A Mural of Resistance


cayley - Posted on 04 October 2010

Author: 
Laure McElroy

A ReVieWfoRtHErEVoLution  on POOR Magazine's new mural in San Francisco.

I took the bus down to the once down-parts, the they-used-to-be low-down parts; the dog town, formerly dirty down, formerly affordable rent parts of Mission. I climbed over the SROs, which have been almost pulverized beneath the tide of condo-lofts, lofty-condos, condo-TICs, ricky-ticky lofty boxes. I squeezed past the mocha-latte sucking poetry mafia in their faux-thriftstore chairs, in the wasteland of the Valencia cafes. I passed all the places that I used to know and was beginning to not know anymore, searched until I found POOR's powerful new mural filled with images and text of resistance, struggle and revolution on Clarion Alley. The first thing that returned to memory as I beheld it was my experience at the California State Summer School for the Arts (CSSSA). I was part of the writer's program; it was the only formal art training I had ever received. I can still vividly remember the way the writers were treated amid the other "real artists" of the school.

Dance was big, with the whip thin, tight-bodied ballerinas and big-bootied, dreadlocked afro-cuban students strutting around like they owned the place. And if any class of artist ruled there it was the visual artists, by sheer numbers, but also because when people thought "artist" what came to mind was always a pencil mustachioed painter with a flat frenchy hat, or a beatnik with a sketchbook, or some other flavor of visual art maker.

The writers were like poor relations; when people asked me why I was there and I said, "I'm a writer," blankness invariably settled over faces like steely curtains. The kinder ones furrowed their brows and exclaimed, "Oh! Is there a writing workshop here?" The less kind replied, "Huh. Writing isn't art, though, so why are you at an art school?"

CSSSA was also the place where I found counterculture. Talent and style were represented abundantly and at the time I was utterly taken with the newness of the scene in which I found myself, the ART scene. There were hippie kids, rastas, punks, gothics, metalheads, skaters, skins, surfers, emos, and even some hip-hoppers. At the time I thought it was the height of diversity, regardless of the fact that whatever the sub cultural flavor, the majority of the kids were white.

When I came home, it wasn't long before I threw away my Swatch watch and started constructing what I thought of as my personal statement out of found, bought and cast-off clothes and made jewelry. I still think of CSSSA with great nostalgia because it was the place where I first began to question the mainstream values instilled in me as a child. Needless to say, that questioning began the way it does for so many disaffected white suburban kids (although I was neither white nor suburban)...it began with aesthetics.

Luckily I never internalized the idea that writers aren't artists. I grew up writing, and now that I write with POOR I get to combine my art, my writing and my tremendous dissatisfaction with the way things are in this society in which we live. I have interviewed the D.A; I have done articles slamming the SF Department of Human Services, hellthcare, and SROs. I am comfortable with my writing life, and I am accustomed to, if not accepting of, being enraged by the way social injustice plays out in the mainstream and in the media.

I have shed my black eyeliner and goth velvet for jump drives and a laptop. But this is not to say that I do not occasionally miss the satisfaction of crafting a "look" and being completely certain that it stands as my manifesto. I could never go back to that brand of shallowness, but I couldn't help remembering the relative simplicity of it as I thought about the POOR Magazine mural project in Clarion Alley.

Clarion Alley is famous in the semi-obscure way local art projects can become when they get tied to activism in just the right way. The Clarion Alley Mural Project seems to have begun as a way for native, indigenous, and default-gentrifier artists who lived in the Mission in the late 20th century to simultaneously mourn, mark and resist the homogenizing effects of the full-scale gentrification that kicked into play in the Mission at that time.

Until the subject of the mural came up at POOR, I had no idea that the alley was famous for anything but the cool parties that "organizers" have been throwing since 2002. I have always assumed that an anti-gentrification stance is by definition pro-neighborhood if you're talking about neighborhoods being gentrified, but the first Clarion Alley party I ever attended looked nothing like the neighborhood that hosted it.

I remember walking alone into a bunch of mostly white hipster kids. I remember hanging at the party for two hours, drinking exactly 4 beers, and never being spoken to or approached, barely even looked at by anyone. Hardly the Mission I knew outside of the alley. Everyone seemed so...cliquish.

It was neo-hipster artsy default gentrifiers at their finest; everyone dressed in such very similar ways that it had me wondering if we were violating any gang-injunction regulations by gathering...Old sneakers, boots, tattoos and thrift store finery; it was art-school lite all over again.

I felt at that party just as Tiny, our executive director and poverty scholar in residence at POOR, and her mama Dee felt for years living as poor artists in the Bay Area.

"As poor artists who attempted to gain access to 'the art scene' in San Francisco but who could not afford to pay tuition at SF State, let alone at one of the private art schools here in the Bay Area, my mom and I always felt like outsiders on Clarion Alley," said Tiny. However, she sees the POOR Magazine mural as penetrating the privilege divide that was only made possible by the access of local artist, Caitlin Seana.

"It was interesting to have Caitlin, the artist who got us into the alley and who in many ways represents the often-exclusive art world, show so much empathy and understanding about why it was not only important, but crucial, to have POOR in the alley, a space that, though hyped mostly by children of middle class privilege, still positions itself as at the heart of resistance to the gentrification of a traditionally working class/poor neighborhood...and because she, as a member of that privileged art school world, is the conduit, the mural would not have happened without her," said Tiny.

Mural space on Clarion is extremely hard to come by, due to the popularity of the venue; Caitlin was given space because she helps organize the mural-painting part of the Clarion Alley event.

"I wanted to make [my mural space] something bigger than just a personal statement," said Caitlin, who describes her murals as message boards and not just beautification. "I wanted to bring POOR Magazine to the wall to show people that there are roots in this city of dope people doing amazing things to affect change in original ways…offering a mural was my way of supporting POOR and honoring the work that you all do," said Caitlin.

