San Francisco is not the best place for artists

Creative people stay motivated to eke out a living in our expensive city


Ready for this? San Francisco is the second-best place in the country to live for artists, bohemians and “creatives.” That’s according to a press release that landed in my email recently, which also noted our median income was about $87,000 annually, or 38 percent above the national average.

I laughed and laughed and laughed. Then I wrote back STORAGECafé —a self-storage search engine that cooked up the study — telling them I’d actually planned on writing something soon that challenged this thought.

And before we get to their reply, yes, you read correctly: The study was done by a website aimed at finding you the best place to store your stuff. Not to totally drag you, STORAGECafé, but this release you sent feels like an attention grab similar to the people who routinely call newspaper reporter the worst job in America. You’re aiming below the belt on a topic that I can’t imagine is part of your industry, hoping that we’ll write about you. You definitely got me this time.

“The figures may sometimes tell a different story and personal experience can only help make the picture complete,” said Aura Mogosanu, the communications person with STORAGECafé who wrote back to me. “In San Francisco’s case, the appeal The City projects onto the outside world is undeniable. We also know that the high cost of living makes it hard for some people to afford living there,” Mogosanu said. “But all in all, the city has a balanced mix of a bohemian-friendly environment, like-minded people, artistic venues and income possibilities.”

I am an accidental fashion designer. In 2015, I wanted to be a disco ball for my birthday, so I went searching for a website to drop an insane amount of cash for a disco helmet. It didn’t exist, but I did find an Instructable by local designer Natalie Walsh, who worked for the DIY website until this year. I showed up at SF Oasis that August in head-to-toe, locally-sold-and- made pieces: the silver tank top from Betabrand, sequin booties from a now-closed Multikulti, and helmet by me.

My friend admired the look and encouraged me to open an Etsy. I did with Walsh’s blessing, and helmets immediately began selling. By sheer luck, Miley Cyrus’ people caught a cheap social media ad I took out that year. She wore a helmet I made on tour for six months, so beginning what is now the “Sugarman Apparel” label.

The disco helmet I created marked my entry into the fashion design world. (Courtesy Saul Sugarman)

The disco helmet I created marked my entry into the fashion design world. (Courtesy Saul Sugarman)

The pandemic brought some unexpected opportunities in fashion this year, notably for me partnering with local artists to put their murals on higher-end, custom printed face masks. I have my own thoughts on living as a “creative” in The City, but I thought asking my artist friends and acquaintances might be more fun first.

“Did they talk to any artists? Oh, for f—k’s sake, I can’t name an artist I know that makes even close to that,” said Nicole Hayden, a fine artist and muralist who has been in The City since 2001. “Out of everyone I went to school with here, I might be one of the last artists I know in The City.”

Hayden’s creative influence forks all over, with heavy notes of nostalgia: She’s made work inspired from 1960s and 70s Playboy magazines, from 1980s wrestlers, and 2000s-era pieces of Scarlett Johansson and Paris Hilton. “Those were really fun, but then I started having dreams about them, so I had to stop.”

I came across her after spotting a mural of a large whale with a scantily-clad man in a Speedo and bandana fixed as a mask. The painting was appropriately outside Moby Dick, a nautically- themed gay bar in the Castro.

Hayden lives in San Francisco with her husband and two roommates, occupying the same four-bedroom home for more than a decade. She earns money doing side hustles as a decorative painter for interior designers.

“I live here comfortably, and I travel. To me that’s success. I really feel like I can’t complain. But sometimes I get sad with San Francisco,” she said. “I’ve seen so many of my peers move away because it’s very hard to afford it. I don’t know a lot of artists who just make their art. It’s a secondary job.”

True, too, for Rafael Arana, a local full-time artist and San Francisco native who does commissions for interior designers. I came across his work when I threw events last year for The Detour, a video arcade bar in the Castro that opened as an expansion from its predecessor, Brewcade. The revamped space has gorgeous graffiti-inspired work of video game characters, nerdy games and LGBTQ+ positive messages like “Love is Love” and “Silence = Death.”

Arana’s early inspiration began in high school from graffiti artists like Barry McGee. The Detour art, he said, was influenced by Australian street artist Straker.

On surviving San Francisco as an artist, Arana said, You really have to be making some money or have some savings in order to live out here.”

He bounced around a bit recently from living with a girlfriend and parents. He found a “little studio” recently as rents started to fall.

Arana, who spent many years as a full-time resident artist for Ken Fulk Inc., went freelance recently but still does commissions for them. He said it’s hard to find time to focus on his own work after spending the day on a client’s, but he’s happy in what he does.

“In my opinion, the most opportunity at least for muralists is in San Francisco, at least in major cities,” he said.

That is the case especially for Kate Tova, a newcomer to the local art scene by way of New Orleans, and before that, Russia. She had the most unlikely story as I researched this story, and as I started with her first, I wondered if STORAGECafé — experts that they must be about artists — got it right.

