Cuando regresemos a nuestra antigua tierra
Que nunca conocimos
Y platiquemos de todas esas cosas
Que nunca han sucedido
Caminaremos llevando de la mano ninos
Que nunca han existido
Escucharemos sus voces y viviremos
Esa vida de la que tanto hablamos
Y nunca hemos vivido
When we return to our ancient land
Which we never knew
And talk about all those things
That have never happened
We will walk holding the hands of children
Who have never existed
We will listen to their voices and we will live
That life which we have spoken of so often
And have never lived
— Daisy Zamora
Zamora’s poem was chosen for Clarion Alley by Afonso Texidor in ’92 or ’93 as we began the project. It consists of four utopian assertions, each one qualified –nearly negated– by the harrow of this world. These assertions claim the importance of Place, History, Nurturance and Listening, the last of which is most closely associated with an ideal life. Could this sorrowful brief poem be any more opposed to the way things are going in the world today?
We were amateurs. Rigo was the only muralist of the six of us. Michael made furniture around the corner on Valencia and was an organizer in the hip-hop community. Aracely had just started an arts magazine, Revista Parallax, free and bilingual. Sebastiana was a painter and a single mother, and was getting a teaching credential. Mary Gail worked in housing development and had a masters degree in city planning from UC Berkeley. And I had been involved with another artzine called Bloatstick and was tentatively identified as a performance artist.
Some things I remember and some I don’t. Some things I remember but others remember them differently. And some stories have changed in the telling, so….
I was at one of the beginnings. Rigo and I had adjoining studio spaces at 47 Clarion at the beginning of the nineties. He was from Madeira, and I was from the Oregon coast. We had fishing boats and Marvel comics in common I guess, as well as strong ties to an alternative art space called Artists Television Access. It seemed pretty obvious that we should paint a big mural on the front of our house. There was already an ecstatic pig that Lise Swenson painted when she lived there, and an eye of Horus on the 17th street side, and lots of other relics of art parties and the neverending street parade. Talking about what we might paint on our building was so pleasurable that we started talking about painting on other buildings and soon we had talked the whole mural project into being, in our heads anyway. At one point Rigo had the idea to paint one entire side of the alley a uniform blue. I imagine he was probably thinking of a medium cobalt blue. From storefront to railroad flat to fence to cottage to garage to warehouse to backdoor—all blue. Do you see what a great idea this was? A huge swath of pure color, foregrounding the shapes, shadows and grains of the alley, like a gigantic Louise Nevelson sculpture. As it turned out though, the alley was calling for a more democratic approach.
One day in October of 1992, while we were thinking about these things, an intense dark haired guy knocked on my door, and said, “What would you think about having a mural painted on your house?” This was Michael O’Connor, a North Mission native who had independently had the same idea. For years I told the story as a magical coincidence, but recently Rigo told me a different version. He says Ray Patlan made the connection and sent Michael to us. And Michael doesn’t remember knocking but thinks I was coming out the door when he stopped me in the alley. At any rate, Rigo and I met with Michael and we agreed it might be good if the whole group wasn’t three white guys. The two of them must have had some ideas on that because the next time we met, in Michael’s shop, we were suddenly all there. I was introduced to Mary Gail Snyder, Aracely Soriano and Sebastiana Pastor, and work began for real. That’s how I remember it, but Tiana says Aracely joined us at the second meeting. There was also a seventh person involved, Michael’s sister Fiona, who documented the first years of the project in film, video, sound and still photography. She was hoping to make a film but could never raise the money.
Getting the project started involved a world of work, much of which has been forgotten even by the people who did it. Old file documents reveal that we opened a bank account and Rigo and Michael were signatories. Letters to funders and landlords are signed by MaryGail. Michael and Aracely went to City Hall to research building ownership and canvassed support from local businesses. Tiana thinks it was me who went door to door with her to get the neighbors on board. Amazingly, we organized three benefit events and created a gallery installation at the San Francisco Art Institute in the first year of the project. There are receipts for cleaning supplies and office supplies and photo supplies and hardware and paint. The total cost of painting Daisy Zamora’s poem on the alley (the first time) was seven dollars forty-eight cents, but I can’t remember the name of the guy who did the work and neither can Afonso.
