My Mission: Bruce Tomb

The wall recently: nudes, exhortations to read John Steinbeck, posters advertising a Goth Cry-In sponsored by Gay Shame.

The wall recently: nudes, exhortations to read John Steinbeck, posters advertising a Goth Cry-In sponsored by Gay Shame.

MyMission is a series of interviews with a diverse group of people in the Mission. Some of them you may know already. Some of them may be complete strangers to you. Some are famous. Some are less so. All of them see the Mission in a slightly different way.

Bruce Tomb is a quiet guy. You probably know him best through the wheatpasted artwork that appears on a blank section of wall on Valencia Street, between 23rd and 24th. The wall is part of the old Mission Police Station, which Tomb bought at a city auction in 1996 and turned into a home and architecture studio.

Tomb’s decision to protect the wall, with its graffiti and wheatpasted posters, from both the anti-graffiti squads of the Department of Public Works and the glossy advertisements slapped up by crews that comb the Mission looking for any blank space to put a Heineken ad, transformed it into a surprising and voluble community space.

In the late ’90s, the art on the wall made jibes at the dot-com era, the Mission’s gentrification wars and Willie Brown’s mayoral administration. Post 9-11, the wall made fun of George Bush and Osama Bin Laden. When artists from other cities, like Swoon or Shepherd Fairey, passed through town, you could usually tell by checking out the wall. Now the wall is mostly apolitical and Dadaesque — jokes, and in-jokes, and the usual scrawls about love and identity and what it means to be human.

Mission Local: Why did you move to the Mission?

Bruce Tomb: I lived in SOMA for 15 years and got squeezed out during the boom. When I had first moved to SOMA in the ’80s, it was the frontier. A lot of the people and businesses there had been cleared out by the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency, but nothing had been built yet. And the earthquake had just happened. Until Brainwash opened, there wasn’t even a place to do your laundry. You could walk down the middle of the street at night with your eyes closed. You could do anything.

When I moved to the Mission, it was so alive. It was clear when I moved here that this was a neighborhood. Everything you needed was in a few blocks. You never had to leave.

One of an enigmatic series of posters, 2005.

ML: Have you ever gotten to meet any of the artists who post on the wall?

BT: It’s not about an opportunity to meet all of these amazing artists. I think for many years most of the people participating assumed that it was not legal.

ML: How do you manage to keep advertising off the wall?

BT: Early on I had some run-ins with commercial work. Now it’s self-regulating.

ML: You don’t have to take it down?

BT: No. Just on two occasions. The State of California had obviously hired an ad agency to do a guerilla anti-smoking campaign. It amounted to state-sanctioned graffiti. I threatened them with a lawsuit. The second was an ad agency promoting itself: gogorilla.com. They had clearly made a business for themselves out of illegality. I got on the phone. I started talking to people. Within three days, it was gone. That was at least 10 years ago.

ML: Did you feel like this neighborhood was safe when you moved here?

BT: We used to have homeless people camp out on our porch as a way to prevent worse things from happening there. But then a fellow died on our front porch. A John Doe.

ML: What did he die of?

BT: I’m not sure. Alcohol poisoning. Or exposure. The gate went in after that. My son was seven years old at the time. It didn’t feel right to have that going on nearby.

But I still see a lot of those old characters around the neighborhood. They’re around.

ML: How do you feel about the changes in the Mission since you moved here?

BT: I’m not a particularly sentimental person. I love things that have come before, but I love the new as well. I lived in Florence for a year. That’s a museum city.

Here, the only thing you know for sure is that it will change. When I first moved to the city, North Beach was a vital cultural center. Mabuhay Gardens was San Francisco’s CBGB. And who cares about North Beach now? If Valencia were to become like Columbus, or Haight Street, what would the wall look like? Would it become a plain wall again? Would anyone care?

ML: Has the wall changed?

BT: It doesn’t seem to be as active as it used to be. 2002-2004 — that was the peak. A crescendo of political and artistic players had arrived. The content was fiery because of Bush and Afghanistan. There was a lot of sparring going on. Call and response. Things going up, where it was clear that the placement was conscious as to what got hidden and what stayed revealed.

Bin Laden stencil, 2006.

ML: What are your favorite places in the Mission?

BT: Dolores Park. Clarion Alley. That’s quite amazing. I enjoy Mission Street. It’s so different from Valencia. It’s just so crazy and eclectic. It kind of blows my mind when I think about how homogeneous Valencia is visually. It’s predictable. But I’ll be walking down Mission and I’ll see a handpainted barbershop sign that was not done by anyone with artistic skill, but it’s delightful. Not pretentious.

That sort of environment is necessary for me. It gives me pause in my own work. So much of what I do is ponderous. Perfection is overrated.

My son is 18 years old, and it’s fascinating to go walking with him. He sees the city completely differently than I do. There’s a very deep, and different, way of understanding the city.

I think I know this city. I trained as an architect. I think of the city as a series of consequences due to urban planning and policies. To my son, the city is completely different. It’s that kind of difference that I think — maybe I’m being romantic — but he sees it in a way that I never can.

ML: How does he see it?

BT: He sees the city as a constellation of sites and potential sites for graffiti. They have nothing to do with the streets as pedestrians see them. When Banksy was in town, and we were driving past 9th and Howard, he spotted that stencil right away. He’s so attuned.

When a kid walks around all night from sunset till dawn — an established person would be doing something. That time that a kid has, and their ability to just immerse themselves with complete abandon — that’s a privileged place.

ML: Have you ever put anything up on the wall yourself?

BT: I put up an “I Voted” sticker.

I did actions on the wall early on that I think helped catalyze it into what it has become. I did subtractive cuttings — making circles that went down through the layers. I painted on a checkerboard pattern — that was additive. I painted a big shape on the wall to highlight what was inside it.

I didn’t start taking images of the wall until 2000. I’ve been working with an anthropologist and archaeologist named Phoebe France on how to organize those. We’ve tagged every image with date/subject/media/theme. In another 10 years, I’ll have 20 years of documentation.

Also: In 2001, I harvested the entire wall. It’s an incredible artifact.

ML: What does it look like?

BT: It’s huge. The most amazing part is seeing it from the back. It’s like looking out at how the wall must see the world.

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