A slender, beautiful twenty-five year old who majored in conceptual art at SF State and graduated in 2001, Caitlin is privileged in that she has had an encouraging, loving family and access to a better than average education and a reasonable amount of material stability. She is aware of how POOR has been heavily influenced by both "high" and "popular" art theory and practice through co-founders Tiny and Dee, who began their revolutionary art careers staging performance pieces after auditing art classes at State because they could not afford tuition.

"I'd been hearing dee and tiny speak on the radio throughout the past few years and I always appreciated their style of journalism and their relevance to issues San Francisco citizens face. I like the way that they would be serious and upbeat, expressing complex ideas in a straightforward manner, and maintaining a certain sense of artistry throughout it all. I admire the theatre and outreach work that they do," said Caitlin.

The entirety of Clarion is located between Mission and Valencia, with 17th and 18th streets running parallel on either side. If one looks to the west while standing on the alley, one can see the Mission precinct cop shop squatting like a smooth, watchful concrete and tile gargoyle on the other side of Valencia. Our mural site rests in the body of the Community Thrift building, one of the district's most venerable old nonprofit thrift stores.

Oddly enough, directly facing the mural is a wonderful example of the kind of pseudo-"loft" condominium development that has spread like a bauhaus cancer throughout the Mission since the late 1990's, displacing thousands of working class and poor individuals and families from their homes, and even lower middle class default – colonizer artsy white kids, as they are built.

This placement is addressed in the mural, of course; in the middle left side there are dirty yellow bulldozers demolishing houses with magically real, frightened looking faces. One of these houses is occupied by a family; rather than having a face, two small figures, obviously children, stand in the arms of a longhaired silhouette on the upper floor, and another figure stands at the window on the ground floor. The word "eviction" is drawn in block letters across the front door. The grim action of the bulldozers takes place in the shadow of ticky-tacky high-rise boxes that have the exact same degenerate-Santa Fe color-scheme of the life-size condo-box "loft" development that glowers at the mural from across the alley. On the bottom-left is a developer in a dirt-colored suit holding a deed that says "condos for money."

The figures that dominate the mural are two of POOR's key mythic heroic characters, Superbabymama and El Mosquito. Superbabymama is our saint of the spoken truth; with her mic in hand she guards the way to the right. El Mosquito is our vengeful angel, wings thrown back in a ready posture; his left hand crushes a Lennar truck as it wreaks havoc on the wrecking ball and the bulldozers that are poised to take out the cluster of frightened houses, and his right hand holds a skull as it beckons to the observer. In keeping with POOR's practice of honoring the everyday poverty hero/heroine, these two ferocious sentinels are gatekeepers to the road that takes la gente out of the hells of oppressive anti- poverty laws, cruel urban profiteering and murderous gentrification.

The road is depicted in a vibrant orange, lined with people because POOR believes that it is the people, our community, that will ultimately give us the strength and support to free ourselves. The orange road cuts straight through the center of the mural, sewn with words and leading the eye out of the chaos of words and struggle imagery into cool green hills and sky-blue sky that seems to bleed off the high side of the building and into the actual air of the day.

On the top left side of the road is "the house that POOR built," a rainbow-hued compound of strong, warehouse-type buildings that represent all the programs and projects that POOR offers. On the top right is a San Francisco cityscape. On either side of the orange road, where it tapers off into the dream hills, there are crowds of people welcoming travelers coming to them off of the way. And above it all, the twin banners of POOR Magazine and Homefulness seem to ripple and shelter the magical scenes under blood-red wings.

Our mural is not neat or pretty or polished. Our images are not idealized; they are obviously a reflection of our ongoing struggles with The Way Things Are as far as human rights like housing being sacrificed to a wider margin of profit, in San Francisco and everywhere. Other murals on Clarion use text, but our text is crawling, swarming, kinetic, like a barrage of ideas that may not be comfortable but are ignored at the peril of the thinking person.

Addressing poverty, racism, disability and gentrification through art and writing is something we've always done at POOR as a form of education and resistance. Our mural continues this tradition as it was created by the community members that are themselves dealing with gentrification, eviction and displacement, which in and of itself is an act of resistance.

Caitlin herself feels art and activism can change the course of action, as she says, "Gentrification can be resisted with radical art and organized movements, whether we do punk parades, outdoor teach-ins or benefits to pay for eviction trials."

In my opinion, radical art is only as radical as the message that gets through, and for me, attending that summer art program and willfully taking control of my personal aesthetic was my first step toward a rebellion, a dissatisfaction, which would eventually help shape my entire outlook, including my political stance.

But effective activism cannot be rooted in, say, colored hair and ripped clothes alone; a picture is seldom worth a thousand words, and a benefit to pay for an eviction trial must not stop at just one show, one reading, or one art sale to stop the only the warehouse-gallery where all the artkids go to look at each others' latest from being converted into a TIC.

In a 2002 SF Bay Guardian article, Glen Hefland generated a new term to describe the mostly art school trained, mostly privileged white-dominated art scene of the Mission: he called it, "the Mission school." To me this "school" represents colonization and thievery of land and housing.

The POOR Magazine mural is at once, a piece of multi-layered public art that resides in the eye of the needle of the undeclared war of gentrification on poor people and peoples of color in the mission and as well, lives in a place that we kicked out poor folks can't. And, by its residence there, it is not a cutesy, palatable, snack of culture and real-ness, like a tour to the Natural History Museum or the zoo, but rather, a powerful form of resistance and an offensive attack on the rampant gentrification and displacement of that neighborhood through a very public form of art.


 

PNN RADIO

Sign-up for POOR email!