White Walls gives street art a place to hang its hat

What's the difference between this piece by Hush inside White Walls...
All photos by Caitlin Donohue

Since writing my article in this week’s Guardian on the state of street art in San Francisco, the definition of the term has been… not rankling me, but sitting in my head like things that can’t be resolved tend to do. But a recent conversation I had with the owner of White Walls and Shooting galleries, Justin Giarla gave me a good look at why street artists go indoors. He took me through his current exhibition of works by the legendary stencilist Blek Le Rat, Hush, and Above -- “street” artists all, who are finding brave new worlds through work on canvas.

“Once these guys get older, they don’t want to be going to jail anymore,” the proprietor of the Tenderloin gallery told me. Giarla has long been interested in the artwork of graffiti artists, and has been putting shows on like this one since White Walls opened in 2005. “Plus, you need to make money to do bigger and better things.”

...and this one outside the gallery? 

We’re standing beneath a forest of arrows suspended in mid air. They’re the work of Above, who at 27 years old has been placing them in improbable urban junctures for the past eight years. “He’d put them in places where you’d think, ‘how the hell did he do that?’” Giarla tells me. “Over the intersection of Market and Geary, places like that.” Before us is a canvas rendering of one of Above’s life size stencils, a young girl blowing expanding heart bubbles to a boy who rises with them into the air. The original of “First Love,” as the work is titled, was an unauthorized piece on the wall of an elementary school in So Cal. Above threw it up in the middle of the night to escape notice from the authorities. This one is retailing for more money than I’ve spent on art, like, ever.  That’s a big change in the art’s intent, isn’t it?

“Once you take it out of the street, it’s no longer “street” art, it’s fine art,” Giarla says. “That’s not to say what’s in the street isn’t fine art -- it’s more like the difference between free art and fine art.” Street artists find a whole different set of artistic challenges, he tells me, when they start showing in galleries. Giarla notes that for artists like Above, whose White Walls exhibition is his first gallery show, “it changes the art visually. All of a sudden, all these limitations get put on it. Sometimes street art doesn‘t translate visually when it‘s altered to fit gallery format.”

"First Love" by Above -- the indoor one. 

And Giarla is the first to admit that the audience of the art is altered by the change. “What art is, is dictated by the people who see it. The neighborhood you put it up in determines who sees it.”

Giarla was drawn to this kind of interaction with the world of public art because of a respect for the form. He says he finds street art “the most free expression of art, meant for everyone, not elitist,” and in a way, he’s furthering the capabilities of artists like Above and Hush (whose geisha murals and paintings decorate the room next to Above’s arrows) to do more, travel more, and create more public works by providing them a forum to sell to big money art collectors. Which is cool.

And I guess it answers some of my questions about why street art wants to hang with the denizens of fine art. It helps though, when they keep their original audience of public passers-by in mind. 

An eloquent nod to this kind of access splashes across the back entrance of White Walls. Giarla had Hush paint one of his shy geishas on the gallery's doorway in the slightly seedy TL alley. Nearly identical copies of her hang on the walls inside, but this geisha can still enjoy an audience not overly given to wine and cheese receptions. 

Blek Le Rat “Faces in the Mirror,” Hush “Passing Through,” and Above “Transitions”

Through June 5

White Walls/Shooting Gallery

839 Larkin, SF

(415) 577-1275



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