Photograph courtesy of the San Francisco Arts Commission.

Mission Loc@l: So when did you decide to become an artist?

Jet Martínez:  I was studying Spanish literature at the University of Colorado. I was in my third year, and I took my first painting class ever. I had this art teacher –  he wasn’t a very good painter. I thought, “If he can do it, I can do it.”

And so I dropped out of college and spent a few years building up a portfolio. I worked during the day, and painted at night. I lived it. Being young – I didn’t have much of an identity yet. Suddenly I wasn’t just the guy who worked at Wild Oats. I applied to SFAI and got in.

ML: What did you  learn in art school? 

JM: Art school – it made me a lot more self-conscious for a long time. When I graduated I thought that maybe I could have done that on my own. Especially the Arts Institute, which doesn’t really teach you technique as much as  it teaches art as a spiritual practice.

What did I learn? I learned to put some[expletive deleted] color in it. I learned how to organize a studio. If you don’t know how to keep brushes clean, you’re going to be spending a lot of money. Professors would see things that I was trying to do and they would give advice. They would say “I see you’re trying to use gold here. Get into gold leaf.”

ML: Did you do murals in school?

JM: When I was in school we would go to Dogpatch. That’s where Barry McGee and all those people went to practice their shit. It was before they ever built Mission Bay. Before the rail line went down 3rd Street. There were literally tumbleweeds rolling down the streets. Those were the cutties.  I’d put down a drop cloth down and the police would drive by and just wave. Like I looked official because I had a dropcloth.

ML: What’s one of the murals that you did down there? 

JM: You know Muybridge? I did a gibbon swinging.

ML: Is it still there? 

JM: Nah. It’s lofts now.

This city was a tough nut to crack. I had to do a lot of work to persuade people to let me paint on their walls. They would act like it was them doing me a favor.

ML: What did you do after you graduated? 

JM: I worked at mural companies, and as a faux finisher.

ML: What sort of murals did you do? 

JM: I did the classic Tuscan broken wall with a Tuscan scene in the distance. I don’t know how many mcmansions in Woodside have that. I did a lot of cherubs. In the sky. A lot of clouds.

You know PF Changs? I worked on those murals. We would paint them on canvas and then they would be shipped to the different locations. I painted the Wynn Casino – just miles and miles of flowery shapes. Totally banal. Filler. Just more noise for the casino.

I did Venetian plaster. Frescos.

ML: What kind of a person hires someone to put a fresco in their house? 

JM: Pretentious people. Rich people who want to make their new house look like a legacy house. In one house I had to cover the inside of five fireplaces with a black glaze to add in a sooty feeling. I was like “burn a [expletive deleted]  fire.”

My first public art job was for the city of Oakland. I was hired to paint a mural in Terminal 2. That spot was crazy. It was a good-sized wall right by the luggage carousel. I would be wearing my headphones and painting, and I would turn around and see 300 people staring at me.

Then my wife, Kelly Ording, and I got the Ms. Teriosa piece, through the San Francisco Arts Commission.  That was fun. We got some of the craziest questions.

I thought that the San Francisco Arts Commission was this impossible bureaucracy. Then I realized it was just people. If I was going to give advice, it would be to approach those people. I’d recommend the public art world. It’s really empowering. They really want to discover young artists. The process is fairly transparent. With the galleries,  you don’t really know.

ML: A lot of people think of the Mission as this very artistic place. What do you think about the Mission, as an artist? 

JM: I think…I’m a director at Clarion Alley. And Clarion Alley used to be a bad place. They had the police station on one end and one of the worst crack and heroin spots in the city on the other. I hate to say it, but I think art has made the Mission a safe place for the gentrifiers. I can’t help but feel guilty sometimes, going down there to clean up the alley and make it all spiffy.

ML: Do you still live in the Mission?

JM: I ironically used to work at 22nd and Folsom. I did it for years and I couldn’t get a job here .Then we found a place in Oakland, and suddenly I have all these jobs in the Mission.

Although – living in Oakland. It’s like a flashback to the Mission 15 years ago. I went to the owner of my local corner store. I brought my portfolio and I said, “I’ll paint your wall for free if you’ll let me do whatever I want.”

ML: He didn’t go for it?

JM: No. I mean, he’s Yemeni, so that may have something to do with it. But I’m not painting humans or the face of god or anything.

Right now I’m in a real hustle. My wife and I – our careers were starting to move along when our first kid came along. Then it slowed down. Then we had our second kid, just as it was starting to pick up again, and it slowed some more.

Now it’s picking up. I work, and when I’m not at work, I’m with my kids. I feel like I’m setting an example for them, working at the thing that I love. I’m trying hard to make art seem like a normal thing to do.

ML: Are there any other artists in your family? 

JM: No. But as it turns out, my great grandfather on my mothers side was a muralist. He did a mural in the train station in Kansas City. But I didn’t know that.

ML: What did your parents do?

JM: My mom was a missionary Catholic nurse. She was in Mexico – literally out in the middle of nowhere. Like a 12-hour plane trip to a 6-hour bus ride to a 5-hour donkey ride kind of village.

One day she went to the nearby port town to get supplies. She went to a dance party there, and met my dad.

ML: And what did your dad do?

JM:  My dad was an underwater welder. Now, I complain about my job being hard, but  he had a hard job.

ML: Do you have any other advice for young artists?

JM: A major one for me is just to answer my phone and my email. That sounds so trivial, but it’s huge.

Learn from watching your peers. Like Chor Boogie. Dude is famous. He was asked to go to the Berlin Wall and paint a chunk of it, and that chunk sold for $700,000. Sometimes when I hang out with him, people act like he’s Jesus. But he always answers his phone.

Or Rigo 23. His work is about social causes. It’s importatnt to remember about people like Rigo, and realize – art is about culture, society. Everything we know about the Romans we know through their art.

You don’t need to be a star. There is room for many artists in the world. And most people, no matter how famous they are, don’t prance around thinking “I’m awesome.”

And don’t agree to do something if you can’t follow through. Follow through.

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Heather Smith covers a beat that spans health, food, and the environment, as well as shootings, stabbings, various small fires, and shouting matches at public meetings. She is a 2007 Middlebury Fellow in Environmental Journalism and a contributor to the book Infinite City.

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  1. Martínez is easily one of San Francisco’s finest muralists. His new work on Bartlett Street is beautiful, and I’m happy that I was able to photograph it.

    aka: camarógrafo

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