Shawn Bullen is a man with a crew. When I met him at The Social Study, a coffee-by-day-liquor-by-night lounge in San Francisco’s Fillmore District, he was with Mike Covington, another San Francisco street artist, and Maddie, a student in organizational development who is putting her degree to work to help connect artists like Shawn and Mike with activists and healers in the community. We were later joined by Ace West, the self-proclaimed “little brother” of the group, who just dropped out of grad school to pursue art full time.
At first glance, the people sitting with Shawn were an entourage. Hangers-on. A support group for the up-and-coming force of street art that is Shawn Bullen. But as the conversation played out, it was clear that Shawn wasn’t the focal point or the cog of this group because there simply wasn’t one.
It was not an entourage at all. It was a crew. Shawn’s crew, Mike’s crew, Maddie’s crew, Ace’s crew, and infinite-members-of-the-street-art-community-I-didn’t-get-to-meet’s crew as well.
This is a story through Shawn Bullen’s eyes, but it’s a story about the street art community and the sense of community that emanates from it.
For Bullen, community was there from the beginning.
He started tagging as a 16-year-old on Chicago’s South Side, where he grew up. Art and drawing had always come naturally, and when he met a few guys who were already doing graffiti, it seemed like a logical step. But it wasn’t an easy step. He could draw anything with a pen or pencil, but trading those in for a spray can made Bullen “feel like a three-year-old.”
He needed practice, but the problem was that practice wasn’t entirely within his legal rights. “Spray paint is illegal in the city of Chicago,” Bullen explained. “They could technically arrest us for even having a spray can.” That said, the intent was never to break the law. “At least for me, I didn’t really want to mess people’s shit up. I just wanted to figure out how to [spray paint].”
It’s an important distinction. So often, critics of graffiti jump to labeling street artists as anarchic vandals, to whom destruction of property is just as important as the art they put onto the property. Not so for Bullen and his friends, who didn’t truly catch their groove until they discovered a “graf wall” where they had the freedom to practice and create without interfering with the property owners in their neighborhood.
But with the graf wall came a new community to reckon with: the old guard. There’s an unwritten etiquette to tagging that nobody told them about. “If you paint over somebody, you either have to paint something better or you’re getting painted over or beaten up.”
Bullen never got beat up, but he came close. “We painted over these guys who had been there for years, and they weren’t too happy about it. Luckily, I made friends with these old school graffiti artists. They saved me from getting my ass kicked at least ten times.”
The days of risking his health for his art were left behind back in Chicago, but sticking his neck out for his art and that of his friends was something that stuck with him.
Just a couple of blocks from the coffee shop we were in is Bullen’s mural on the Boom Boom Room, an iconic club in the Fillmore District. It’s one of many no longer illegal, now commissioned and celebrated, Bullen murals dotting the city he’s stayed in for a year—the longest he’s stayed put since leaving art school.
If he had it his way, Bullen would be criss-crossing the country and globe-trotting nonstop, but he knows that, due to the site-specific nature of street art, he needs to fine-tune his work in one place before it can thrive everywhere, and San Francisco is perfect. “It has potential to be a global city. This is the center of the world to a lot of people, so becoming established and sustainable here will help me get all the way around the world.”
To do that, he’s using his art to amplify the values and history the city already has. “Every wall is very different, especially when you think about the context of its location, the business that it’s associated with, and the people that surround it.”
That’s why, and how, he started the Boom Boom Room piece: “The first thing I did was walk down the street about five times. I asked people what they thought about the idea of a mural being painted there. What should it be about? What do they care about in the community?”
Ultimately, the residents of this neighborhood, one that had changed significantly over the years, wanted Bullen to address the culture, specifically the African American culture. “People feel this deep fear that their identity with this neighborhood is disappearing, so it was at least a hope and request to identify that.”
In an attempt to acknowledge the change in the community while still respecting the community’s legacy, he opted for what he describes as a simple take on combining old school and new school: portraits of John Lee Hooker, who started the Boom Boom Room, and Genevieve, an up-and-coming local musician. “I painted them side by side, same size and my hope is that Genevieve’s career is boosted up by being 20 feet tall.”
South of San Francisco, in a little place called Mountain View, Bullen painted a couple of subjects whose careers need significantly less boosting than Genevieve’s: Larry and Sergey.
