Freedom fighter: SF underground art icon Xara Thustra

Courtesy of Needles and Pens

Since the late 1990s, Xara Thustra's art has been inseparable from resistance and community in San Francisco, providing many of the signature visual images of the anti-displacement and anti-war struggles of the era. His work first appeared as graffiti in the streets of the city during the height of the first dot-com boom and soon grew to include artistic collaboration with and in support of neighborhood organizations, like the Mission Anti-Displacement Coalition and the Coalition on Homelessness.

As his work evolved over time from agitprop street art into elaborate performance and filmmaking, Xara has collaborated with countless others on many now-legendary art events like the Anti-Capitalist Fashion Show, the 949 Market Squat, and the band Manhater, while contributing stunning murals to Clarion Alley Mural Project and the Mission Neighborhood Health Center (with Kyle Ranson). Xara appeared in the 2002 Bay Area Now show at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, but has since resisted overtures from the art world, and preferred to instead make work in spaces like Adobe Books, Needles and Pens, and, still, in the streets.

Thu/6 at a presentation of new work at Needles and Pens, Xara and friends will celebrate the release of the self-published, 500-page book, Friendship Between Artists is an Equation of Love and Survival. It's an epic photo documentation of the past 15 years of his work and collaborations in San Francisco.
Note: this interview took place between Erick Lyle (in Brooklyn) and Xara Thustra (in the Redstone Building) over Skype ...

San Francisco Bay Guardian So, let's talk about the book. I’ve read it twice this week — two four-hour sessions, straight through. Its pretty heavy shit.

Xara Thustra It's deep. The book is deep.

SFBG As long as we’ve known each other, you’ve always been pretty quick to move on to the next thing. There’s a lot of self-reinvention in your work, not a lot of looking backward. I’m curious why it was then that you wanted to make this retrospective book now and bring all this material together from the past 15 years?

XT Well, it really doesn’t have much to do with the public. I had a pile of documentation that I had collected by throwing things that were mine into a box. I don’t know how much I really want to say about it in an article but the reality of it was that I was evicted about five times, and I kept moving and just throwing stuff in a box, and the box kept coming with me. That’s the stuff that didn’t get thrown out, those pictures.

Mostly, for me, though, it was that if I didn’t make a book out of that stuff then no one would know I did it, because, like you said, I keep moving on.

SFBG Was this the stuff you most wanted to intentionally save, or just what happened to be left over when you had a chance to look at it all?

XT This was just stuff that was saved, period. A lot of stuff was not saved. It's interesting because [the book] seems like the whole ball of wax, but it really just is the cherries of individual moments — some of the nicer stuff to look at during those happenings. But, really, I’m not very focused on the book right now. I’m working on art show for the book release and I’m more interested in the art show right now.

SFBG OK. What is the art show at Needles and Pens about, then? How does that material for the book release show relate to the book?

XT The book is giving me footing to stand on to continue to speak to the public. Hopefully it creates a platform to show people that I am conscientious about my work and that it's a daily practice. The residue of that daily practice is in visual form.

For Needles and Pens, I’m working on something about the Valencia Street corridor and its relationship to death from poverty in the streets. That’s the art show I’m working on.

SFBG That’s mostly what I think about these days when I am on Valencia Street. I wonder how you’re approaching that.

XT Well, jeez! [Laughs.] I don’t want to give the show away! That is the backstory of the show, and I just blurted that out. I don’t normally provide even that much information. But I’ll say their relationship will be seen through sugar coating and pretty colors [laughs].

SFBG It seems to me that now more than ever, public streets in SF really are a battleground. That’s something you and I have related to for the last 15 years in what we do. This book starts with pictures of the streets, like establishing shots in a movie, and the narrative that follows threads in and out of the streets. The things you see in the interiors are always situated specifically in the context of this city and, particularly, its streets: homeless guys and cops harassing them and graffiti and protests.

But the streets themselves feel a lot different to me now than when you started out doing work in the streets. Art in the streets is different, too. I wonder what your perspective is on how the streets feel now?

