If You Want Me Again Look for Me Under Your Boot-Soles: Photographs of San Francisco Sidewalk Art*

Christopher Bernard

     Will you speak before I am gone? will you prove already too late?
      I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love,
      If you want me again look for me under your boot-soles.
                             —Walt Whitman, “Song of Myself”

They are drawings, paintings, writing, stencils – lots of stencils; often surreal, sometimes philosophical (“Only Impermanence Lasts”), sometimes political, some of it curiously moving.

They are representational, abstract, caricatures, pictures of hammers, shipwrecks, cyclopses, airplanes, sexy ladies, nervy gents. They are eyes, fists, lips, harsh angles, beauteous curves.

They are words—lyrical, desperate, blunt, obscure, mocking, pleading, condemning.

Yet all of them have a playful touch, typical of the local artists’ pleasure in whimsy and “populist modernism,” and possibly inevitable given the materials: semi-permanent concrete, ephemeral ink and paint, and the weather that washes the marks away.

For months I had been enjoying them on my walks in downtown San Francisco, which I had seen especially flourishing since the early 2000’s, when one day my neighbor Lisa said how moved she’d been by something she found written—stenciled—on a sidewalk near where she worked at the time.

My partner had just given me a new digital camera for Christmas, and I was looking for a photography project, so, on the spur of the moment, I asked Lisa what she thought of an amateur like me taking a photo series of sidewalk art. She responded with enthusiasm.

So I packed my trusty Pentax and off I went.

I found a cornucopia in the Tenderloin, Mission, Haight—neighborhoods of the young, the struggling, the artistic. (This was the decade between the dot.com and social media booms, a long hard valley for the young in this city.)

I came to recognize typical styles, subjects, series—the floating heads, the phantom birds, the little peaked houses, the elusive Giocondas; in other cases, the piece was a one-off, the meeting of a moment, an inspiration and a magic marker in a gash, a sign and a smudge.

I was intrigued by both the simplicity and sophistication of this art that so many miss even as they hurry past it, over it, and that no one can possibly make a dime from, except possibly the street cleaners. It is entirely for free—you just have to keep your eyes open—in this most curiously generous of cities.

That was six or seven years ago. In recent years, on the streets I know well, the amount of sidewalk art has considerably diminished—and in one case, it even became that corrupt and corrupting thing, commercial—and I have even at times had to make do with your straight-forward “hands in cement” street mark, though placed in ways that seemed suggestive. The sidewalks sometimes seem too bare.

But every so often I’ll discover a fresh painting by “Eclair Barracuda,” one of our local classics of the genre, whose sveltely outré figures from The City’s nightlife give the most harried San Franciscans a good reason to pay attention to what is lying just beneath their feet.

*The figures (only a very small selection of which appear here) are either unsigned or signed in ways I cannot decipher. If the reader knows the names of one or more of the artists, please let us know and we’ll add it to the image.

Christopher  Bernard is co-editor of Caveat Lector. He is also the author of several books, including the novel A Spy in the Ruins. He is a regular contributor to Synchronized Chaos Magazine and writes the poetry blog “The Bog of St. Philinte.”