Melyssa Barrett: Welcome to the Jali Podcast. I’m your host, Melyssa Barrett. This podcast is for those who are interested in the conversation around diversity, inclusion, and equity. Each week I’ll be interviewing a guest who has something special to share or is actively part of building solutions in this space. Let’s get started.
Lisa Brewer is the owner director of Mission Art415 Gallery and President of Mission Art415, a nonprofit organization. Founder of the Lilac Mural Project, San Francisco and International Art Gallery Fine Art Brokerage, Singapore, Dubai, Moscow, London, New York City, and Paris, she also sits on the San Francisco Supervisor’s Board for Graffiti Abatement and she’s the proud member of the San Francisco Department of Public Works, Adopt a Street since 2004. She’s the curator of Mission Art415, the Lilac Mural Project covering over 14 city blocks in the Mission District of San Francisco, which has the largest exterior art collection in the world. Mission Art415 works with local and international street artists in support of their amazing artistic talent, along with the property owners who are challenged with inner city graffiti vandalism. Lisa believes offering a commission mural is the solution to graffiti vandalism.
The artists share their talent in an outdoor art gallery, and the property owner enjoys amazing art that is unscathed by tagging. The Mission Art 515 Gallery, located at 2884 Mission Street in San Francisco, California showcases 36 local artists within various genres to proudly promote amazing art culture of San Francisco. Mission Art415 proudly offers educational mural tours around the Lilac Mural project located on Lilac Street and 24th Street in the Mission District of San Francisco.
Okay, so I am really, I’m again excited this week to talk with Lisa Brewer and she is doing amazing things in the city of San Francisco. And I really wanted to, aside from you being just so transformative in terms of representation and diversity and inclusion, we can talk a lot about your gallery and the Lilac Mural project, the Mission 415 Lilac mural project. But I really just wanted to start by talking about, maybe you could give us some context for how you even got into this. How did you even end up in San Francisco, all of those things?
Lisa Brewer: Well, first of all, I’m really honored to speak with you about this ’cause I’m so passionate about this journey that I’ve been on. My mom used to have a saying that God will put you where you’re meant to be. And that’s pretty much how I’ve lived my life. You plan things, but every once in a while you’re taken to a place and you’re like, what am I doing here? And then this magical little thing unfolds. So I’ll go back to, oh, two decades ago, I moved to San Francisco to be with my now husband, Randolph. And we lived in San Francisco proper, but we lived in the Mission District and at that time we’re going back 20 some years, it was really dangerous. It’s less dangerous now. So if anybody that’s familiar with the Mission District, it’s predominantly working class Latino, hard working people. But there was a big gang problem when we moved here.
And so we had the at one end of where we lived, a little street that ran parallel to Mission called Lilac Street. And it was really conducive to the Bart Station on 24th, which I took every day to go down to my gallery job down at the Embarcadero. So I moved to San Francisco, fell in love because it’s so diverse in culture and color, to open fruit markets. And I always felt like I was on vacation, I was somewhere else. So we loved the Mission, but our exterior environment was very challenging. So right off of Mission, you have the Bart Station and then you have Mission Street. And it was really conducive for a lot of bad behavior ’cause you could hide behind the little alley. And when you would look down this 20 block of Lilac right behind the McDonald’s, it just was the most seedy, toxic, urban decay, neglect.
And it affected me psychologically. So when I was younger, I went to school for existential psychology. So I would walk down the street and be like, what happened? Where? So I would be so conflicted, not only just viscerally in a physical way, but psychologically it affected me. Like what happened where? Did somebody not love these kids? Did they need more parental guidance? Do I help? Do I get offended? And there was a lot of drug use at that time and it really hit me because there were women my age shooting heroin, which in my lifetime I’ve been through a lot. That was never an option. Like you either, it hurts, you get over, you move on and you go to a better path. So I would find myself wanting to befriend these people cause out of humanity and curiosity. And it was just, I can’t even articulate the challenge from an intellectual standpoint. When you see somebody your age shooting a heroin in the street that should have a family or be loved by somebody and you’re trying to help, you don’t know how to help. So that was the precursor to all this.
So I said to my husband, “I cannot be on this street and step over these people every day on the way to my seven figure job at North Gallery.” It’s a very responsible director in brokering art internationally. I’m like, “I can’t do it, it’s killing me.” And I said, “I’ve got to move to somewhere like the marina, it’s killing me.” And he’s like, “Well, let’s bring in a muralist. And this is, I’m just giving you the honest story of this. He said, “Let’s bring in someone to paint the exterior of our flat. That way when you come home, you’ll have something to walk into nicely to greet you.”