XT I would say I am not necessarily relating to the streets but more like being the streets. [Repeats like a mantra.] Being the streets, being the streets, being the streets ... not that you were saying anything much contradictory to that. But, I am only looking at reality and the streets, how they are right in front of me in the present and not in relationship to anything.

Every street in SF is pretty different in a lot of ways. There are so many different realities in SF. But if we want to talk about the bougie rich folks, walking all over people — that’s happening on a lot of streets. The number of streets where that is happening has risen, and the number of streets where there’s good culture ... Well, I can’t just say "good culture." But as for culture that is deeply related to art, and the soul, and history, and kids, and love, and all that shit — yeah, those streets are dwindling.

I have to give it to the people who are able to utilize the Valencia corridor for their eating places. They are healthy, good-looking people. You can’t argue that! They’ve got the teeth and all that shit. They look great! [Laughs.] So you can’t really say nothing bad about them.

SFBG Yeah, but I guess I’m thinking about how it feels different to even put art in the streets now than it did during the first dot-com boom.

XT The demographics of the audience have switched so much to just being privileged people, period. When you are showing stuff to privileged people, they already have so much stuff to look at, so much stuff to choose from and their relationship to it is not the give and take it could be. It’s seen through a commercial lens.

Here’s one way to explain it: if I write the words “None Profit” on a wall in SF, it could easily be seen to be about folks here getting rich and getting money but still not profiting in some way. You’d be making a commentary. Write “None Profit” on the wall in St. Louis or Philadelphia and people walk by and feel like, “Yeah, no shit. Why you shitting on me?” The same words mean different things to different audiences.

SFBG The book features photos of performance in the streets, too. And in empty lots, in squatted abandoned buildings. Or smashed into a corner at Adobe Books — even crammed into a hallway in a house. In some ways, the book’s narrative is to me almost about this search for space in the city. It’s not necessarily a literal search for space, because we could, I suppose, be doing events any night of the week in a bar or something like that.

Even in the Bay Area, there is still space, per se. But it’s a search for a freer space. A non-commodified, less controlled space where perhaps we could be our true, authentic selves. What then is the relationship to this search for space in your work?

XT What’s my relationship to space? I could go for a lot of space! [Laughs.] Space that is lawless and fun and freedom-oriented and sustainable and nice! It’s just such an enormous issue. You and I ran in squats together to try to envision what we though would bring about community. Why did we have to squat a building to get that? It’s just ridiculous.

SFBG I think it’s been maybe 10 years since we sat down and did an interview like this together. At that time it seemed like you were moving past graffiti being your main focus. You were about to appear in the Yerba Buena Now show at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, but you were not excited about that either. You weren’t feeling like the museum was a real place to make art, and were wondering what for you is a good place for art.

Again, there is the search for a specific type of space. How are you feeling about that search for the right spaces to make art in today?

XT Well, there’s a lot in there, but first of all, graffiti has never NOT been my focus. It’s actually unfortunate how ridiculous of a main focus it has been for me. It's like the only thing there is — being able to publicly express yourself freely. And I’m not saying that’s all that graffiti is. Sure, you’re taking advantage of people and being a vandal a little, too. But it also relates to what you are saying about space, because graffiti is about space.

SFBG Do you still get offers from museums or more traditional art world venues?

XT Not much right now. I’m fixing to try to get more offers by pushing in that community a little bit. If anybody wants to know, its basically true that if people call you and you don’t answer, and then people call and you tell them to go fuck themselves or whatever, and then they stop calling. So, yeah, I’m not getting too many offers!

SFBG I’m wondering, if you’re more interested now than you once were in doing shows in those environments, is it because there are different things you feel you can say there than, say, in the streets? What would you be looking to do?

XT I’m just trying to step up. In terms and space and the artwork I am interested in doing, I’ll take any stage I can get right now. Right now, I have this show at Needles and Pens and I ask myself first what is interesting to say in that space, and that’s what I always ask myself.

