like commute hours, so there’d be no cars on 18th. It was like four lanes, two lanes going down and two lanes going up. And you’d watch cars come tearing down the street and hit this puddle and it would soak people on the sidewalk. So that was our entertainment, you know, we’d sit up there and we’d laugh at people getting splashed. 

Marisol Medina-Cadena:  That’s very Looney Tunes behavior. 

George Crampton Glassanos: Looney, looney. Yeah, Looney Tune behavior. 

Marisol Medina-Cadena:  [Laughs]

George Crampton Glassanos: All of those memories hold significance to me. And part of growing up in the neighborhood and, being able to paint in that parking lot, it’s crazy. We were evicted out of that apartment at a certain point, but 18th Street was a big part of my upbringing, and it was such a beautiful community. All different kinds of people from every walk of life living around us really embodied what the mission used to be, you know. 

Marisol Medina-Cadena: This was the 90s? 

George Crampton Glassanos: This was the 90s. 

Pendarvis Harshaw: Thank you for sharing that. That’s beautiful. Paint that picture for us, everything from the window sill to the interactions in the community.

George Crampton Glassanos: Man… 

Pendarvis Harshaw: And you mentioned your mother and as I understand that both of your parents are artists. 

George Crampton Glassanos: They are, yeah. 

Pendarvis Harshaw: Yeah. And I’m wondering, what role did they play in shaping you as an artist? 

George Crampton Glassanos: My dad would get off of work and he’d come home and draw with us, or on the weekends we’d draw together. And, you know, my mom always encouraged art in the house. We always had art materials laying around. They didn’t stick me in front of the TV, they stuck me in front of a drawing pad. Which I hated, you know, because I, you know, you’d go to school and I would be talking about TV and stuff, but now I’m very grateful for it. 

Pendarvis Harshaw: You hear that, parents?  [Laughs] And then on top of providing the resources, were there any specific techniques that they showed you? 

George Crampton Glassanos: You know, my dad would sit down with me and show me how to, like, crosshatch and shade. And, I remember my mom showing me, shad— like, how to shadow, like, “look a lamp is pointed at this, uh, cylinder. Your shadow is going to come off this side.” So they taught me stuff like that. 

 

My father had a huge comic book collection when I was a kid. Every Friday after work, he’d come home, we’d walk up Mission from 18th Street to 23rd. There’s a comic book shop on 23rd and Bartlett. He’d grab a stack of comic books, and that’s where I got a lot of inspiration from to, you know, like, underground comics and Spain Rodriguez, R. Crumb. My mom had a big collection of the Hernandez brothers comics called Love and Rockets

 

When they were like, doing something in the other room, I’d get, I’d grab the ladder and go up to the shelf and pull down on R. Crumb book and run off into my room. 

 

I like that whole, that whole underground comic scene, but then combining that with, like, everyday life in the neighborhood, you know, like cars cruising on Mission, Muni busses. That’s when it, like, it clicked for me and I was like, this is what I want to draw and paint. And then from then on, I was like, you know, coming up with wacky scenarios in my head, probably all that lead paint I chewed. 

 

Pendarvis Harshaw: I was, it goes back to the window. I was, I promise you, I was thinking that it goes back to the kid in the window, you know? 

 

George Crampton Glassanos: It does, you know? Yeah, I like having a good time with it. Like painting that mural on 18th Street. We were just joking with each other all day long, coming up with crazy scenarios and then painting them. We didn’t map anything out. We kind of just showed up there and started painting, and that’s what we came up with. 

 

I got to give my high school teachers a lot of credit too, because, they played, I went to School of the Arts here in San Francisco, and they played a huge role in, you know, kind of shaping me and teaching me.

 

I was stuck in a rut, you know, this was like ninth grade. I didn’t, I had all these fucking teachers telling me to do these, like, still lifes of fruit, like a vase with flowers and I hated it. And I had this one teacher tell me, “Just draw what you want to draw.” So I did, like, a popsicle man pushing a cart, but he’s a skeleton, you know. I put him in front of, like, a produce market on 23rd and Mission and that’s when my creativity flourished. 

 

Pendarvis Harshaw: At what point did young George, who used to draw and then eventually went to high school, when did he claim the title of an artist? When did you see yourself as such? 

 

George Crampton Glassanos: I still don’t like considering myself an artist. I just consider myself a painter. It’s fine to be called an artist, but I feel weird about, like, giving yourself that title. 

