San Francisco’s Tenderloin is known for its bouts of insane creativity, its street art and its generally seedy drug scene. The district itself, an oasis for artists, especially those who partake in graffiti culture, is home to work by Banksy, Shepard Fairey and Barry McGee. Reflecting this gritty, eerie and perfectly grimy subculture of the Tenderloin is SF-based Art Primo’s latest exhibit, “Tunnel Vision: The Graffiti Tunnels of Eastbay.” Featuring works by Walter Yetman, the photography show documents the Bay’s underground artwork.
The gallery takes unabashed street scenes and places them within the four white walls of an art gallery, causing viewers to question our traditional definition of “art.” Yetman’s photographs explore the underground realm we don’t see on a daily basis, introducing a new setting to art lovers. The haunting photographs, which feature not only graffiti work on public walls and tunnels but also the graffiti artists themselves, evoke a sense of both danger and hope through heavily contrasted lighting.
Yetman, who began to take photography seriously as a teenager, dabbled in the documentation of the Bay Area’s punk scene but later transitioned into shooting graffiti art. In an interview with The Citrus Report, Yetman spoke about his interest in photography.
“I would try to do graffiti, and I was pretty sucky at it,” he said. “I always had an interest in photography, so I decided to start documenting what I saw around town instead of trying to paint it.”
He describes his subjects as “mostly graffiti, some urban exploring and live music.” As simple as he makes his job sound, he does admit to the trust graffiti artists have in him and the dangers of photographing illegalities at night.
“I’ve been chased, yelled at … cut myself up climbing fences, falling off a roof one time,” he said. “Basically, I live the lifestyle of a graffiti artist without actually painting.”
He cites Steven Rotman, the innovative Bay Area photographer and Flickr king, as one of his biggest sources of inspiration. Rotman, who published “Bay Area Graffiti,” was one of the first to make the contemporary street-art scene of San Francisco well known. He blended the region’s exquisite landscapes with the grungy, albeit artsy, urbanscapes of the city.
Yetman’s approach is similar. He pushes the documentation of the graffiti scene to a new level, including the artists themselves in his photographs, which gives his shots an active voice.
Art Primo’s second gallery room features small, framed works of graffiti and is peppered with subtle elements from the shady city. These elements include boarded-up windows, actual spray-paint cans, a lonely piano stool and heavy-duty rubber boots, which artists use while adventuring through canals and water runoffs. In terms of actual artwork, the gallery houses a series titled “Tough as Nails” by the women of Few & Far, a global group of all-female creative thinkers. The team of self-described “open-minded, everyday females” previously has worked on an animal rights mural in Sacramento and a mural based on the societal importance of bees in Miami.
Women in aerosol art culture aren’t given much thought, but they face obstacles that many men do not. Going out late at night to desolate locations is dangerous for female artists, and they also endure harassment in the male-dominated field. Art Primo’s push to feature and respect the efforts of female artists in a traditionally harsh environment is inclusive and promotes a sense of community in graffiti culture.
Though Art Primo’s two shows analyze street culture through different approaches, both tell stories about the creative world literally underneath the ground we walk on.