Erik Schmitt’s guerrilla art highlights the choking disparities of Bay Area life

Sam Brannan’s name is now best known for the street running through SoMa, Ground Zero of San Francisco’s latest gold rush. But, during Gold Rush 1.0, it was Brannan who purportedly shouted, “There’s gold in them thar hills!” while gallivanting through the streets of San Francisco (also, in a bit of cheek, he managed to get himself excommunicated from the Mormon church when officials claimed he pocketed the tithe money, and he purportedly replied that God could have the cash when he asked for it — in writing.).

“Streets of gold” is a common refrain for the opportunity drawing outsiders to this and other American cities — and the inevitable disappointment for many, because our streets aren’t paved in gold. They’re paved in pavement.

Except on Sycamore Street. That’s because artist Erik Schmitt painstakingly applied some $75 worth of gold leaf to a bollard here separating the street from a row of rancid trash cans outside the Elbo Room — part of around $600 worth of gold he’s painted onto mundane public objects around the Bay Area in a guerilla art installation.

This is not Schmitt’s first foray into displacement-themed San Francisco guerilla art. He recently concluded a fellowship at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, and says the YBCA loved his idea of gilding random municipal objects around the city — but it begged out of being involved in this project because obtaining permission to paint city property would be onerous. Not obtaining permission is something YBCA wasn’t in for. But Schmitt is. 

Erik Schmitt paints the Mission gold from Mission Local on Vimeo.

So, like Brannan, he’ll remove his gilded manhole covers, sewer grates and road bollards when he’s asked to. In writing.

Why do this? Why painstakingly apply gold leaf in three-and-a-quarter-inch-square sheets to random objects? This is not as easy as spray-painting something gold, by the way. It requires scourings and cleanings and application of adhesives, which must harden just so — and then you put on your gold. And, if it’s windy, you watch the strips of gold blow out of your hands and crumble as they flap along the pavement.

Schmitt’s reasoning is two-fold. Painting everyday objects in gold is a statement about how “San Francisco is becoming an elite community were access can only be obtained by the richest people in America.” And it’s not just San Francisco; affordability is a Bay Area-wide problem, and Schmitt has painted objects in the North Bay and East Bay as well (he also figures that, spread out across several cities, it’s less likely he’ll be asked to remove his artwork in each and every spot). You can virtually visit all of his installations here.  

So there’s that. And, he says, it’s also a way to bring a little unanticipated beauty into people’s lives. And that’s valid. A shiny gold object in the middle of the street is a head-turner, even in this city. Folks stare. Folks laugh. Folks pee on it. Of course.

“If nobody molested it? It’d last 100 years. Easy,” says Schmitt of the gold bollard on Sycamore. But that’s not the point. Already it’s clear someone has posted a sticker on it and someone else has peeled the sticker off. And something — or someone — has relieved themselves here.

There’s pee on them thar bollard.

“It’s like any other public art project,” Schmitt says. “Some people will respond well to it and others want to destroy it the first chance they get.”

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