Category Archives: San Francisco Art

North Beach

This area of the city is nestled near Chinatown and Fisherman’s Wharf, and has a long history as the Italian section of San Francisco. By the 1930’s, one tenth of the city’s population was Italian. It was home to Italian notables like the great chocolatier, Domingo Ghirardelli; and that baseball sensation, Joe Di Maggio. In fact, Joe renewed his wedding vows to the beautiful Marilyn Monroe on the steps located in front of the Church of Saints Peter and Paul. This is the one of the few churches, if the only church in America, with the street number 666. No kidding.

North Beach was settled in the late 1800’s and received its name because it was the Northern waterfront. Because of landfill and new construction, this characteristic of the area changed drastically over the past 100 years. San Francisco is always trying to find new ways to add livable space to this tip of the peninsula community.

The area thrived after the 1906 Earthquake and Fire. In fact, three and four-story Edwardian homes appeared magically all over the area in order to offer cheap housing near the bay. Many of these structures are still around today, and they definitely add to the charming appeal of the neighborhood.

Eventually it became home to the Beatnik culture, and places like Vesuvio, Specs, and other businesses which encouraged radical self-expression popped up all over the area. This is also the place where you will find City Lights Bookstore which boasts one of the largest collections of Beat literature and history.

Finally, the area also was, and is, a center for nightlife. Walking down the streets at twilight you can smell the Italian food from the restaurants, hear the music of live bands seeping out into the streets, and you can even check out a peep-show. Starting in 1964, people rushed to North Beach and caused traffic jams in order to see the topless dancer, Carol Doda, perform at the Condor Club. Shocking!

North Beach is a magical place, and best experienced in the early evening on into the night.




Source: San Francisco: A Cultural History, Mick Sinclair (This is an awesome book, and I highly recommend it.)


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“Cupid’s Span”

"Cupid's Span"

You are walking along the Embarcadero enjoying the views which include the Bay Bridge, Yerba Buena Island, Treasure Island, and far off Oakland; ships are docked in the bay, and a multitude of sail boats are racing all around.  Everything seems nice, laid back, and predictable until…you look up ahead and you see a giant, yes giant, bow and arrow sticking half way up out of the ground.  Surprise!  You have just found Cupid’s Arrow.  (You can check that off the scavenger hunt list.

Designed by the international artists Claus Oldenberg and Coosje Van Brugen’s, “Cupid’s Span” was erected in 2003  in the new Rincon Park on the corner of the Embarcadero & Folsom Street.  These same artists created “Spoonbridge and Cherry” in Minneapolis, and “Saw Sawing” in Japan.  They are worth a “google” to check out the images.

This sculpture consists of fiberglass and steel, and it rises 60 feet out of the ground and covers 140 feet of the 1,000 square foot park.

“These urban pieces are treated like something that’s hit the city,” Oldenburg told The S.F. Chronicle (12/23/2002).  “At first there’s the man-in-the-street opinion, but then there’s the more nuanced response. We don’t copy the objects we use, we try to transform them and we hope they go on transforming as you look at them. The idea of endless public dialogue — visual dialogue — is very important to us.”

Needless to say, their bow and arrow hit the mark as far as public dialogue.  As you walk by this brilliant piece of art, you will often hear tourists and residents talk about it and what it might mean.

As more and more people fall in love with this magical city, this modern-day Atlantis, it should come as no surprise that this is the place that Cupid chooses to keep his bow and arrow.



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The Ghoulish Statues of 580 California Street

The next time you are in the neighborhood of California and Kearny, look up.  You will see three ghoulish looking, grim reaper like statues appearing to stare out at this mythical city by the sea.  Were they put there like gargoyles to scare away evil spirits?  Are they a sign of human, and city mortality?

Unfortunately, the real answer is not romantic or whimsical.  These statues were created by Murial Castanis, and the formal title for these artistic statues is “Three Models for 580 California,” but they are more commonly known as the “Corporate Goddesses.”

There must be more story behind the creation of these statues, but at this point it has not been published, and the artist passed away a few years ago.  It does make you wonder what story future generations may attach to these medieval ladies.



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Views at the deYoung Museum

deyoung 5
deyoung 4
deyoung 7
deyoung 1

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"Language of the Birds"

Barbary Coast Trail 13

The next time you are in North Beach, check out the art piece displayed at Columbus and Broadway. It is entitled “Language of the Birds,” and is made up of 23 illuminated polycarbonate books hanging from electrical lines. On the sidewalk below the books rest many English, Italian, and Chinese words and phrases etched into the sidewalk. Standing underneath it, you get the feeling that the books have taken flight, and in the process lost some of their words and phrases which floated to the ground. At night the books are illuminated by power generated from solar panels housed on the roof of nearby City Lights Bookstore.

