Stencils in the Shadows: Two Artists on a Mission
The house on San Jose Avenue was perfect. There was plenty of sidewalk out front, and enough light to see clearly from the streetlamps overhead. With a couple of quick glances up and down the block, the pair set to work. They laid their handmade outlines down on the sidewalk, adjusted them to assure proper alignment, and then pulled out a spray can. The stencils were painted with a few quick hisses, and everything was packed back up in less than a minute.
Three messages now looked up from the sidewalk. "Tu Casa es Mi Casa," "The New Mission: Haute yet Edgy!" and "Tenants Here Forced Out."
The house wasn't chosen because of its ample sidewalks, but because of the occupants. It was the home of René Yañez, a Mission district artist known for his work at Galería de la Raza, and for bringing the famed Dia de los Muertos celebration to San Francisco. Yañez is currently facing an Ellis Act eviction.
It's places like this, pivotal scenes in the city's ongoing culture wars, where "Stripe" and "Estrillata Jones" leave their stencil art.
Neither artist would give their real name for this article, but they are both long-time San Francisco residents, with deep cultural and activist ties to the Mission. Jones is a professional working artist who builds large-scale art projects and paints murals. Stripe is an author and environmental activist with a dayjob. Both decry the legions of tech workers, expensive restaurants and commuter shuttles that have come to San Francisco in recent years.
"You go down Market Street and it's just condo, condo, condo. Meanwhile, I have friends getting evicted all over the place," said Stripe, who admitted that a little bit of anti-gentrification graffiti probably won't change much. "This is just a token symbol of my dissatisfaction and grumpiness."
Jones and Stripe meet once every month or three, and take what they call "a walk." They paint a few stencils, share a few laughs and reminisce about old times in the Mission. Some of the designs they paint are originals, and others are passed down or borrowed from other artists.
Their most recent walk began on Florida, near Mariposa. It didn't take long to find a worthy target. Jones wanted to leave a stencil at the relatively-new Heath ceramics store around the corner.
"They sell expensive ceramics and expensive coffee," she said. "I kind of hate it."
From Heath, the pair traveled south, zigzagging through the Mission streets toward the Yañez home, pausing to dispense stencils and verbal insults along the way. They groaned passing by a gourmet chocolate store, rolled their eyes at the proliferation of new cafes and mocked Salumeria on 20th Street as "another little frou-frou place."
Atlas Cafe, however, was deemed acceptable because it's been in the neighborhood since 1996.
"I should make a positive stencil and spray paint it at the survivors like Atlas," Stripe said, while passing by.
Vanguard Properties drew particular scorn.
"These are the ones who have sold out the Mission," Jones said.
It was an ideal target for a stencil, but deemed too dangerous. The building has several cameras and a row of bright, white lights attached to the front and sides. Jones and Stripe are opinionated, but they're also very careful. During a daytime dry run for a stencil walk in the Upper Market/Hayes Valley neighborhood, Stripe could spot security cameras in the most unlikely places, and could easily tell the difference between cameras and motion sensors.
But the most telling visual of the evening didn't involve sneaking around with a spray can.
At the site of the former New Mission Theater, a crane hung in the air behind the demolished building. There was a bright, glowing Build Group logo attached to the crane, and it casted a pale light into the empty crater below. Stripe and Jones paused to take in the scene, with the implications of 114 condos and a brand new 900-seat theater hanging in the air.
"This used to be the 99-Cent store where I would come and buy things," Jones said. "Crazy."
From there, it wasn't long until the walk culminated with the spraying of stencils at the Yañez home. But on the way back, Jones and Stripe decided to stop by somewhere they had passed earlier. There was a unit for sale on San Jose Avenue, just a couple of blocks to the north. It was a three bedroom condominium with an asking price of $949,000.
A flyer posted out front advertised "abundant Victorian charms, refinished softwood floors," and the fact that residents could, "Walk to tech shuttles for easy commuting!"
Jones held the flyer up for Stripe.
"Did you see this?" she asked. "Walk to tech shuttles for easy commuting. Oh my god."