Michael said this neighborhood must be the most diverse place in the universe, and we were all in accord that the project would seek to represent as many kinds of people as we could find, that most of them should come from the neighborhood, and that the artists we chose would be free to paint whatever they liked. I don’t remember an emphasis in those days on encouraging new approaches to muralism, but Tiana thinks we did talk about that. It could have gone without saying, since Rigo was already pursuing a radical approach in his own work, and Michael had connections with important spraycan artists, and we were aware of some students at SFAI who were doing illicit graffiti-influenced public art pieces around town. In any case, after Julie Murray painted a giant photorealist escalator on Bing & Ivy Chang’s garage door in the first summer of painting, it became clear to me that Clarion was going to be a laboratory for the future of muralism. The extent to which I myself was about to be schooled and shaped by Clarion Alley was not, however, clear at all.
I think everyone in the founding group would agree: Clarion Alley exists because Balmy Alley existed. Balmy was the archetype we all had in our heads: a magical urban spot where the ideas inside the houses were manifested on the outside, pictures talking to pictures, a model of an image culture totally different from the one we actually inhabit.
In the first years of the project we asked elder muralists in the Mission to participate in each round of mural production. Rigo was central in this. He was already building a name as a muralist and establishing personal relationships in the mural world. He asked them and none of them said no. They came and painted for nothing, granting us an obligation to the future.
It sounds a bit corny to tell it: respecting the elders, passing the torch, and all that. The results were profound however. Something solid was laid in at the base, and the project has survived many crises and departures. In our first summer of painting, 1993, Chuy Campusano painted what turned out to be his last mural. An old grant application lists the title as Raza, but maybe we just made that up. It is a dynamic, stylized mural, and one of three black and white murals painted on Clarion in that first year (Julie Murray and Barry McGee did the others), which was a striking statistic in the rainbow world of Mission murals. Chuy’s fence fell down recently and as I write plans are being made for its restoration. In the fall came Ray Patlan & Eduardo Pineda to paint a mural called A Hard God is Good To Find from a twenty-year old design. It was the first design Ray made when he moved to the Mission from Chicago, but it was never painted due to controversy about its depiction of the Virgen de Guadalupe (she was lying on her side, although Ray says it wasn’t necessarily her anyway). Later this design was remade by a group of younger muralists. It is definitely the virgen now. The following year Susan Cervantes came with a big crew from Precita Eyes to paint a mural called Fear and Hope, which directly addressed the drug problems on the alley and included portraits of local children. All of these muralists are models of commitment to a community based art practice, and taught us more than we knew at the time, and mostly without telling us anything in particular.
The Vatos Mexicanos Locos were a little kid gang that claimed Clarion Alley. The core members in the early days, as I remember, were Miguel, Joe and Orlando, and Orlando’s little sister Maribelle and baby brother Kiki. The main members lived on the alley, Orlando’s family in one house and Joe living with his uncle two houses down. Various other kids came and went as well. I‘d guess Joe and Orlando were about eight or nine when the mural project started. They would hang out on the alley doing little pencil and marker cholo tags that said SUR 18th St VML and their nicknames like Diablo and Joker and Li’l Diablo and Gremlin. I could never keep straight who was who, and they deliberately called each other the wrong names when I was around. The mural project was a big source of entertainment for them, which they never did thank us for, and they became an overwhelming source of aggravation, joy and heartache for me.
They were tagging on our murals and when we called them on it they pointed out that we were painting murals on their alley, which was true. The obvious move was to enlist them in the project. The one mural I had ever painted was a project with kids in the Czech Republic: sweet, naïve ex-communist kids. Somehow it became part of my destiny to work with these rude street vatos in a long series of unfinished projects marked by never-ending feuds, negotiations, theft, vandalism, blackmail, non-stop ethnic and sexual slurs, and periods of truce shattered by fresh outbreaks of war.