So as I do this, these mural projects, and I speak about this at City Hall, if you have tagging on the building, if you have graffiti vandalism, it precipitates bad behavior. And the theory is from an existential point of view, if I don’t care about my property, then you shouldn’t care about my property. Go ahead and behave poorly. So when you look down this one street, it was nothing but black and red silver, two color throw ups they call it, it was awful. So you had all this bad energy coming in. So I said to Randolph, I’m like, “You know what? I grew up in rural Pennsylvania. If somebody paints on my building, I would instantly have them arrested.” So I’m coming from that whole paradigm. You don’t paint somebody’s house, it just doesn’t happen. So he would say, “No, you’re in a city, do what you do when you’re in a city. The only way to combat that is putting something beautiful on it.”
So I was not buying it. And then what I really wasn’t buying that we were paying for it. Can’t we just buy a house first and we get our own stuff? So we had this interesting passage when we first started. So we found an artist, his name is Cuba. Cuba is actually inducted in the Library of Congress as being the godfather of graffiti and Cuba came from Baltimore, Maryland. He was one of four siblings from a black family. But he moved to San Francisco to be homeless, to follow the Grateful Dead. And it wasn’t that Cuba was a great artist. God rested his soul, he’s no longer with us. It was that he was everywhere. His name was everywhere in this… And that was something that happened probably in the late ’90s, early 2000s. People just tagged their name everywhere. So they were branding themselves, which is kind of genius. So we brought in Cuba and Cuba brought in Mark Bodē.
Mark Bodē is known, and I’m sure your viewers will know his father was Vaughn Bodē. Vaughn Bodē was known as the brown comic book creator. And he started the comic book in Haight-Ashbury ’60s. And if you Google Vaughn Bodē, you’ll see Janice Joplin reading his comic books and Jimmy Hendricks, and he was one of those. He was also one of the first trans dressers in San Francisco. So there was a big billboard that went down the freeway and they had Bodē, who honestly looks like Jesus Christ, he had the white gauze gown on with the long hippie hair. And it was from Apple. And it said, “Think outside the box like Vaughn Bodē.” And Apple was promoting him as being a legendary creative thinker. So Mark Bodē being his only son, inherited all Vaughn’s creative when Vaughn passed and Vaughn passed at a very young age.
So Mark went to school, I think he was educated at Brown. It was a fierce education in animation, very well known cartoonist. He was also the creator of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. So when Cuba brought in Mark Bodē with all this pedigree, the world opened up and I’m not getting it ’cause I wasn’t in that space. Even though it’s art, I’m more of a Matisse, Renoir, Monet kind of art space. And my husband is all about the graffiti. If he knew all these people and he would be like, “Lisa, it’s Mark Bodē, it’s Cuba.” And I’d be like, “So who are these people? I don’t know them.” So he would nudge me and let me know who they were. I don’t know who they are. I mean I treat all people beautifully as just children of God. But I wasn’t starstruck by anybody by any means. So looking back over 20 years, the people that Randolph introduced me to are known as the legends of graffiti.
Graffiti, when I first started this project with Randolph, it was known as vandalism. It was a crime, it was a low brow art form that only vandals did. So somewhere after Andy Warhol discovered Jean-Michel Basquiat, graffiti became a pretty big thing. So I think Basquiat was the first graffiti artist that actually has brokered some of these for like 2.5 million. It is not a mural, it is raw, guttural, and the true sense of the word graffiti. So from that point, when Sotheby’s recognized, okay, this is something, then universities picked it up as a respected study art genre. So I watched that metamorphosis. So when I would work with department of public works or city hall or supervisors, I always called it urban art or street art. If I went in that G word, that graffiti word, they would look at me like, oh no, this is a crime. So I watched the evolution of this once toxic thing to do, turn into this really intersected art form.
And this process, it took us about, oh I’d say a year to actually gain momentum, to get these artists painting this one little tiny street. And it is a innocuous little side street. Nobody would notice it. So we painted our property with permission from our landlord and it was beautiful. And then I watched as something magical happened. Our neighbors would come out. Now Lilac Street, in the city here, especially in the mission, all the side streets were once carriage houses. So you’d take your horse and buggy into these garages and you’d park your horse and buggy in there. So the opposite end, the house, the master’s house, opulent. Like two million properties with it in the background. Then these little carriage houses. So with the gentrification, they were refurbishing these carriage houses into apartments, but still not part of the main house. The main house on Capp Street, which runs parallel to Lilac, they’re mansions. All in San Francisco, a lot of the side streets were carriage houses. So there was a lot of tagging and then it would bring in that bad element.
So we were on this little tiny side street and one mural turned into two turned into 15 blocks. And we were at the right place, at the right time, with open hearts and open minds. And my mind wasn’t as open as Randolph’s was. He got it. He’s a true visionary. He will understand greatness way before it happens. I need a little bit more convincing because of my more educational logical mind. Like ugh, let’s think all this through. Let’s think about the variables. And I really didn’t get the fact that we were paying for everything because we were struggling ourselves. We were not living large with trust accounts. We’re eating ramen to buy paint to beautify the environment. City Hall wanted absolutely nothing to do with it. It was just a pet project. No funding. Absolutely. Actually, we’ve never received a scintilla of funding. And we worked on the Earl Gates Junior Mural project, which was last year from supervisor Dean Preston. The only time in our path anyone ever funded or offered to fund anything.
