Art is not something that one does. On the contrary, art is something that one lives. This frequent credo, that creating art fulfills a purpose in the life of an artist, is echoed throughout the works of San Francisco graffiti heroine Eclair Bandersnatch.
Bandersnatch is to San Francisco what Banksy is to Bristol. Both stencil artists grew from humble beginnings in the underground street art world with a focus on the political and socio-economic issues plaguing their cities. Bandersnatch narrowing her focus on gender equality and the exponential growth of an industry that is changing the class structure of San Francisco.
The once bohemian city of San Francisco is now a billionaire’s club, home to employees of Pixar, Google, eBay, Apple, Twitter and so on. The most expensive city in the United States of America was once the major hub for hippies. Haight and Ashbury was the epicenter for Dead Heads who flocked to find Shakedown Street; where flower children created peace and held hands for equality; and where some of the greatest American novelists began their road trips.
‘The City by the Bay’ has a reputation for attracting, creating and breeding liberal artists, Bandersnatch being no exception. Her controversy lies in the radical changes happening in the world around her. Art galleries, bookstores and museums – the housing foundations for art – are being bought out by start up companies paying triple the price for venue space. A bohemian city that once nurtured the souls of artists and their counterculture has transformed into a capitalist base for the technology industry.
In 2011, San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee offered tax cuts for start up technology companies to occupy the SoMa District (South of Market Street), which aided in pulling the city out of a nationwide recession. Now SoMa is home to some of the wealthiest companies in the global economy like Twitter, Dropbox and approximately 5,200 other start-ups, each carrying an average price tag of $4.6M and offering an average salary of $105,000.
Fortunately the city is economically thriving. San Francisco’s unemployment rate is lower than that of the entire state of California and the city’s employment rate is the fastest growing in the nation. However, rent prices and housing prices are at an all-time high creating evictions and displaced San Francisco residents unable to live in their birth city. Herein lies the tension. Herein may be the message of Éclair Bandersnatch.
The Grace Alley Mural Project, in the heart of the SoMa District, displays a two-year stencil-in- the-making masterpiece by Bandersnatch, keenly placed outside the Center for Sex and Culture building. Other works with Éclair Bandersnatch markings appear up and down Market Street, on Haight Street and throughout the Mission District.
The graffiti artist, known to wear five-inch heels and fashionable attire while creating, is mostnoted for her series calling for the release of Chelsea Manning, the Army private who disclosed classified documents to WikiLeaks; a portrait of Edward Snowden, the former CIA employee who leaked secret details to the press of mass government surveillance programmes; sumptuous same-sex couples; and figurines of the haughty upper crust.
Gentrification is a worldwide process across all fronts that cannot be thwarted. From within the tenderloins of this once-bohemian city there has arisen a mostly white, wealthy monoculture of male-dominated techies, leaving San Francisco teetering on the edge of an identity crisis. San Francisco’s counterculture is quickly turning into a cyber culture – yet another creative renaissance, albeit much wealthier.
Bonded to San Francisco’s counterculture, Bandersnatch is not focused on creating art for a paycheck, unlike the creative minds in the technology industry. She crafts together her own stencils by carving up sheets of polypropylene with box cutters. She touts the stencils around San Francisco in a portfolio folder that is with her at all times. She lives to create and to be inspired. She believes that with the death of inspiration goes the soul. Eclair Bandersnatch makes her paycheck from working regular jobs, not solely from making art.
This artistic theme is congruent with Bandersnatch’s creative San Francisco predecessors and prior city dwellers like Jack Kerouac, Jerry Garcia and Allan Ginsberg. Meanwhile it also aligns with the rebellious truth-over-money belief of Chelsea Manning, Edward Snowden and other outspoken souls going against the grain.
San Francisco has always been a city that champions freedom of expression, even if the action is perceived as right, wrong, lewd or lascivious. The city has been and continues to be ever evolving, which attracts creative and out-of-the-box thinkers whether they be technology driven or have a view towards street art. Opposing mentalities occupying the same area is what creates consternation.
The graffiti walls of the SoMa District in San Francisco encase some of the wealthiest businesses in the world. These walls have been created by some of the most talented graffiti artists in the world — some of them commissioned, some of them not. The same can be said for the sidewalks that connect the city’s retail stores and restaurants to its neighbourhoods and suburbs. Street artists are a large subculture and creative heartbeat within a city on the precipice of a mainstream cultural renaissance.
Ironically, San Francisco is having a true Dawn of the Planet of The Apes moment in finding a balance between two worlds. However, hope has already wielded its head and a symbiotic shift has planted its roots. The interesting 1 AM Gallery, a hyper-focused street art space, has begun to offer graffiti tours and a debriefing of SoMa’s famous street art murals followed by a sketch-to-spray lesson where anyone can create their own piece. The gallery invites guests to partake in “tagging” – legally, of course. This programme has become so popular that Facebookand Google have been enrolling their employees in graffiti team-building workshops. These workshop pieces won’t be seen on a coveted San Francisco KFJC ‘Girlie Shirt’, beside the design of Éclair Bandersnatch, Valery Milovic or Junko Mizuno. Nor are these pieces representative of the underground voice of San Francisco street artists. However, what this says is that the city’s quandary is in a harmonious motion of ‘coming full circle’.