I started hanging out with them on the alley on an informal basis, sketching and shooting the shit. They explained to me why they exalted blue and denigrated red, why the letter “N” was X-ed out whenever it occurred, why certain parts of the neighborhood were dangerous for them. They had a keen sense of style and never failed to tell me if I looked or sounded gay, which was often. They agreed in principle to let me help them paint a mural, after a long debate around the question of whether it might turn out gay. Against this risk were several pluses: I might help them get spraycans and/or markers; they would get to jerk my chain more, they could put up a more impressive territorial marker. Maybe adult attention held some value for them as well. It seemed as if their parents and guardians didn’t care what they did (in years of painting on the alley they never sought to meet me or ask me what I was doing with their kids). Work on the mural began and broke down right away. First they thought we could paint the whole mural in an afternoon. Knowing what I know now, I might try that. But as a novice I needed the support of a methodical process: measurements, design, wall preparation, background color, etc. My pace must have seemed like total inertia to them, and they settled in to entertain themselves as in a classroom. They were self conscious about their own drawings and constantly made fun of each others’. They never showed up at the prearranged times. Instead they would knock at my door when they felt like working. They sulked if I couldn’t work with them and when they saw me coming they pretended to be writing on the murals. When they didn’t see me coming they actually did write on the murals, so the threat was ever fresh. They had a fine sense of proportion, not fair, but fine. If relations were good, there would just be some penciled tags around the edges of the murals near their homes. If they were less satisfied with me, some marker tags might start appearing down the street, closer to my house.
For me, this was where the rubber hit the road. We had initiated a community based art project and been embraced lovingly by the community—the bohemian mural community. These gangsta kids however, part of the actual population of the alley, were quite indifferent to the multicultural ideals of the Mission mural movement, and had little respect for the work of elder muralists we were so grateful to learn from. Their aesthetic sensibility was shaped by video games, gang culture and hip hop, and they were ruthless in critique. A mural was either machin or it was not, and if it was not, then what possible reason could there be not to bomb it? Also red sections of any mural had to be bombed, as a matter of honor; and any mural on their own garage doors, regardless of content, had to be bombed (this was the fate of the original Ray Patlan/ Edouardo Pineda mural, and of the Precita Eyes mural and several that followed: drowned in a sea of tags).
Undercutting my position, I felt a personal sympathy with the kids’ pop culture aesthetics. Often enough I found myself defending murals I didn’t actually like, on grounds of principle that the locos did not recognize. In fact it was a piece of aesthetic common ground that finally enabled us to move forward with a mural project. It became known that I could draw superheroes and that was one solid thing about me. We agreed that when they finished their wall I would draw them a picture of Wolverine, from the X-men. I invited them into my house and we started drawing pictures.
Their design ideas often revolved around terrible violence directed at the hated Nortenos. They wanted to do an intricate battle scene in which each blue Sureno would be killing his red counterpart in a different way. Like Rigo’s half-blue alley, it is one of the amazing murals that never existed on Clarion Alley. I was cognizant that a murder picture drawn by children would be powerful in ways the artists themselves wouldn’t be aware of, but I also thought it would be insanely bad magic on every level. I had nightmares of an all out, blue vs. red gang grafitti war on the alley that would wipe out the whole mural project, or even lead to real bloodshed. I insisted they develop some other ideas.
The design phase ended when they stole some stuff from my house, markers, a set of padlocks, my roommate’s walkman. Nothing else that we could figure out. I refused to continue working with them until they returned our stuff. There were days of negotiation. The padlocks were gone, unrecoverable, where, they wouldn’t say. They sent little Kiki to leave the walkman on my step, ring the bell and run while they peeked out from behind a corner. This was about cute enough for me to forgive them, and we resumed work, but not in my house.
I used a projector to trace their drawings on the wall at giant scale. I worked at night, tracing each child’s line exactly as it was. In the morning when they came out and saw their drawings they were pissed off. They thought I had made up inferior drawings, they demanded to see the originals. They were chagrined when I showed them their own originals, exactly the same. I told them I thought the drawings quite good, which they took to be a lie so plain it wasn’t worth debating. So I told them they could fix them in the painting phase.
