The Secret Gardener Behind SF’s Street Etchings

On Guerrero near Hill Street. Photo by Lydia Chávez

Like any youngster faced with a patch of freshly poured cement on a city street or sidewalk, the young street artist felt the call to etch something into the empty wet canvas.

“I didn’t think it would become a habit,” he says.

But a habit, or arguably an obsession, is precisely what it became. At first, the artist – who for legal and personal reasons prefers to be anonymous – used only initials, borrowing the trademark signature of the Northern Renaissance painter Albrecht Dürer, who signed his work with a capital D tucked under a large capital A.

He kept the signature, but moved on to flowers, giving pride of place to a sturdy weed, the dandelion, and later to variations. Later, he dropped the AD and now, a quarter of a century after his first etching, the street artist has created the ultimate public garden – some 60 to 80 long-stemmed flowers dug into the city’s cement.

Although he works alone, the etcher is part of a culture of street artists who use repetitive images in one city, often then moving onto other cities. Space Invader’s mosaics started in Paris – to set the Space Invader free from video games – and are now in 65 cities and 33 countries. Jeremy Novy has stenciled his Koi fish in numerous neighborhoods of San Francisco.

For his part, the San Francisco artist has placed one flower in Goa, India, near a fish market (it reminded him of his childhood in Mombasa) and another in El Cerrito (a girlfriend lived there) and “there might be some in L.A.” However, he has kept his practice mostly local and the etched stems and flowers appear underfoot to break the monotony of sidewalks and gutters in the Western Addition, North Beach, the Mission and Potrero Hill.

Although the urban flowers were inspired by such works as Dürer’s The Great Piece of Turf (1503), the artist insists that he doesn’t compare himself to the German artist. Rather, his etchings are “something I want people to enjoy and hopefully I am offering something but I’m also releasing something out of myself,” he says on a rapid walk through the Mission to inspect some of his favorite local creations.

Left, an early flower on 24the Street. Right, a later flower near 22nd and Valencia streets. Photo by Lydia Chávez

The cement engraver’s story is quintessentially San Franciscan. He arrived in the city in 1990, fleeing a conservative Catholic family in the Central Valley to “find himself.”

That took some time. He spent 13 years at San Francisco’s City College before graduating from San Francisco State. It was during that period that he embarked on his etchings. Even after graduating and getting a good day job, he continued to roam the city, sniffing out sites or getting texts from friends who alerted him to a fresh pour.

In the beginning, he was careful to improvise, using objects he found nearby as his tools. If the police were to pick him up, he said, he imagined he would say, “I was only using what was there.” A feeble excuse, he recognizes, but it kept him on the streets – and sidewalks.

“What ends on our streets are cars, oil and garbage,” he maintains. “It is not a sacred space.” It is, however, still public space, and street art is technically vandalism – one reason why the artist, who has never been ticketed, likes to protect his identity.

The street artist examines an early, simple flower near Bartlett and 24th Streets. Photo by Lydia Chávez

Eventually he started bringing his own tools to his work – lately a small red flathead screwdriver has been his favorite. He also began to sketch botanicals so that he could quickly do the same in the 15 minutes he might have on a work site.

Throughout the years, he has kept a meticulously catalogued record of his outings, noting place, date, time, flower size, canvas condition, tool, notes, traffic, contractor, and his own rating of his accomplishment as well as a post-install note.

Often the latter is summarized thus: “…piece was almost entirely eradicated.”

The perfect canvas? “More buttery than sandy,” he noted on August 12, 2010.

At times, rival etchings surface. He noted that on March 4, 2010, at Dolores and 16th streets, “Two girls entered their initials too. There was a nice heart already there.” On September 23, 2015, at 301 Granada @ Ocean, “another passerby dropped his tag in a couple places.”

Occasionally he pays tribute to someone. An etching on Dolores near 17th Street pays homage to 38-year-old Police Officer Jon Cook, who was killed in a June 2002 accident at that corner. In his records, the artist notes that he used a “dull small red screwdriver” on a “medium” cement canvas, and that the first flower was destroyed by a “road/sewer improvement.”

In the future, such etchings may become scarcer. The sketcher of flowers says that in the past year, he’s probably completed only six flowers and is considering moving on to another project. A hint – it has to do with mosquito abatement and ice cream cones.

Yet he’s unsure if wet cement is something he can abandon altogether. “It’s funny,” he says. “There is still a compulsion.”

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5 Comments

  1. Sherry Baltodano

    Can u do one for my son who was stab
    September 9th n pass away on the 10th of September 2014.
    It happen on the corner of 24th n capp.
    His name was Ronnie Goodman gr.
    He was 20 at the time n would have been 21
    3 days after he was killed. Thank u sherry.

  2. This is great. I’ve been looking at these flowers for years and years and wondering about them. I love seeing them!

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