It was created by Brian Goggin and Dorka Keehn. Brian Goggins is also the artist who designed “Defenestration” at 6th and Howard.

“Language of the Birds” is the direct result of a city ordinance which puts aside 2 percent of capital improvement costs to fund Public Art Programs. Most of the money for this art piece came from private donations, but the city did kick in a generous amount to start the creative process. You have to love a city that recognizes the importance of art.



Barbary Coast Trail 12

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Socialism in the City

When you visit Coit Tower, spend some time looking at the murals surrounding the hallway inside the structure.  At first glance, you may just bypass them and concentrate on the views and getting into the elevator, but the murals themselves are an amazing attraction.  Created in 1933 as one of the first public works projects, the California School of Fine Arts faculty and staff worked hard to create paintings that would reflect life in California.  There are cowboys, 49ers, fruit pickers, industrial workers, etc.

During this time, Rockefeller Center removed Diego Rivera’s artwork because he had painted in an image of Lenin.  The artists who were working on Coit Tower protested and painted in several leftist images to show solidarity with Rivera.  These paintings created quite a stir, and one of the pictures entitled “Workers of the World Unite” was removed before the opening.

Today, you can still see the socialist influence in the murals that line the hallways of Coit Tower.  You can see it in the man who is pulling Karl Marx’s Das Kapital off a bookshelf, or the man who is portrayed reading a newspaper with the headline talking about Rivera’s artwork being removed from Rockefeller Center.  It is also in the painting of a man who is reaching for the Daily Worker from a newsstand, and in the scene of a poor family panning for gold as a rich family looks on.  In addition, closely check out the industrial paintings, especially the one showing a sea of diverse workmen joining together.

It is definitely worth going to Coit Tower for the phenomenal views, but also take some time to really study the murals.  You won’t be disappointed.



Coit Tower Murals, May, 2011 5

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San Francisco: Street Smarts

S.F. "Street Smarts" 4.10.11 A
S.F. "Street Smarts"  4.10.11 B

Street Smarts set up shop in Golden Gate Park today to show off their talent on temporary walls.  It is a program that was created through a collaboration between the San Francisco Arts Commission and the Department of Public Works.  According to their flier, they “connect established urban artists with private property owners to create vibrant murals, making the property less likely to be vandalized.”  This is so San Francisco. 



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Street Graffiti? Art? Political Statement?

 Street Graffite, S.F. b&w

This photo was taken in an alley off of Van Ness Avenue near Russian Hill.  What was the artist trying to get across by writing this on the wall?  Was it gang related or just an attempt to say something about society?  Is it art?

One interpretation of this is that separation equals death.  Is it that simple?  Maybe it refers to three degrees of separation leading to death.  Maybe the three words represent a severed relationship with an individual’s family, friendship, and relationship which can lead to a spiritual, if not physical, death. 

The focus is definitely death because of the placement of the word and how it is the only one capitalized, but what is the purpose of the three “separations?”  Is it significant that the first one is misspelled and different than the other two?  What about the other words (ago, it) that are spelled out in the grid?

Anything that raises this many questions must be a work of art.  Anything that makes an individual stare at it for any amount of time and ponder what it means must be art.  Therefore, this is an example, and maybe even a clever example, of San Francisco street art.



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Friday Art: Atlas

S.F. City Hall, February 2011 JIf you walk by the front of city hall in San Francisco, you can’t help but notice the four images of Atlas surrounding the entrance and holding up the pillars above.  Atlas, as the legend tells, was a Titan who waged war against the Olympians, primarily Zues.  When the Titans lost the war, Zues punished Atlas by making him stand on Gaia (earth) and hold up Uranus (sky) so that they could not embrace.  To this day, Atlas is still holding up the heavens.

San Francisco honors this Titan by placing him on the entrance to one of the most important political buildings in the city.  What type of statement does that make?

S.F. City Hall, February 2011 I

S.F. City Hall, February 2011 E

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Asian Art Museum, San Francisco

If you find yourself around city hall with some free time on your hands, consider stopping in at the Asian Art Museum and be transported to other regions and time periods.  This museum has one of the largest collections of Asian art in the Western world, and it spans a period of 6,000 years.  As you journey through the museum, you will find yourself surrounded by magnificent sculpture, delicate pottery, and vivid screens.  When you leave, it may take you a few moments to acclimate back to the United States.  Below you will find just a few of the pictures I took when I visited this great treasure of a museum.

Asian Art Museum, S.F., February 2011 2

Asian Art Museum, S.F., February 2011 12

Asian Art Museum, S.F., February 2011 24

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