Painting lasted two or three weeks I think, maybe four. They revised the design almost every time we went out to work. Joe usually thought most of it was gay and a waste of time. Orlando was mercurial, but sometimes worked very intently. I constantly fell into the spiritual error of attachment, obstructing their efforts to change parts I liked. Some days more paint was spilled or thrown than got on the wall.
The mural they made was kind of good, and several other artists told them so. It did include one gang-related homicide, and a dope-crazed knife wielding fiend, and Beavis and Butthead, and other stuff. They decided to call it No Mas Drogas, which always mystified me, as they never seemed to be anti-drug, although they would taunt the crackheads down the alley. Maybe they put it in to mollify me. They got another artist working on the alley, Daniel Segoria, who was much cooler than me, to draw a pink baby holding a pot leaf, further complicating interpretation.
Only Beavis and Butthead were left to color in, when they suddenly picked a fight with me. I can’t remember the pretext, maybe I wouldn’t come out to paint when they wanted to or maybe I refused to give them a marker, but whatever it was, it blew up in minutes to a huge screaming match with threats of unlimited mural defacement. I closed the door on them and tried to calm myself. In the evening I went out on the alley, and in the lamplight saw the changes they had made. A few murals nearby were hit with sloppy tags, but it was their own mural that took the brunt. They had two cans of spray, a silver and a black, which they emptied onto their mural, much of it not even tags, just blotches, effacement and scribble.
The kids slipped out of their houses and gathered silently down the street as I was taking their work into my heart, which got bigger in that moment. They drew closer to me and when I was able, I acknowledged them with a little nod. I’m sure it must have been the trickster Orlando who said, “Hey, we finished our mural, can we have our picture of Wolverine?”
“We’ll see,” I said, or think I may have said. I wasn’t thinking of speaking much, because an image had appeared full blown in my head, as Orlando spoke its name, of the masked, feral, razor-clawed superhero curled up on the ground, sucking his thumb like an infant. So that’s what I painted on the outside of my house the next day, while the little vatos rode their bikes up and down Clarion Alley.
I didn’t know and no longer cared how the kids would react to this giant fuck you to their ethos of toughness. It could have been the end of the mural project, but for some reason it wasn’t. They weren’t even mad, just a little perplexed. I said something about people who hide themselves behind a mask, and they seemed to consider that. Finally they decided Wolverine must be sleeping.
Years went by, the kids got bigger, I did two more walls with them and neither of those got finished either, and I can’t even find the pictures of the big one. The alley filled up with murals. Miguel’s and then Orlando’s families moved away. The crew changed their name to the Frisco Kings and kept tagging. New kids joined that I didn’t know. I spent a lot of time removing tags with solvents from some murals, and repainting others. Some of them made really foul comments to my roommate Marisa. Sometimes I felt like getting some big friends and beating the crap out of them. I even called the cops on them a couple times. Our wall turned into a whole warehouse of depressed superheros. In the end, it was a relief to leave the alley. Looking back, it seems like the graffiti problem eased off around the time I left, as if my own presence was part of the equation.
The Mission school, the Mission district, and the true Mission school
Michael knew Barry McGee since high school and Rigo was at the San Francisco Art Institute with him. Barry was already near the top of the SF graf hierarchy for his commitment, originality and amazing can control. He was one of a group of artists attending SFAI at the time who were cross-pollinating graffiti with “high art” concepts, to the benefit of both. Their nighttime raids on the blank industrial surfaces of the city produced a surreal menagerie of soft screws and sad sacks (Barry), good-natured horses and mopey girls (Ruby Neri), giant melting dogs (Dave Arnn, working with house paint and brush), and a storm of fresh calligraphy from TWIST, KR, META, PROBE, REMINIESCE and multitudes that followed. At the same time another innovative spraycan artist, Brett Cook-Dizney, was doing giant portrait collaborations with Aaron Wade in which Brett painted half the face with a spraycan while Aaron painted the other half with a brush. From across the street you couldn’t tell the difference. This work demolished the idea that the spraycan was somehow an illegitimate painting tool, and nowadays only a few policemen still cling to that theory. A little bit later Chris Johanson’s bullshit-dissolving cartoon drawings started to appear on surfaces both architectural and ephemeral.