 

Pendarvis Harshaw: So you not an artist, a painter, and and you walked in today with this beautiful piece that you did with a ballpoint pen. It’s beautiful, black and white, a 1937 Chevy bomber.

 

George Crampton Glassanos: yeah, yeah, 

 

Pendarvis Harshaw:..in front of a panaderia. This piece, that’s not painting, and so you’re still not an artist?

 

George Crampton Glassanos: It’s a drawing. 

 

Pendarvis Harshaw: It’s a drawing?! [Laughs] Come on! 

 

George Crampton Glassanos: A ballpoint pen drawing. 

 

Pendarvis Harshaw: You went through two ballpoint pens in making this drawing? 

 

George Crampton Glassanos: Yeah, I did, yeah. I like to just work with whatever I got laying around, you know, and I think that’s important for a lot of people that create. You don’t need a $50 set of acrylic paint. You don’t need a canvas. Pick up a piece of cardboard or a piece of plywood off the street and just draw on it, or pick up a Sharpie and draw something on a wall. I think once people break through that boundary of being like, oh you know, I don’t have the right supplies or this or that, you can start rolling from there, you know. 

 

Pendarvis Harshaw: I love it. I was going to ask for some words of wisdom for the creatives out there, but that’s it: just create. 

 

[Music]

 

Marisol Medina-Cadena: So you’re a member of the ILWU, the International Longshore Workers Union. Talk to us about how that influences your creative practice. 

 

George Crampton Glassanos: Being right on the waterfront under these huge cranes and trucks and machines and all of that’s super inspirational to me. Also, being up at like 4 or 5 in the morning, you see all different kinds of crazy shit on your way to work. And all of that plays a role in inspiration, you know, crazy sunrises and trains and freeways. And I take parts from my day to day surroundings and put them into my paintings at the end of the day. 

 

Marisol Medina-Cadena: Was it a big deal to get into the ILWU because from what I understood, like you can only get in if you have a relative in. 

 

George Crampton Glassanos: Well my dad’s right hand man for a long time, for a number of years, worked with my father. He put his name on the list in ‘99. They did uh… off-the-street hires, and he didn’t get a call until mid 2000, like ‘12, ‘10.  When he became registered he got an interest card and he passed that along to me. So that was how I got in there. You know it’s been a, it’s a blessing. You know, have the benefits and the security. It’s a good gig. I feel lucky to be down there. 

 

Marisol Medina-Cadena: You posted on Instagram about the the local chapter passing a resolution calling for a cease fire in Gaza?

 

George Crampton Glassanos: Yeah, yeah. 

 

Marisol Medina-Cadena: Can you talk about how organizing that came to be? 

 

George Crampton Glassanos: You know, it’s long overdue. In the past, our union has stood steadfast with dismantling apartheid in South Africa. And, we always stick up for, you know, the workers that get the lower end of the stick and the people that- oppressed people around the world. 

 

Our chairman of the Young Workers Committee, Bo Logo, you need to be at a certain level of seniority within the union to push forward a resolution, and he has that position. So he drafted up the resolution and pushed it forward, and it passed unanimously. 

 

Marisol Medina-Cadena: That’s a big deal! 

 

George Crampton Glassanos: And we, to my knowledge, are the only local that pushed forward a resolution for the ceasefire. And we’ve always been kind of more the-we’ve been more militant and radical here in the Bay area. And this is where, this is where the longshoremen started, you know. 

 

Marisol Medina-Cadena: During the general strike. 

 

George Crampton Glassanos: General strike, a number of ports along the West Coast, you know, went on strike. And we… we were founded in ‘37. 

 

Marisol Medina-Cadena: It makes sense that the I-W-L-U… Sorry.

 

George Crampton Glassanos: Yeah, ILWU, yeah.

 

Marisol Medina-Cadena: it’s hard to roll off the tongue. 

 

George Crampton Glassanos: Yeah, yeah. 

 

Marisol Medina-Cadena: But, yeah. You know, they were so staunchly opposed to South African apartheid because in the 30s, not staunchly, it was a battle, but they were about integration when a lot of other unions weren’t. 

