Street Artist Josh MacPhee is also an author, cultural reviewer, activist, and about 27 other things. He recently reviewed a new book on street art from San Francisco and shared it with us.
In Josh’s writing you can always get a sense for the historical underpinnings of the street art and public art movement that arose apart from the graffiti scene, as well as the deep connections between social justice, education, and the mural as message. Rather than being a derisive self-satisfied critic, one can appreciate Josh’s opinion because he takes the time to educate himself, consequently educating us in the process.
Josh’s review of
Street Art San Francisco
I gotta say, at the first crack of the spine of this book I was immediately nostalgic for San Francisco, strangely enough a city I’ve never even lived in! There was something extremely powerful about the streets of SF between 1997-2004, even for a visitor and outsider like me. Coming to the city, and the Mission District in particular, was like walking into a giant, explosive, exciting car crash of ideas, experiences, ideologies and people. The walls literally dripped with the shrapnel, covered with the remnants of 1970s & 80s murals, anti-gentrification screenprinted posters, art student graffiti, Latino gang markings, weirdo street artists, anarchist slogans, and billboards triumphantly announcing the dot-com and real estate booms. And for the most part this book does a great job of capturing that energy and feeling, carrying us through the blur.
Although Street Art SF is broken into sections, they are fairly hard to distinguish, which in many ways is a good thing, allowing the reader to flow from one style to another, fade between histories, jump between artists, just like a pedestrian on Valencia, Bryant or Mission streets would. Don’t let the title fool you, this isn’t just another edition pulled of the seemingly endless conveyor belt of dull “Street Art” book cash-ins. Likely a smart marketing move to put street art first in the title, this is really a mural book that understands and values the contributions that street art and graffiti have added to the brew of public expression.
From an outsider’s perspective the book is quite exhaustive, from the origins of the SF mural scene in Diego Rivera’s 1930s/40s trips to the Bay Area to the Billboard Liberation Front and everything in between. So many of the diverse artists that have added to the walls of SF are in here that it makes the head spin (including Rivera, Robert Crumb, Spain Rodriguez, Juana Alicia, Susan Kelk Cervantes, TWIST/Barry McGee, Margaret Kilgallen, Susan Greene, Ester Hernandez, Michael Roman, ESPO, Mona Caron, Scott Williams, SF Print Collective, Chris Ware, Rigo, Swoon, Cuba, Andrew Schoultz, Ray Patlan, Aaron Noble, Ivy Jeanne, Heart 101, Aaron Noble, and hundreds of others). By carrying us back and forth through all these artists and history, the book helps express the larger birds eye view of the Mission scene, something that is different and more than just a sum of its parts. But don’t worry, most of those parts are here, too, and many of them not just captured in images, but also in the words and ideas of the artists. The pictures tell a million stories, but thankfully we’re given some written history and stories too. Each page answers questions I’ve always had, including the origin of the thumb-sucking Wolverine painting in Clarion Alley, how the Balmy Alley murals came to be, and the names and pieces of stories of dozens of artists whose work I’ve admired on the street for years but I knew little or nothing about.
Although I first started visiting SF in the mid-90s, it wasn’t until 2001-2003 that I started spending significant time in the city, or adding to the messages on the walls (full disclosure: one of the quick and dirty murals I designed with friends is featured in the book).