These illegal and rapidly executed artworks cut through the conventions of muralism with irresistible verve, dispensing with backgrounds, borders, permission, wall preparation, meetings and preliminary designs. I would argue though, that despite their condition as instant free expression, they were in their own way just as engaged with community and just as political, if less didactic, in their content. They were also radically responsive to the physical environment of the city, exploiting decayed surfaces as found background and picking up style from old handpainted signage. They employed simple, muted color schemes that fit into their faded industrial locations and threw up random fragments of text that emulated the fragmented information environment of the city. These public artworks were bereft of heroic revolutionaries but full of ordinary soul. They were beautiful litter blowing around the city.
CAMP recognized the value of this approach, and we’ve worked with most of the “mission school” artists over the years. That label was established by the critic Glen Helfand, who attempted to nail down the tendency in a Bay Guardian cover story in ____, which discussed a bunch of Mission artists who had achieved prominent shows in other cities. Later, Rennie Pritikin wrote a piece in a publication called Harvest which winnowed down the artist list to a more stylistically cohesive core: McGee, Margaret Kilgallen, Alicia McCarthy, Chris Johanson, and perhaps Amy Franchescini and Neri. Critics outside of SF have proposed other labels (the Disobedients, Urban Folk etc) for an international tendency connected with graf and skateboard culture which includes these artists. They could also be viewed as inextricably connected to all the other artists of the Mission, many of whom are less famous but just as talented.
In terms of describing a particular aesthetic moment and for the artists involved, “Mission school” is a term that makes a reasonable amount of sense. Unfortunately, it is also a depressing insult to the Mission district, which has produced school after school of art styles, many of them associated with communities of color, or with social struggles or commodity critiques that have gone unrecuperated by the art world elite: muralists of the seventies and eighties, punk collagists and stencil artists, outlaw billboard revisionists and posterers, the suicide club/ cacophony society and subsequent gangs of technofreek social sculptors, underground cartoonists like the group around Filth magazine in the nineties, radical utopian dancers around Contraband, the Mexico City punk aesthetic associated with Gallery Balazo, Altar makers and Day of the Dead performers at the Mission Cultural Center, Cyberlatino performance artists & digital muralists at Galleria de la Raza, the Dump school of postpunk noiserock bands like Caroliner and National Disgrace, the found footage film and video radicals associated with ATA since the eighties, total self determined art/music/fashion/plus lesbian culture, radical queer cabaret from the Cockettes to Klubstitute and beyond—these are top-of-my-head entries in an endless list.
The Clarion Alley Mural Project emanated from an artists loft at 47 Clarion Alley. The building was slated for demolition in 2001 and I published this article in the North Mission News March edition:
My house, sometimes called Clarion Hall, is getting evicted from its lot, and all of its people and history with it. It’s a warehouse with entrances on Clarion alley and 17th Street. It was built as an industrial laundry in 1907, after the 1906 earthquake fires evicted the one before it. I’ve heard that a lot of those fires were set by landlords to collect insurance and Federal relief funds. Anyway, the Mission Laundry Company steam cleaned the uniforms for the downtown hotels until the late 50’s when John Burman retired from the business and sold the building to Harry Loebensteen. The cleaning equipment was sold to a Laundry across the street at 3388 17th which operated until just a couple years ago when it coincidentally burned down just before it was to be demolished. This transferred the demolition costs from the developer to the taxpayers, and evicted some people in the adjacent apartments. Harry got an insurance payoff for heat damage to our building and never fixed the damage, so the fire was great for all the owners. There are some fake live/work lofts where the second laundry used to be.
Harry had lived around the corner in the 1940’s, in the Anglo Apartments at 2161 Mission. The neighborhood was a mix of recent European immigrants and had a lot of furniture stores and Italian restaurants, like the world famous Cigar Box at 18th and Mission. Original Joe worked there before he started his own place. By the early sixties the Latino and Bohemian populations that defined the neighborhood until the end of the 20th century had started moving in. In 1963 after a woodshop tenant went bankrupt, Harry rented the building to a theatrical company. When I asked him about this group he told me he hated to think about them and didn’t want to remember their name.