 

George Crampton Glassanos: Yeah and a lot of the African Americans, you know, were brought in to scab, scab and to take the work over. And, Harry bridges said, look, if if we all come together, we’re all going to work together. We’re all workers, and, we’re going to get benefits and we’re going to get what we want. His promise was at the end of the day, there’d be a Black guy and a white guy on the dock together. And that’s what, you know, that was the start of the integration. And, today, my union’s 85% African-American. Yeah, we got a rich history. 

 

We did a march on Market Street with the farm workers during the grape strike.  

 

Marisol Medina-Cadena: In the 60s? 

 

George Crampton Glassanos: Yeah, in the 60s, our drill team met Martin Luther King at the airport and provided a security for him when he came to visit. We are super involved with the Black Panthers and um…

 

Marisol Medina-Cadena: A couple of years ago, you guys gave Angela Davis, like, honorary status. 

 

George Crampton Glassanos: Yeah, yeah, yeah, our sister, Angela Davis, she’s an honorary member. Danny Glover was inducted recently. So there’s all this history within the union. And, when I got my letter in the mail for my safety training and my drug test and everything it was like a dream come true. I couldn’t think of a better union to be part of. 

 

Marisol Medina-Cadena: Also sounds like you have this like deep responsibility to others and to the city, in the land and the people. And I feel like that kind of shows up in the work you do to restore, like classic signs in the mission, like I’m thinking about the iconic Ben Davis mural, by Arik’s, or it was that Arik’s Supply Co before, they had an electrical fire and burned down. Can you talk about what led you to restore that mural? 

 

George Crampton Glassanos: I don’t think we’re the first to restore it. I restored it with a friend of mine, Charlie. But it’s kind of our civic duty, you know. We think of it as, like, community service. So, you know, driving by it and seeing that, how it was, it needed to be fixed. And it’s been holding up pretty good. We’ve done it twice. 

 

Marisol Medina-Cadena: When did you first do it, in 2016?

 

George Crampton Glassanos: Sometime around then. I can’t remember the exact year, but we went down there early in the morning with a drop cloth and a ladder, and we didn’t want an audience. We wanted to get in and out as fast as possible. So we started early, but we had people thanking us and offering to buy us beer and whatever. And it felt good, you know, doing something like that for the neighborhood. And we didn’t expect anything in return from it. We just love that sign. We’ve seen it for so long that… It almost felt like it was… It was like a mandatory thing for us to do. 

 

Pendarvis Harshaw: You mentioned folks were hitting the horn and offering to buy you beer. Like for folks who don’t know, why is this sign so significant to Frisco kids? 

 

George Crampton Glassanos: It’s on the corner of Mission and Valencia, right where Mission and Valencia butt into each other. But that gorilla has been there ever, you know, it’s been there as long as I’ve been alive. And he’s grinning at you, and, it’s a symbol of resilience and resistance and in my opinion, you know, like a fading image of the working class here in San Francisco. And, it’s a killer sign. Glad that it’s still there. It’s a church now, I think. Did you see that? 

 

Marisol Medina-Cadena: I don’t know if you know this, but the church owners said to the bar, bar owners next door that they will keep the mural

 

George Crampton Glassanos: Cool. 

 

Marisol Medina-Cadena: They’re not going to touch it because they understand it has important value. 

 

George Crampton Glassanos: Yeah, it’s our savior, Ben Davis. Right? 

 

Marisol Medina-Cadena: Yeah. 

 

George Crampton Glassanos: Our Lord and Savior. [Laughs]

 

Pendarvis Harshaw: What was your relationship like with the, with the brand? When did you start rocking the gear? 

 

George Crampton Glassanos: We went out and bought Ben Davis shirts and like fifth or sixth grade, like me and a group of my friends because, my, my older, my friend’s older brother would wear it and we thought it was so cool. You know, we love striped Ben Davis shirts with the… the little zipper that came down on the, you know, with the collar. We all would wear Ben Davis to school. The school decided we can’t wear it,  you can’t wear your Ben Davis no more because it’s, uh, street gang clothing.

 

If I can remember correctly, a group of our dads went, went down there and talked to school and said, there’s no way you guys make them… can’t make them wear it. Where? Like, my friend’s dad was a muffler guy and he wore it. And my other friend’s dad was the janitor at the school and he wore it. So it was like, this has nothing to do with that, you know? So we won. We won our right to wear Ben Davis. 

 

Pendarvis Harshaw: That’s beautiful. That’s what my, you know, fighting the system at a young age. 

