Public art project brings ‘positivity’ to gritty Tenderloin

“It’s cool. Color-cats-happy. I love it. It makes me smile.”

That’s how Walter, 56, reacted on a recent weekday morning in the Tenderloin to a utility box at Turk and Taylor streets dressed in a vinyl wrap displaying the artwork of colorful cat balloons done by Alan Khum, who grew up in the neighborhood.

The work is among 41 art pieces showing up on utility boxes and trash receptacles on the blocks of the Tenderloin.

Walter, who declined to provide his last name, is a native of San Francisco and has lived in the Tenderloin for the past five years in a subsidized apartment for $450 a month.

That’s one of the reasons he likes living there. “Price is right,” he said.

The $90,000 city-approved project, led by Tenderloin Housing Clinic, a nonprofit subsidized housing provider that helped fund the works along with the Mayor’s Office of Housing and Shorenstein Properties, includes artist-designed vinyl wraps on 20 San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency traffic control signal boxes and the painting of 21 Public Works trash cans.

Through community input and a competition favoring diversity and understanding of the Tenderloin, artists were selected. The process has taken two years.

Enrique Aguilar, director of THC’s La Voz Latina program, who helped lead the effort, officially called “Art Wraps for the Heart of the Tenderloin,” said it demonstrates that the Tenderloin has always attracted artists. Works like Khum’s provide the children in the area with a more uplifting visual than some of the problems on the streets, like drug use, Aguilar said.


Sylvester Guard, Jr., 36, a Tenderloin resident of 20 years, was working last week on a trash receptacle at Hyde and O’Farrell streets. “It’s kind of hard painting on trash cans with people digging in them and stuff,” Guard said. There’s also the challenge of braving the stench of the discarded bagged dog feces.

“I think it brings a little prestige. I think it brings a little bit more morale. It brings a little bit more positivity to the Tenderloin,” Guard said. “It makes it look like more than poverty. We have artists here. We have a culture here. And we have people that can do art and do creative things.”

As for the passersby who notice his work, Guard said, “I want them to have fun with it.”

Guard, who said the project pays him $400 per trash can, was painting for four hours Thursday, somehow tolerating the periodic rumbling of a 38-Geary Muni bus and the roars of the Blue Angels overhead practicing for Fleet Week. People passed by, noticeably appreciating his work or ignoring it; some just threw stuff away and walked off as if he wasn’t there.

A young girl who expressed enthusiasm over work earlier in the day actually became the inspiration for the face he later painted on the side facing the street.


Oakland-based artist Lisa Hoffman, who works near the Tenderloin as director of the graphic design department at the Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising, took afternoon walks through the neighborhood to help inspire the vinyl wraps she was selected to do.

She supports “bringing creativity and art outside so that it could reach the largest audience.”

“There are a lot of people that wouldn’t necessarily be going into galleries or seeing art in any other way, so having it on the streets I hope is something they enjoy,” Hoffman said, adding the artwork “hopefully brings a couple of extra smiles to somebody’s regular walk down the street.”

A utility box at Hyde and Turk streets showcases Hoffman’s artwork depicting shakers sprinkling out green and orange flakes.

“My whole concept behind that piece is that salt and pepper, or the mixing of different spices or the mixing of different people, creates an even better flavor,” Hoffman said. “What I feel about the Tenderloin is that it is such a mix and I hope that mix can continue to create good flavor.”

Another of Hoffman’s work is “icons of high heeled shoes and lots of different colors.”

“I wasn’t sure how that was going to be received,” she said. “We can’t deny that there’s street walking happening out there. But I love the image and I hope that people that are out there making their money, however they are making their money, also enjoy that nod.”

But she acknowledged the project “could be controversial.”

“I am not sure that everybody is as welcoming to that kind of polished creativity in the neighborhood,” she said.


Some pieces have already suffered from graffiti, and two vinyl wraps were torn off two boxes. But those incidents seem to be the exceptions so far.

Brothers Michael and Eric Forbes, both in their 30s and who live in the Tenderloin, were unsure what to make of the work.

Michael Forbes said he didn’t know “whether it was graffiti or done by The City.”

“This one looks more obvious,” Michael Forbes said, referring to the cat balloon artwork. But he said “the one over there with the monster face on it,” and on a corner where drug dealing is rampant, looked more like the work of a street artist.

Both brothers decided they preferred weirder art by those they said were drunk or stoned.

“There’s that guy who is just filling in cracks in the sidewalk with random art,” Eric Forbes said. He explained that this artist will use an adhesive, and glue into cracks in the sidewalks objects like bubble blowers.

“That’s better art, too” Michael Forbes said. “I’m more into that anyway,” his brother agreed. “We take pictures of this stuff, man.”

“They are up all night doing weird shit. It’s kind of cool,” Michael said.

The more polished art can also suggest a tide of gentrification.

“It’s definitely coming here,” Eric Forbes said of gentrification. “I pay $950 a month because I’ve been here for five years and I’m rent-controlled. The units in my building [at Turk and Leavenworth streets] are like $2,000-plus now for the same apartment I’m in.”

“I work in restaurants. Restaurants are having trouble keeping people in their kitchen because there is not affordable housing for people who work at that level, which is a problem,” Eric Forbes continued. “The other side of that is, they shoot less people.”


Clean Slate Group, based in Bozeman, Mont., took the artist designs, turned them into the vinyl wraps and installed them, something the company has been doing in cities throughout the U.S. since 2011.

Dan Mouw, Clean Slate Group’s director of operations, said nationwide there is an increasing demand for vinyl wraps on utility and traffic boxes for two main reasons.

“With our vinyl wraps it makes the cleaning of graffiti significantly faster and significantly easier, thereby reducing time and costs. That’s number one,” Mouw said.

“Number two, it’s a way just to spruce up different locations, bringing life to these corners. It’s a great way for local artists to display projects.”

What the Tenderloin Housing Clinic pulled off also illustrates how it would have looked in more places if The City had succeeded in requiring AT&T to allow local artists to place work on its utility boxes.

Mouw said they mostly work on government-owned boxes but are looking to expand.

“We’ve actually had talks with AT&T about that possibility, of putting wraps on those [boxes],” Mouw said. “I can’t speak to our progress right now.”

Aguilar told the San Francisco Examiner on Friday he hopes to have all of the art installations completed by the end of this month, and is working on adding seven more boxes, bringing the total to 48.

The artworks will remain in place “as long as they last.”

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