My research suggests that the space was rented by the Cockettes, a seminal queer drag troupe, the predecessors of the Angels of Light and godmothers of the whole tradition of radical queer cabaret from the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence to Klubstitute. If anyone can confirm their tenancy I’d like to hear from you. In any case Clarion Hall has been a center of cultural production ever since, with generation following generation. In 1988, when I moved in, there were still rumours extant about orgiastic productions in which the performers were hard to tell from the audience and the play was also a party.
Until 1968 the whole building was one big space. Steven Arnold lived here and made experimental films in it. Avant-garde screenings and musical performances were staged. Terry Riley performed here. In ’68 the building was divided into four live/work studios. Tim Barrett from the early new-wave band No Sisters lived here in the seventies. The muralist Mike Mosher lived in my space from ’81 to ’84. Jacob Holdt, the brilliant Danish photographer, stayed at Mike’s and put together his coruscating slide show on class inequality called American Pictures, which toured all over Europe and became a book that I discovered at ThriftTown shortly after I moved here. Local sculptor Charles Spaeth ran a rubber jewelry sweatshop called Webwear on the 17th street side which employed several important local artists including Marshall Weber, cofounder of Artist’s Television Access, and stencil artist Scott Williams. The M.E.T.A.L. mural-sculpture downtown which commemorates the 1934 General Strike was planned in Horace Washington’s space. Lise Swenson, early director of ATA and now founding director of TILT (Teaching Intermedia Literacy Tools) moved in here in 1986 and I joined her two years later, followed by an experimental filmmaker from Ireland, Julie Murray. This is just to name a few.
In the early ‘90’s the New Mission News cartoonist, Rigo, moved in, and we started talking about painting murals on Clarion Alley. When Michael O’Connor, whose family owns Harrington’s furniture on 17th and Valencia, independently had the same idea the Clarion Alley Mural Project took off. Naturally, Clarion Hall has been CAMP’s headquarters from the beginning. Without Clarion Hall there would probably never have been any murals or block parties on Clarion Alley.
In 1999 Harry Loebensteen died and the four leaseholding tenants of the space immediately got together to prepare for the inevitable eviction. The painter Rob Trains took the lead in getting us organized. Some years earlier he had successfully challenged an illegal rent increase, which helped to establish us as tenants under rent control. Horace Washington is a sculptor who has taught ceramics at Creativity Explored for a long time. Marc Heffels is an artist/technician who has worked with Survival Research Labs among others. I was a writer when I moved into Clarion Hall, now I’m a painter. Not on the lease, but also losing her space, is my subtenant, installation artist Marisa Hernandez.
Knowing the building would be sold, we took some actions to protect our rights like bringing complaints about diminished services before the rent board. We had suffered serious roof leaks, bad plumbing and various other inconveniences for years and we found out the liability for this can be passed on to the new owners when a property is sold. This gave us extra leverage in negotiations later. We got an attorney who represented all of us and split the fee. When the eviction notice came we didn’t even sweat it. Our attorney fired off a letter that blasted it to shreds. They knew that we knew that it was just the beginning of negotiations. Sad to say, if you want to get a fair shake you’ve got to be as aggressive as the developers are. We didn’t take their first offer or their second offer. It got scary when we were threatened with an Ellis Act eviction, but we held out, and got a pretty good deal in the end. I even made a side deal to paint a mural on the Clarion side of the new building. I’ll have to come up from L.A. to do it, that’s where I’m moving. It’s too much of a struggle to live here now, and I need to concentrate on my work. Everyone in the building is leaving the city for Oakland, LA, or New York.
Many, if not most, of the artists of Clarion Hall moved in here in their youth and took advantage of the cheap space to invent themselves as artists and figure out their role in the community. Its been a laboratory for ideas and artworks that have blossomed all over San Francisco and beyond. Nothing lasts forever, but I think it’s too bad for San Francisco that spaces like this aren’t available anymore.