 

George Crampton Glassanos: I’ve been wearing it ever since. 

 

[Music]

 

Pendarvis Harshaw: The process of hand painting something. Why is that important to you? 

 

George Crampton Glassanos: It’s not cookie cutter, printed out on a printer or vinyl banner and you see so much of that now. Everything’s so digitalized now. So the importance of a hand-painted sign is it has character. You know, lines aren’t perfect. There’s drips. There’s paint on the sidewalk, You know.

 

Marisol Medina-Cadena:  The texture!

 

George Crampton Glassanos: There’s texture. There’s years of, you know, oh there’s been someone leaning against it in this corner so there’s a mark on it now. And you don’t get that with a vinyl banner. The sun, the sun will end up destroying it, and then it’ll be flapping there and…the signs really hold a lot of value, you know. 

 

Marisol Medina-Cadena:  You pay a lot of attention to preserving technique, preserving culture through signs, iconography. I’m wondering, is there someone or a group of people you’re trying to pass your skills onto? 

 

George Crampton Glassanos: It’s just part of being from the city and growing up here. And, anyone that wants to pick up a brush and learn and, you know, just do it. I’m happy to teach you. I’ll show you as much as I know, you know. 

 

Marisol Medina-Cadena: But I guess it’s not only just like the technique. It’s like you’re… maybe you’re teaching people like, a perspective, like a way to go about your business. 

 

George Crampton Glassanos: Yeah, yeah. And I just kind of try to show, this sign’s been around since the 40s or the 50. So let’s preserve it. But I also don’t, you know, I’m not, I’m not here to tell people what to do either so… 

 

Marisol Medina-Cadena:  I get that. Yeah, yeah. Do you have your eyes set on another sign? I mean, I know you also take care of the Lucca’s Ravioli one. 

 

George Crampton Glassanos: Yeah, it got graffitied on, so we touch that up. All these places were like places that I’d go and walk to with my mom when I was a little kid. You know, my brother in the stroller. And I’d be walking along, and I just like keeping an eye on things. 

 

Marisol Medina-Cadena: What about, I guess, can I volunteer you one, put it on your radar? It’s that burger joint on mission, but over in the Excelsior, like on Silver. 

 

George Crampton Glassanos: Oh, you’re talking about “Joe Grinds His Fresh Chuck Daily.” Cable Car Joe’s? 

 

Marisol Medina-Cadena: Yes. Like that needs some love. 

 

George Crampton-Glassanos: Yeah, that sign was too cool. Yeah. I never even ate a burger in there because we were when we were kids. They’re like, oh, those burgers are like 15 bucks. You know, when you’re young, you want to, like, buy some weed and like a 40, and you’d probably going to end up, like, splitting a burrito with three other people or something. 

 

Marisol Medina-Cadena: Yeah, you got to maximize.

 

Pendarvis Harshaw: Priorities. 

 

George Crampton Glassanos: Yeah, yeah.

 

Pendarvis Harshaw: Thank you for sharing that. 

 

Marisol Medina-Cadena: Thank you. 

 

George Crampton Glassanos: Yeah. Thank you. 

 

[Music]

Marisol Medina-Cadena: Much appreciation to George Crampton Glassanos for bringing us into your world. For real tho! You drove us around in your truck and gave us a tour of basically your hall of fame… of murals. 

If you’re itching to see George’s work in person, I highly recommend you get yourself to 24th street or Mission & 18th. He’s got a bunch of pieces up on the walls. 

And to keep up with him online, his Instagram handle is @paintergeorge415

Pendarvis Harshaw: This episode was hosted by Marisol Medina-Cadena and myself, Pendarvis Harshaw. It was produced by Marisol Medina-Cadena. Chris Hambrick is our fierce editor. Christopher Beale is our wizard of an engineer. Sheree Bishop is the Rightnowish production intern. Additional support provided by Jen Chien, Katie Sprenger, Cesar Saldaña, Ugur Dursun and Holly Kernan.

 

Get out and see some art, hit the streets y’all. 

 

Rightnowish is a KQED Production.

 

Peace.

Rightnowish is an arts and culture podcast produced at KQED. Listen to it wherever you get your podcasts or click the play button at the top of this page and subscribe to the show on NPR One, Spotify, Apple Podcasts, TuneIn, Stitcher or wherever you get your podcasts.

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