Photographer strives to protect SF street artist movement’s past and future

Michael Addario, 62, is a longtime San Francisco street artist who has developed a passion for researching the storied history of the creative sect he has belonged to for the past 12 years.

His interest began after hearing old timers talk about how they fought City Hall back in the ’70s to win the right to sell their art on the streets of San Francisco.

Turns out it was a long and hard fought political battle against some of the biggest heavyweights in town at the time, including then-member of the Board of Supervisors Dianne Feinstein and Mayor Joseph Alioto. At times they were even arrested for selling their art since it was technically illegal then.

Everyone has their stories and Addario was skeptical at first — but interested. His interest took him to the Main Public library to research the archives of the daily papers. And then he was led to the San Francisco Bay Area Television Archive at San Francisco State University, where he unearthed some films documenting the movement.

“This is a great story that hasn’t been told. I think this is a great story how young people were nonviolent, they were persistent, they got something done,” Addario said.

Addario’s first Kickstarter campaign to raise funds to digitize the footage has come up short. But he’s not deterred. The fee is about $120 to digitalize each film, which he has paid for some of the footage and posted it on Youtube for anyone to view. The movement was led at the time by Street Artists Guild co-founders Warren Garrick Nettles and Bill Clark, who in one of their more well-known protests carried a coffin to City Hall as a symbol of the death of livelihood amid a police crackdown on street artists.

It’s not just the past that Addario is interested in. He has much to say about the current state of affairs of the street artists program. He is largely condemning of how the Arts Commission has managed the program and what it has become.

“Unfortunately, they made some mistakes,” Addario said of the movement back then. “One of the errors in my opinion was they gave this over to the government.”

The Arts Commission has recently acknowledged that the street artist program is in bad shape and they’re evaluating it. There has been a 14 percent decline in artists in the program — 416 artists in 2011 dipping to 359 this year. The commission released findings of an initial study which corroborates some of Addario’s criticisms.

“I’ve been in the program for 12 years now. And I’ve seen it steadily go downhill,” said Addario, a photographer. “What I found is that not only has the program been invested with vendors, the management has treated the street artists very badly.”

The commission’s study did find that so-called vendor entrepreneurs comprise between 11 percent and 23 percent of street artists selling low-cost goods like items found in jewelry stores chains, Giants T-shirts and Hello Kitty hats.

“The most blatant thing is these hats, these Angry Bird and Batman hats,” Addario said. “It’s so discouraging.”

Arts Commission director Thomas DeCaigny told the commission last month the hats are a challenge and it was difficult to prove if the hats are low-cost imported goods not made by hand.

Addario also objects to the annual fee of $696, especially when the program has its flaws. He suggested a nonprofit should run it or the artists as a collective with a fee much lower, if at all.

The commission plans to continue discussing possible changes as early as next month.

“We have good artists within our program and it breaks my heart they are not making the money they should make,” Addario said.

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