Update 3:40 p.m.: Alison Oksner responded to messages sent via Instagram, saying that the building’s owner hired a painter to cover the original mural on northeastern end of Clarion Alley after it fell victim to graffiti. According to Oskner, a man named Bill was hired to paint over graffiti that had vandalized the original mural and provided the primer layer of paint. She began to paint the mural only after the old mural was covered up by owners.
“I would truly never paint over another artist’s work intentionally,” she wrote.
Earlier this month, Alison Oksner, an out-of-towner and, some would say, free spirit, began painting a mural honoring local homeless residents. Unfortunately, the owner of the building — located toward the middle of Clarion Alley — failed to approve.
Undeterred, Oksner moved last week to the far northeast corner, where the alley ends at Mission Street. After getting permission from the owner of 2118 Mission St., she resumed her work, she said. Mission Local first noticed her there on August 24.
This week, she finished her Walks of Life project, and that, too, will soon be painted over.
Oksner, whose website describes her as a 2018 graduate of George Washington University and still a resident of Washington D.C., said she did not seek permission from the Clarion Alley Mural Project, which oversees art on the alley. She only communicated with the mural project, known as CAMP, after she began painting her mural.
That, it turns out, was a mistake, says CAMP co-director Megan Wilson, who described Oksner in an e-mail: “she sounds like a self-absorbed burner who happened to be blowing through SF on her way to Burning Man and wanted to paint a mural in Clarion Alley.”
Camp said Oksner painted over a mural by the artist Mel Waters. His Cesar Chavez mural was only recently added, Wilson said, and followed another mural that Waters made in memory of two lovers who died in the Ghost Ship fire.
“So, regardless of whether she wants to describe her work as being about the community — she clearly has no respect for the community that she is not from and that her need to paint HER mural was more important than actually connecting with the community to get permission,” Wilson said in an email.
Elisa Khan, the owner of the building, said Oskner had her permission. The earlier mural, she said, was covered in graffiti, and her maintenance worker painted over it because they feared getting a ticket for graffiti.
Oksner described the mural application process as “blurry,” but said that she did receive permission from the owner at 2118 Mission St.
When CAMP adds new murals to the alley, it asks for applications or directly contacts artists it wants for a mural. The organization has contractual agreements with property owners along Clarion Alley that allow the group to curate and preserve the artwork there. Whenever a mural is vandalized, CAMP is notified and the original artist is notified, so that they can repair the damage. It’s unclear how Oksner worked for more than a week on the mural without CAMP stopping her.
Oksner’s project began, she said, when Tyrone Butler, a homeless resident, suggested that she put him in a mural and help tell his story. Butler made the suggestion after Oksner offered to do a hand-drawn portrait of him on a spot she had set up at 17th and Mission, doing paid portraits.
Walks of Life features Butler on the far left of the mural, with the words, “My name is Tyrone and this is the walk of my life. This is where I chose to tell my story of my life. I’ve been here since 1972 and these are my friends and this is a place where you can share your story.”
Others are depicted standing in an alley reminiscent of the real Clarion Alley.
In the email, Wilson said CAMP would be painting over Walks of Life soon.
Oskner, who may have left town, did not return calls.
We spoke with a few of the people depicted in the mural.
“I’m tired of holding stuff in”
Tyrone Butler, the first man in the far left of the mural, said his family moved to San Francisco from New Orleans when he was nine. The family moved around the city, first living with an aunt in Sunnydale and then moving to the Double Rock Projects in Bayview. As a kid, he spent a lot of time in the Mission. But in his teens, Butler spent a lot of time in and out of jail. By the time he was in his 20s, he had matriculated to prison.
In prison, he kept to himself, avoided the gangs and found Islam, he said. Shortly after being released at age 31, Butler was sleeping on the streets. His luck changed, he said, and Butler met his wife-to-be and later moved to Las Vegas. Things went sour for Butler after he found out his mother was dying. Soon after he returned to the city to bury his mother, his wife passed away.
Again, Butler was on the streets.
“I still feel good, because I know God has my back,” Butler said. “I know people who love me have my back. I know that I can speak now and not hold anything back.”
He looks at the half finished mural and studies it as a crowd gathers around Oksner, watching her paint.
“That’s why I call this the Walk of Life. The walk of my life, and how I was happy in the good parts, and how I was in the bad parts.”
“My name is Jose, and I’m Cuban.”
Jose Calderon, 67, depicted on the far right of mural, was born in Havana and learned to play musical instruments when he was young. While working for a meat company in Cuba, he joined an employee band that played folkloric music. It was then, he said, that he really learned to love playing.
His time at the meat company left him with back injuries that continue to limit his mobility.
“I’m one of the Marielitas,” he said, referring to the thousands of Cubans that left Port Mariel in Cuba back in the 1980s.
Calderon learned English at night school. Nowadays, he lives in nearby low-income housing and spends his days playing music with his friend David Soriano.
His daily dress is inspired by AfroCuban traditions. The straw hat he holds, he said, was a gift from an old friend and, when he wanted a mask to wear while playing small congas, he glued the hat and the mask together. Fortunately for Calderon, his mask was included in the mural. The rest of his outfit is made from recycled fabrics.
We’re not going anywhere
David Soriano wants to let everyone know that the old Mission is still alive, and that its residents are not going anywhere.
Soriano, 64, has been living in the Mission for 50 years and plays his flute to Latin Jazz over a bluetooth speaker at places like Clarion Alley, Dolores Park and Fisherman’s Wharf.
Self-taught, Soriano said he plays for fun and, like his friend Calderon, he too lives in a low-income unit. It’s his last line of defense, he said.
“This painting is an homage to everyone in this neighborhood,” Soriano said.
Soriano said he was walking along Mission Street when Oksner pulled him aside and asked him to pose. In the mural, he is next to his friend Calderon.
“This is my Mission, and no one will take it from me,” said Soriano, picking up his flute, and entertaining the street with a melody from Latin Jazz.