SFBG Where did the title of the book [Friendship Between Artists is an Equation of Love and Survival] come from?

XT I went and showed the book to my friend, Peter Plate, who is a writer and that’s the title he came up with. It’s a romantic title. There are a lot of ways to relate to it but its important to say that a lot of people’s energy and hard work went into the book. Other people’s photographs, too. The majority of the book, I have something to do with it in some manner, but people have been relating to it in their own personal ways and that’s nice.

SFBG And there are people in there that have since died. It’s a lot.

XT Yeah, that’s true. There is a storyline to it in that way, too.

SFBG One thing I got out of it, was that it seemed that as the narrative of the book progresses, the art moves away from being in support of protest or being literally protest art, and moves into efforts to instead embody a different, freer world.

XT Yeah, I think you’ve said it really well. It’s not a finished conclusion of mine, or anything. But just in terms of time and energy, if I’m going to spend my time and energy fucking with people for change, I think that’s the way to go. But trying to embody freedom and learn how to be healthy and enjoy your mental state on a daily basis ... that still goes hand in hand with trying to support organizations and people that are doing the logistical paperwork to fight the system.

SFBG The book’s title, the riff on love and survival, makes me think about how you’ve always been somewhat known for serving meals at your shows. When we were having that talk about Yerba Buena, I remember you were upset then because you wanted to do a big feeding of free food in the museum and they were not interested in allowing that at all. What is the importance of free food in your work?

XT [Laughs.] Uh, it’s actually, like, this cultural thing that people have been doing for years that has been lost on whatever the culture is right now. If you really want people to come and have a good time, there should be dinner there. It creates a vibe, where everybody is eating food and they’re eating the same food and they have different conversation relating to that. It creates warmth.

These days in this city that has shifted, as well, because free food is not really a necessity for people who are coming out to art shows or going to parties or whatever. But it still exists in my work.

SFBG Speaking of the changing demographics in the streets and at art shows, then, let’s talk about Clarion Alley. The Clarion Alley Mural Project just had its 20th anniversary. I think many of us have been thinking about the weird way that murals we have done there as a community to celebrate our lives and community and resistance have ironically ended up being so well-loved and such an attraction to the very people who are moving here to displace us.

It's something people are starting to think about but it seems like no one really knows what to do about it. Someone told me you suggested that we actually just black out the murals in the alley in protest. I wanted to ask you about that.

XT Yeah, for me, I say buff it. Period. Just drop it. It’s really sad, it’s a terrible way to look at it, and it would be a lot to walk away from, to walk away from those murals. But who knows? It wouldn’t be the worst idea to say something like that, to say that as a group and as a community, we should buff that shit and split and move somewhere else. If we’re not having a conversation about it, then the conversation is just being run by other people, right?

SFBG Yeah. I can see that. It seems nihilistic to me to just self-erase like that, though. On the other hand, the murals themselves have become almost strictly commemorative.

XT Yeah, what happened at the anniversary party wasn’t a celebration of a community that lives here at all. This year it was part of a funeral. People come there to see their folks and relate to the dead. That’s no big deal. We’re all good hard-living people and we’ve moved on and we’re doing interesting shit. But it might not be right here in this neighborhood or within the city walls even right now. It’s in the cracks and on the edges for now. But we’ll see. Personally, I’m looking for Ditter to come out!

SFBG Ditter? What’s that?

XT Ditter! The thing that’s going to replace Twitter! Because you know something’s going to come, right? They think it won’t, but we saw a lot of suckers straight up sad last time this shit crashed. [Laughs.] The next time the crash comes, I just hope it’s not too hard, because all these healthy, good-looking people are basically just MEAT, walking around! Meat! Better hope that economy stays up, y’all!

SFBG [Laughs.] Oh shit! The free food at Xara’s show ... “IT'S PEOPLE!” Well, here’s to Ditter ... and whatever is next!

Check out Erick Lyle's review of Friendship Between Artists here.

Thu/6, 7-9pm, free
Needles and Pens
3252 16th St., SF

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