Interview: The Blue Bears of San Francisco

We sat down with iconic SF art icon Sirron Norris

Sirron Norris is a muralist and commercial artist. His recognizable murals can be found in public spaces throughout San Francisco. He chatted with us about moving to San Francisco, the differences between graffiti artists and muralists, and the future of digital art.

Sirron Norris, by Ohad Ben-Yoseph

Sirron Norris, by Ohad Ben-Yoseph

Hey Sirron, thanks for chatting with us. So tell us, when did you first start making street art?

I guess you mean “street art” in a literal way, but I have a problem with that term. Describing classic murals as street art is disrespecting artists. Most people don’t realize there’s a big eternal battle between graffiti artists and muralists right now. I have a problem with murals and graffiti art getting lumped together. One is totally different than the other. One is relatively ephemeral, usually the subject matter is limited, it probably doesn’t have a narrative at all, and it can be done at a large scale in under an hour. That’s graffiti art. It’s not expected to last. Everyone just expects it to go away. Murals tell about people’s histories, murals have a huge history in San Francisco, murals are painted with a brush, and murals take months to create.

Cool. Thanks for clarifying, I had no idea the difference. No disrespect intended!

Yeah of course, no problem at all.

Tell us about moving to San Francisco and getting started as a muralist.

People think of me as this gentrification artist, because I came into the Mission at the exact same time that the original dot-com boom happened. My first mural, at Bryant and 20th, took me three months to do, and that was when nobody gave a shit about the Mission, so it was really easy to get spots. Then the Mission just blew up around it. I’m not a huge fan of that mural, I’m kind of embarrassed by it. It’s now 14 years old, but people have grown up with and it would be horrible for me to take it down or replace it.

When I started, I came in with an aesthetic very different from what you saw the Mission, a largely Latino community at the time. I came from Ohio, and I don’t have a Latino or indigenous background to celebrate or illustrate the plight of my people in a mural. So I thought of creating a mural about myself. I also thought all the murals around me looked the same. They had depressing subject matter with bright colors. So I decided to do a monochromatic mural and a subject matter that had nothing to do with anything other than myself and San Francisco. It really kind of messed people up. They didn’t have any idea of what they were seeing. That was part of the reason I’ve had success — I did something different in the context of something we’re something so familiar with.

Sirron’s first mural in SF, located at Bryant & 20th

Sirron’s first mural in SF, located at Bryant & 20th

And what is your favorite mural?

My favorite one is Calumet, because it’s my biggest and it was the biggest personal challenge. It’s just a few blocks away from my first mural, and you can see the major progression of my work. It was a monster sized mural — I was on scaffolding for months. It was 600 square feet and I had to organize a huge team of 15 people. For the project, I got a bunch of money from a company and decided to involve members of the community in helping to create the mural. I have a huge adversarial relationship with graffiti artists, and I thought hiring graffiti artists would let them appreciate what it is to paint a mural with a brush and actually spend time on something. I also hoped that the community of taggers would then respect the work, because other taggers and graffiti artists had worked on it. It didn’t really work though. I’ve been cleaning tags off that mural since day one. So you know, I tried at least. But that’s my favorite and biggest, most organized project.

Sirron’s Calumet mural, located at 18th & Bryant

Sirron’s Calumet mural, located at 18th & Bryant

Having your work get tagged constantly sounds so frustrating. How do you handle it when that happens?

It’s sad, to be perfectly honest with you. I had a certain budget for Calumet, but I had to take $3000 out of that money to buy graffiti coat to put on the mural. $3000 is a significant amount of money, and yet I’m sitting there spending $3000 because some people are assholes. When I saw the bill for the graffiti coat, I thought, Can I just find the main tagger and give him $200 and say, “Just don’t tag my shit”? [Laughs] But you have to spend money to protect yourself and make sure your work doesn’t get ruined. You’re still going to have to clean up the tags. I have seven murals throughout San Francisco and that means I’ll never be able to leave, for the rest of my life I’m committed to driving around the city on a weekly or monthly basis to all my murals and cleaning all the tags off of them. I do benefit off my murals, don’t get me wrong, but at the same time if you really want to be a muralist, if you really want to respect your community, then you have the responsibility to clean them up and make sure your murals don’t go to the wayside by getting hit by taggers. It sucks, but that’s the way it goes.

