From All Cities to All Cities: Urban art in San Francisco, Visual Culture, and Free Opinion in the Streets

Within works of art, messages are conveyed through various mediums and methods of expression. Many street artists have established themselves around the globe, growing in popularity depending on the art and the messaging/themes within. Barry McGee, based in California, creates art that is rising in fame, combining different techniques and styles in order to successfully portray different messages throughout an overall theme of realism and urban life in “lower class” areas and communities. In essence, the hybrid genres and media use realism, appropriation and combination of objects common in society in order to make a statement concerning political and social regimes of thought, as well as remix of multiple genres of urban art. His art spreads messages within society, and getting those messages to be heard beyond one’s hometown with a post-photographic and post-internet style.

McGee invtented a style that, “celebrated a life of improvised urban poverty, skater and surfer attitude, graffiti struggles to claim city turf, art school punk point of view, and other youthful shenanigans” (Pritikin). The art he involved himself with, whether it be individuals or group creations, took a lot of skill and thought but was designed not to look as thought much effort was put forth. McGee used the cheapest of materials, including real life items found on a daily basis in an urban area, quick rendering of images, a variety of subjects within the photos (from “feminist heroines to the bums on the street”), and hobo train art.  Some of the elements included in his works varied from empty liquor bottles and spray paint cans, to tagged signs, to wrenches and scrap wood or metal. The compilation and remix between the various combinations of this style makes his artwork a perfect embodiment and collage of the skater/surfer atmosphere.

McGee’s street credibility and dissemination of his artwork on the web were the two main techniques that needed perfecting in order to get the messages he wished to portray past the borders of his community. The city is his art; his home environment. His artwork was solely inspired by the intimate culture and experiences throughout the city’s streets. In many of his works, McGee draws from his roots of the Mission District in San Francisco, CA, as well as punk and hip-hop styles to remix his art, and was inspired from the contemporary urban culture he knew so well and the gentrification of his hometown since the 1970s. For example, in some of his works on the street, (many used to claim his work was “vandalism), he liked to overturn cars and sometimes light them on fire, using spray-paint to color and pattern the surrounding walls of his work in the streets.



(To view more of McGee’s work, click here: McGee Images)

How I see the hybrid genres and media used by this artist in a dialogic situation is through the integration of elements from all possible interests and relatable appeal within the city. His work was one that allowed direct communication between the art world and the constituents within that area. The street art and graffiti represented on street corners and walls is a vital method of communication that keeps the two entities in touch, while conveying messages concerning social, political, or economic standpoints of living. It allows art to connect with a larger, more diverse audience in the public realm of people’s homes (rather than that of a gallery or the walls of a museum, with known intention of holding creations from various artists). This medium of communication is imperative for messaging and popular support of individuals living within those regions. For example, McGee’s “trademark icon” is that of a male caricature that has sagging eyes and bewildered expression. It is said to represent the homeless people who call the streets their home. “McGee’s characters look anguished, depressed and frustrated with the lower class urban life of which they are a part of” (Hawkins). We as humans are aware of many poverty stricken areas of the United States as well as the world. But, for someone to demonstrate it as a reminder for those who walk past it every day through art, could enlighten those who have never been to the location, and encourage others who do to take action.

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To inform, to encourage, to generate a message and visual culture that is shared by all is the goal, even if it involves a little risk-taking. When asked about the danger involved in painting his early works of street art, McGee responded, revealing a good bit of character, “I like that aspect of it. You have to get it done without getting caught. I’ve been caught so many times. I was in New York one time. I think I was writing ‘Abort Bush’ on Canal Street. I’d done three or four roll-up gates. On the fourth one – I think the Republican convention was in town, it just wasn’t the right time to be doing that – this taxicab rolled up and four cops jumped out. You just go into the system for twenty-four hours. Community service… that’s part of it.”

(To see McGee in some art-making action, watch this: McGee at Work)

These messages through street art within cities around the world are all representations of struggles, positives, negatives, movements, etc. that a group of citizens could encounter. Within the cities and complexities of visual culture in urban environments, comes an interconnected sense of thematic memorandum throughout the network of global cities. It takes the culture of each place and dematerializes it, breaking it down to represent the elements and experiences of every day life. With McGee making a statement of visual culture in the environment of his city, it prefaces the connection between his city and others, yet maintaining an identity unique to his hometown.

Street art is revolutionizing the way in that individuals are responsive to the real world, bringing to light many aspects of socio-political regimes of visibility as well as the visual construct of struggle and culture. From San Fran, to all cities located on the globe, street art is bringing the free opinion of artists to light, emphasizing the lives of urban communities through hybrid genres of expression.

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Works Cited

“Barry McGee.” Art21. Art21 Magazine, 2001. Web. 17 Mar. 2014. <>

Hawkins, Dannie. “Barry McGee: Street Art Becomes High Art.” The Guardsman. N.p., 2014. Web. 17 Mar. 2014. <>.

Martin Irvine, “The Work on the Street: Street Art and Visual Culture” (pdf). See also the thumbnail list of images cited (pdf). Chapter in The Handbook of Visual Culture, ed. Barry Sandywell and Ian Heywood. London/New York: Berg, 2012: 235-278. This is a preprint pdf of the book chapter; for personal use only. This book chapter represents a work in progress toward my own book on street art and city.

Pritikin, Renny. “Barry McGee.” Huck Magazine. N.p., 18 Mar. 2013. Web. 17 Mar. 2014. <>.