That Larry and Sergey. Larry and Sergey with a capital “G.” Bullen is painting the Google head honchos as part of a series of interview-portraits he’s doing in Silicon Valley. For each of his subjects, Bullen approaches capturing their essence with a similar line of questioning. “My general question for people is, ‘What’s your vision for improving the world and how are you doing that with this particular project?’ And I interview them, I ask them questions, and then take their pictures and paint off it.”
But just as he included Genevieve in his tribute to John Lee Hooker, it’s important to Bullen that he pays just as much respect to newcomers as he does the establishment, so in addition to Larry and Sergey, he has decorated Google’s campus with two women who are only a couple of years into their time at Google.
“They’re aspiring entrepreneurs who want to do really world-changing stuff. One of them is in Ghana teaching kids how to read, and the other is from Ukraine and she’s working at Google after growing up in this small, rural town. It’s right in front of the executive’s offices, so I know Larry and Sergey and all the billionaires that work there have seen it.”
Ultimately, it’s these world-changing attitudes that Bullen is looking for. “That’s what I’m trying to get at with people: ‘Does your company mean something?’ People keep it real with me, and there’s really important reasons behind these ventures. There are bad reputations in the tech world, but I’m really trying to get at the truth.”
The truth, he’s found out, is often good. “I’m working on this series for Bitcoin startups, people that raised millions of dollars trying to create something that means something. Most of these bitcoin companies are trying to stimulate emerging markets, and do things like make it possible for someone in a third world country to be able to save money. I like to pick people who I just come across and they stand out.”
In addition to profiling the tech world, Bullen has plans to become a part of it with a project he’s launching that he hopes will streamline the hardest part of muraling and the biggest challenge he faced when starting as a teenager in Chicago: finding legal wall space. “To get your artwork into public space, you literally either have to break the law or do months and months of paper work.” Shawn is at a point in his life where he’s gained enough momentum that people are regularly offering him walls, but he knows that’s not how it is for everyone, and he’d like to change that. And what better way to create streamlined change in San Francisco than with an app?
“I have this vision for a method to map the world’s wall space and organize it in a fashion that people can request permission directly from the property owner. It would break down this barrier to express yourself.”
Tomorrow, we may live in that world, where emerging artists don’t have to feel like fledgling criminals, but change takes time, and app adoption takes even longer. To enact progress in a more immediate way, Bullen is working on a project called IMPRINT.CITY, which he’s been developing with the San Francisco Art Commission’s Tyra Fennell, Bullen’s mural fairy godmother who found him and gave him his first San Francisco project and paycheck.
Inspired by Miami’s Art Basel, IMPRINT.CITY will be an urban art festival to celebrate the art community, but also lift up what Bullen describes as one of San Francisco’s last low-income, predominantly minority communities, Bayview.
“The fear is it’s about to be gentrified. I’m by no means interested in participating in that in a negative way, and I believe that murals can remain a positive thing for a community. I really believe in their positive impact because it’s a tool for someone in poverty.”
Bullen goes on to explain that he knows it can work that way because it did for him. “Art is our [method of] social mobility, and I believe that can work for any other kid. [Bayview] kids now might not have an art program at their school, but my vision is 5 years from now, because of this festival, whenever a company or a person or a property owner needs a muralist, they know the best talent is coming out of Bayview.”
And the best way to cultivate future talent is make sure they have access to the current talent. The intent is to develop a mentor program through IMPRINT.CITY, creating a channel for artists to give back.
“My plan is that if any muralist gets a job through our organization, they commit at least one hour of a volunteer workshop to local youth. So as an artist, if you get a five thousand dollar mural gig, you make sure that at least ten to twenty or thirty kids get some education out of that. And that’s just a seed. Give them a chance to say, ‘I got a chance to paint a mural with some amazing artists when I was younger. Because of that, it shaped my life.’”
Ultimately, “shaping life” is the goal. Bullen shapes the lives of the individuals he portrays in his murals by sharing their goals and messages. He shapes the lives of people who live with his murals every day, amplifying and contextualizing the ideals of their neighborhoods. And most of all, Bullen and his friends shape their own lives by supporting each other’s individual projects and inspiring each other during creative slumps.
Back at the coffee shop, Bullen explained, “We’re just trying to push each other. The people that we’re associating ourselves with are the next huge deal. It’s kind of exciting to realize that.” Then he raised his mug, looked me in the eye, and says “Yo, I wanna make a toast to the people at this table. We’ve got some extreme talent in all of us.”
And even though it was just coffee and I was with them for only an afternoon, in that moment, I fully understood the support and the love of Shawn Bullen and the crew he shares with his friends.