Walls of the Internet

From back alleys to Facebook walls: the street art-tech connection is heating up -- and changing SF's street scene

Ian Ross gets down on a mural for AdRoll at the Mid-Market tech company's office party.


STREET SEEN The mural was neatly rendered in aerosol, with an expert's eye for color. It read "Facebook." Surrounding text bubbles proclaimed "poke," "write on your wall," and "I'll find something to put here" to the denizens of Sixth Street.

Tech-based graffiti? If you're up on the Bay Area art scene, the juxtaposition won't come as any surprise — the companies building the Internet have emerged as major supporters of professional street art.

"The influx of tech companies has affected our business at all levels," says Daniel Pan, founder of SoMa's 1AM Gallery. Pan and his team exhibit works by local graff legends and recently came under attack by conservative SF Chronicle columnist C.W. Nevius for 1AM's retail space, which sells one of SF's best selections of street art sprays and tools.

Scenes from 1AM Gallery's corporate graffiti workshops. Photos courtesy 1AM Gallery

The gallery also facilitates corporate graffiti workshops like the one that gave birth to the aforementioned 2010 Facebook mural, and arranges custom murals for techland's stomping grounds. Last month, the gallery released a mobile app perfect for capturing, cataloguing, and searching for one's favorite pieces of street art all over the world.

"On a very fundamental level, tech has allowed the street art scene in San Francisco, and worldwide, to spread faster and further than ever," Pan says.

1AM is by no means the only site of this pairing. Though Facebook may have led the way for the tech-street art connection, having tapped artist David Choe to do its office walls back when the company was still in its Palo Alto offices, you can now see murals in the YouTube office park — and in many tech companies across the Bay.

Among the experts with whom I spoke for this story, many attributed the trend to the fact that the new tech elite is much younger than the leaders in other industries.

"They share a lot of the same values," Vikki Tobak of the Palo Alto Arts Commission told me. "[Street art] is young, DIY, there's no pretense. It's very 'of the generation' in terms of who works at these companies."

Tobak points to various ways the two worlds are interfacing. Eyebeam's Graffiti Research Laboratory is the maker of "L.A.S.E.R. Tag," a system that allows artists to project digital tags onto buildings from a distance of hundreds of meters. Re+Public's reality augmenting mural app allows street art fans to travel through time at NYC's famed Bowery wall and digitally hallucinate via animations and 3D effects in Miami's Wynwood Walls mural complex. Locally, Tobak sees the in-progress University Avenue tunnel mural project that will transform a major pedestrian connector in one of Silicon Valley's first cities as an example of how street art-style work has gained traction among techies. Zynga neighbor Project One Gallery hosts tech happy hours within walls covered in murals by acclaimed visual artists.