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“Banksy” blankets San Francisco with a buzz

By Tim Jue May 1, 2010 No Comments Print Share

San Francisco art lovers have spent the past week in something of a treasure hunt. A covert British graffiti artist, world renowned for spray-painting stenciled images that frequently come with a political or social message, has been leaving his mark at six locations in the city.

According to art lovers and graffiti aficionados who follow his work, it’s the first time “Banksy” has ever paid San Francisco a visit.

Locals and non-locals stop by and pose next to Banksy's graffiti in San Francisco's Chinatown.

No one really knows much about who Banksy is. His graffiti randomly appears overnight. He’s tagged the sides of buildings in dozens of cities worldwide — from his native London to Los Angeles and most recently, in San Francisco.

He’s clandestine about how he puts his work up — working under the cover of darkness, away from security cameras and busy streets. But his work has caught the attention of Hollywood entertainers who have paid tens of thousands of dollars for his stencils.

The rat staring off into space was left in the Haight-Ashbury by British graffiti artist Banksy.

In San Francisco, the artwork began appearing April 22 at a half-dozen spots. The news of his arrival and his first public display was written about on a local contemporary art blog, Warholian.com. It had the first photo of Banksy’s interpretation of a doctor stenciled on the side of a building at Grant Ave. and Commercial Street in Chinatown.

Word that the artist had paid the city a visit spread quickly, along with more sightings of his artwork throughout random nooks-and-crannies of alleyways, rooftops and the exteriors of buildings in San Francisco.

In the Mission District, he left three street displays of his work.

At Valencia and 20th Sts., he drew a young boy on a rooftop wall overlooking the Amnesia Bar. Bartenders have since been seeing a dozen spectators an hour taking photographs and gawking at the gigantic graffiti display above their business.

Banksy chose the canvas above the Amnesia Bar in the Mission District to leave this piece.

Around the corner at Mission and Sycamore Sts., Banksy stenciled in a Native American Indian appearing to crouch on the sidewalk while holding up a “No Trespassing” sign.

Up the street, the artist used the huge canvas of a building wall by a parking lot to draw the outline of a tree and perch a bird on one of the branches.

The No Trespassing Indian figure is found along an alleyway in the Mission District.

Locals and tourists alike have been scurrying around town as they would the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, visiting the three Mission District locations along with other spots Banksy targeted in the Haight, Chinatown and South of Market, just to witness what the buzz has been about.

At 9th and Howard Sts. in SOMA, he left a rendition of a rat staring off into space.

Other graffiti artists, recognizing that people were running around San Francisco and actually paying attention to Banksy’s work, have tried to leave their mark around the famed graffiti artist’s masterpiece.

At the Chinatown location, building owners put up a piece of plastic over the stenciled doctor to protect it against other graffiti artists looking to deface Banksy’s message. A bilingual sign in Chinese and English posted next to the work asks people to respect the graffiti: look, don’t ruin.

A building wall overlooking an empty parking lot at Erie and Mission Sts. forms a clean canvas for Banksy.

No one has touched the other rat he drew on top of Villians Vault at Haight and Belvedere Sts. in the Haight-Ashbury. Perhaps it’ll survive longer without encroachment from other artists, since it’s perched higher above ground than say, the crouching Indian in the Mission District.

What strikes San Franciscans is how differently this graffiti is treated than the run-of-the-mill squiggles commonly found at the rear of a MUNI bus or the gigantic displays of bright neon colors sprayed onto box vans and moving trucks throughout town.

People are stopping at Banksy’s works. They’re pointing at them, taking photos, and offering their interpretation of what the artist was attempting to achieve when he made the work. People stay, scratching their chins and tilting their heads at the spray-painted figures.

Other graffiti artists are hoping to use Banksy's displays to garner attention for their own creations.

Building owners who would normally be scrubbing the paint off with industrial strength solvent are taking steps to preserve the graffiti. Ironically, they’re taking steps to make sure other graffiti artists don’t deface Banksy’s graffiti.

As with many things, not all graffiti, as annoying and destructive it can be, is created equal. Especially not when Banksy leaves his calling card in your town.

E-mail Tim Jue at tjue@californiabeat.org.

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