Tova told me she’s made enough to not worry about rent for a few years. Not I’m especially surprised: She comes to The City with a loyal fanbase. She makes gorgeous, bright murals in high-contrast colors, embellishing them with rhinestones and gold leafing, and she lives her brand. The other day I met her to hand over a couture, jeweled mask and she was nearly head-to-toe in her own art: a hoodie and backpack with her paintings and a printed mask I’d done for her.

“It was really scary to move here,” Tova noted. “It seemed like I wasn’t going to make enough. I was doing pretty good in New Orleans, but it’s of course much cheaper to live there. In San Francisco, our rent is $3,000 a month, and art supplies sometimes run a couple thousand a month, which is insane. I was just scared.”

The pandemic brought its own unique challenges: no charity events and no gallery openings, Tova said. But suddenly, there were many more closed storefronts and buildings to paint on. Her Black Lives Matter-inspired mural outside Hotel Abri and another one based on Laverne Cox outside 347 Fillmore brought Tova heightened attention, and she began selling more.

“I think maybe people are stuck at home and looking at the white empty walls, and realizing they can fill it with some art,” she said.

She draws inspiration from all over, especially nature. Right now, though, she aims to make pieces that are uplifting: “I want to give people hope and make people smile. Every time you read the news, it’s just depressing.”

As for me as an artist, I came into this story with a lot of frustration and sadness. I came clean recently to my following— which generally regards me as a big success—that I made at my peak $40,000 as a full-time journalist in San Francisco. Freelance writing pays less than that and events do, too.

The apparel business brought in quite a bit this year, but it is still in its nascent stages, and the money I made happened much because we were and still are dealing with something scary. I’ve given serious thought about moving somewhere less expensive like Colorado, if it turns out the apparel business can’t hold its own without face mask sales.

I will say, though, so much of my art is a reaction to life in San Francisco the decade I’ve lived here. Spiritually, I’ve been creatively inspired and fulfilled, and it’s undeniable the networking and knowledge resources available here are substantial. So don’t count me out yet.

I end this with three cocktails whipped up to complement the three artists’ work. These were put together by Lisa Merrall, owner of Fireside bar in Inner Sunset, who I come back to so often because she’s great to talk to. The bar has a parklet open now, and you should go support it.

Bar info: Fireside Bar, 603 Irving St., S.F., (415) 741-6433

Reflecting work by the colorful artist, Kate Tova Holiday Bubbles has a touch of gold. (Courtesy Saul Sugarman)

Reflecting work by the colorful artist, Kate Tova Holiday Bubbles has a touch of gold. (Courtesy Saul Sugarman)

Kate Tova Holiday Bubbles

We thought up this one because Tova likes Champagne, and she also puts gold leaf details on her paintings.


• 1 shot Goldschlager

• 1½ shots apple juice

• Sparkling wine of your own choice

Directions: Add Goldschlager and apple juice in a chilled Champagne glass, then fill to the top with sparkling wine and serve.

Rafael Arana’s refreshing artwork inspired the fruity Rafael Arana Margarita. (Courtesy Saul Sugarman)

Rafael Arana’s refreshing artwork inspired the fruity Rafael Arana Margarita. (Courtesy Saul Sugarman)

Rafael Arana Margarita

This really is just a regular margarita, but that felt appropriate to the conversation with Arana, which felt pretty care free and bright. It really made me want a margarita, too.


• 2 ounces blanco tequila

• ½ ounce orange liqueur

• 1 ounce fresh squeezed lime juice

• ½ ounce agave syrup

• Salt

• Lime wedge for garnish

Directions: Drag lime wedge across the rim of a glass, then dip glass in salt. In a shaker, add tequila, liqueur, lime juice, agave syrup, and ice. Shake rigorously, pour into glass and serve.

A mermaid mural at a shuttered business provided inspiration for Nicole Hayden Mermaid’s Milk Tiki Cocktail.<ins> (Courtesy Saul Sugarman)</ins>

A mermaid mural at a shuttered business provided inspiration for Nicole Hayden Mermaid’s Milk Tiki Cocktail. (Courtesy Saul Sugarman)

Nicole Hayden Mermaid’s Milk Tiki Cocktail

Hayden suggested this one to complement a mural of a mermaid she did outside a —poetically —now shuttered business. This recipe comes to us from Imbibe Magazine and is made by Merrall.


• 1½ ounces gold rum

• ½ ounce overproof rum

• ¼ ounce fresh lime juice

• ¼ ounce fresh lemon juice

• ¼ ounce vanilla syrup

• 2 ounces coconut cream

• 1½ dashes Angostura bitters

Directions: Combine ingredients except bitters in a shaker filled with ice, and shake. Strain into glass filled with new ice. Top with bitters, garnish with a lemon wheel and serve.

Saul Sugarman is a San Francisco-based writer, event producer and apparel designer. Read more of his content and buy his wares at He is a guest columnist and his opinions are not necessarily that of the Examiner.

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