San Francisco and the Mission District, in particular, have a special relationship with murals. And you depict San Francisco a lot in your art. Tell us about that.

I don’t know the exact genesis of murals, but the Mission District has a long lasting relationship with the Latino community, and artists like Diego Rivera, Spain Rodriguez, and even R. Crumb. These people all did murals in parts of the Mission that weren’t populated by white people. It was a place that was possibly a little bit dangerous. Murals were created to discuss the plight of particular populations, whether they be Mexican, Salvadorian, Cesar Chavez and that movement, or the Conquistadors. There are million of subjects that murals tackle, usually very dark subjects. Murals are a celebration of culture. At the same time, murals are also a product of necessity, right? The Mission didn’t used to have the kind of gentrification issues we have now. Nobody wanted to go there if you were white, because it was kind of dangerous. The houses were run-down. A lot of the houses were getting tagged and taken over by gangs, so murals were created out of necessity to beautify the community. It made the community feel safer for children. Even though the neighborhoods might have been dangerous, people still wanted their kids to feel safe.

Now there’s not the same sense of necessity because there are million-dollar homes in the Mission. People are not going to let their houses go by the wayside. If they have a big fence, they’re not going let that go unpainted because it’s going to get killed by tags and it’s going to be aesthetically unpleasing. They’re going to fix it. There’s a commercialized sense to murals now. Walgreens will open up a new store in the Mission, and they’ll put up a mural so they aren’t treated as invaders as much as they might be. At least that’s what I believe.

Where did you come up with your Blue Bear concept?

That’s a good question. The bear was my high school mascot, and I ended moving to California, where the state animal is the bear. And bears were always this symbol of love to me, just because I see a duality in terms of how we perceive the bear. One, we perceive the bear as a really scary grizzly bear, gonna kill you bear. Two, we see the bear as a teddy bear: cute, loving, soft, and cuddly. And that’s a lot like love, right? It can be really horrible and painful or it can be beautiful and cuddly. So I thought the bear was this great metaphor and symbol for love. At the time I created the blue bear, I was not in a relationship, I was kind of depressed about love. Hence, the blue color. It just stuck from there.

One of Sirron’s Blue Bears for his NeonMob collection

One of Sirron’s Blue Bears for his NeonMob collection

Tell us about the collection you made for NeonMob?

It gave me an opportunity to take that bear in every possible direction known to man, without using words. I was just sort of praying and spraying creatively; trying to create images with the bear that were captivating and interesting without repeating myself. It started off with a narrative but then it just turned into experiencing the bear in his fullest, from being dangerous to being cute to being funny to being sad. I was trying to experience every possible emotional experience that the bear could go through. I’ve never really drawn him in all those colors and ideas and backgrounds. It was fun.

Where do you think digital art is going?

I literally have not drawn on a piece of paper in a good three years. I just got a 24” Cintiq, a top of the line monster tablet and it’s just beautiful. In the future, it will be a sweet, nice little novelty that people actually paint and draw on analog devices, like paper and canvas. I think people will still do it, but it’ll be more of a novelty.

In the future, everyone’s going to have access to create cool digital art without actually being a quote-unquote artist. That means to stand out as an artist, you’re going to have to stand out as being innovative. Your personal style is what is going to shine outside the pre-programmed filters and assets that will prevail in the art world through software over the next 20 years. So everyone’s going to be more of an artist, everyone’s going to have access to being an artist. But not everyone’s going to have access to originality, not everyone’s going to have access to style. That’s what I believe the future is.

Thanks Sirron!

Go see Sirron’s collection, Blue Bears, on NeonMob!