A Brief Guide To The Public Art Installations Of San Francisco

SOMA | © Jesse Wagstaff/Flickr
Natalie Garnett

San Francisco is a great city to explore on foot, and by walking, you are sure to run into some amazing public art. Therefore, you might pass by that massive steel ‘thing’ every day, but do you know anything about it” Read up on some of San Francisco’s most famous public art.

Nuestros Silencios

1. Nuestros Silencios


Nuestros Silencios or ‘Our Silences,’ stands tall outside the San Francisco Ferry Building. Created by artist Jose Rivelino, these ten bronze busts with covered mouths comment on individual self-censorship, and the importance of freedom of speech as a fundamental right. The installation is part of the MEX I AM, Live It To Believe It, a Mexican culture festival that will run throughout San Francisco through July 26th.

2. Vaillancourt Fountain


Sitting at the edge of Justin Herman Plaza, the Vaillancourt Fountain was designed by Quebec artist Armand Vaillancourt in 1971. Composed of square concrete tubes that spout water at seemingly arbitrary directions, this sculpture has been both applauded and detested throughout the years for its modernity and stark appearance. Multiple petitions have been started to remove the fountain, but after more than 40 years, it still stands.

3. Charlie Brown


Cupids Span
© dewet/Flickr
By Richard Serra, this 60-foot-high steel sculpture was commissioned for the Gap Corporate Headquarters’ courtyard in 2000. The piece was inspired by body movements, and how Serra felt when he walked around and through such a massive structure. When the morning came to name the sculpture, Serra read in the news that Charles Schulz had passed away, and so he dedicated it to the cartoonist’s most famous character.

4. Cupid’s Span


© Jesse Wagstaff/Flickr
When Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen installed the almost 150-foot-wide bow and arrow in 2002, many were angry regarding its obtrusive nature. The design for Cupid’s Span was inspired by San Francisco being the ‘home port of Eros’ — definitely not the first reputation that comes to mind when thinking of the city. Whether you love it or hate it, it’s now seen as an integral part of the Embarcadero skyline.


Bridge, Building

Created by Flaming Lotus Girls, a San Francisco art collective, SOMA is a structure of metal and LED lights that was created for the 2009 Burning Man Festival. Resembling brain neurons connected by an axon bridge, the light display is an interactive experience for viewers. To people’s combined disappointment and relief, it is no longer on fire, as it was at the world-famous desert festival.

6. Bay Lights


© Ernest McGray, Jr./Flickr
From March 2013 through 2015, residents and visitors alike enjoyed The Bay Lights, an incredible light show spanning the San Francisco side of the Bay Bridge. By Leo Villareal, the dancing LED lights glittered in the sky and water, transforming the San Francisco nighttime experience. Luckily, it will be returning as a permanent installation in 2016.

7. Spire

Natural Feature

Wood Line
© PunkToad/Flickr
Spire, by Andy Goldsworthy, spears through the air in one of the Presidio’s many groves. Goldsworthy repurposed 100-year-old cypress trees that were concurrently being taken down to make room for new plantlings. Falling in line with the fleeting nature of Goldsworthy’s other works, Spire will slowly be obscured by new tree growth as the years progress.

8. Wood Line


Also by Goldsworthy, Wood Line was created in 2010 within a eucalyptus grove adjacent to Lover’s Lane. The artist used fallen eucalyptus trunks to create a single weaving line through the forest. Completely untreated, these logs will face whatever the San Francisco elements have to offer.


Siding the headquarters of the SF Public Utilities Commission, Firefly is a 12-story sculpture by environmental artist Ned Kahn. Designed to emphasize the movement of wind, thousands of tiny polycarbonate panels create a shimmering ripple effect, which at night transforms into a dancing LED light show. The best part” The illumination of the whole sculpture requires less energy than a 75-watt light bulb.

525 Golden Gate Ave, San Francisco, CA, USA

The Language of the Birds

9. Language of the Birds


San Francisco Fountain
© Ray Bouknight/Flickr
Created by Brian Goggin with Dorka Keehn, Language of the Birds is a flock of 23 illuminated books that appear to be taking flight at the edges of North Beach and Chinatown. Suspended over the street and sidewalk by cables, the glowing lights dim and brighten to create subtle patterns under the dark city sky. Under foot, literary passages in Italian, Chinese, and English reflect the cultures of the surrounding neighborhoods.

10. San Francisco Fountain


Bayview Rise
© The San Francisco Shipyard
The San Francisco Fountain is a bronze relief sculpture by Ruth Asawa, implemented in 1970. The fountain sides contain scenes from San Francisco, including portraits, cars, buildings, and landmarks. The historic structure was in danger of being removed in 2013 to accommodate a massive new Apple Store, but after protest, plans were fortunately altered.

11. Bayview Rise


Siding a grain silo at Pier 92, the massive Bayview Rise is a familiar sight to anyone who rides Caltrain or frequents the south side of the city. The artist team Haddad-Drugan created bright, large-scale graphics as an abstract representation of the neighborhood’s shifting economy and community. The piece lights up after dark to create an equally stunning nighttime show.

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