So that’s how the story started. And I know I’m just speaking here, going on, but the magical journey was the meeting of the artists and because we were in it and we’re cleaning up the streets and I’m picking up needles and defecation and gloved up in hazmat suit and then buying lunch and we’re building a family. And it was in the family process that the artists came. And then it was predominantly just artists from the San Francisco area. And then artists from around the world came and it became an extended family. And we’ve got about, gee, 6,500 artists that work in Mission Art415 in our blocks.
Melyssa Barrett: Oh my goodness.
Lisa Brewer: And it’s a rotating canvas. But they call me Mama Lisa. They’re our family. We love them. If they come in they or they need $10 or whatever, we give it to them. It’s a relationship that far surpasses, gee, I painted on a building for these people. We just took them in as our own.
Melyssa Barrett: But what was so interesting to me though is… Because I don’t know if people can quite understand the concept that you took. Because I didn’t, honestly, I mean I don’t live in San Francisco, but I have lived in the Bay Area now for decades, we’ll just call it. And when I went and saw the alley that you showed, I saw one block. I haven’t even made it to all 14 or 15 blocks, but it’s an amazing collection of artwork that is represented by so many different cultures and it’s literally on people’s houses. Which I was like, wait, I don’t know if I would put a mural on my house. And then you know, you were telling me about the story of one person who didn’t want to paint a mural on the house. And yet that house keeps getting tagged all the time.
Lisa Brewer: It’s been an amazing case study because I like you or most people, you’re property proud, you have your house, you want to paint in whatever color, and you have your garage and your flowers and that’s your home. Painting on an exterior property space in somebody’s home blew my mind first of all, because it’s just something coming from Pennsylvania you don’t see. So I had a really hard time adjusting to that. But it turned this, you have two choices in a city. In a city like the Mission or Haight Ashbury, in the more trendy places. You have the option to have either a mural or a lot of graffiti vandalism. And graffiti vandalism, there’s a psychological component that makes it very unappealing. It’s ugly, it’s somebody’s name, it’s just, it’s haphazard. They’re going by. It’s just kind of destruction of property is how I look at it.
When you put a mural up, it becomes a beautiful work of art. So you have two options because if you have a clean exterior space, it turns into a canvas and either a muralist is going to paint it or you’re going to get tagging. So pre-COVID, and they’re going reinstill this. I sit on the San Francisco Graffiti Abatement Advisory Board.
Which have been appointed by the supervisors and because I have this 20 some year case study of this project, I can articulate to nauseum what does and does not work. You have a clean canvas, it’s going to be tagged. Somebody’s going to come in at 3:00 in the morning on a skateboard and throw their name up there and somebody else throws their name on top of that. And it becomes a bit of a battle, it becomes an ego battle wall. They went over my name and I put my name.
It just becomes this huge tagging.. And we have several examples of this. Property owner will not give permission to paint. They go out and paint it and then it’s tagged. So pre-COVID, the San Francisco Department of Public Works had a law, a mandate law that if you have tagging graffiti on your property, you’re fined $500 a day until you paint it. It’s like a half, well, it’s like two properties long. Ms. Lee is her name. Thank you, Ms. Lee. She’s called the police on me so many times. So Ms. Lee does not want a mural. So I’m like, “No worries, I get it. It’s your property.” So she paints it green, beautiful moss green. And then every night, every morning when she wakes up, it’s tagged. I’m talking, there’s not one, it’s bubble letters, it’s two color throw ups, it’s a bomb. It’s all these different forms.
It’s a great lesson on graffiti because it’s every hand style form on this one wall. And then she has to go out and paint it or she’s going to be fined $500. So I’m like, I said to her, I talk to her and go, “Ms. Lee, I know you don’t like murals, but let’s just break this down mathematically, and in sweat equity. You’ve been out here for 23 years that I know of painting your property, how much is a gallon of paint? Kelly Moore, $65 a gallon.” I buy them all the time for the artists. I’m like, “You’re spending money on money painting with the labor, the sweat equity and then the frustration.” I’m like, “Just do the actuary over 23 years, what you spent on paint, put in your wallet.” Ms. Lee was not having it at all. So randomly I always tell the artists that we know, “Do not touch Miss Lee’s property because she will have you arrested.” Without equivocation that cop car’s going to come out and say, “Hey Lisa.” Then I have to end up painting the property for her. So I’m like, guys, just avoid her.
So COVID came and everybody stopped everything. There’s no graffiti abatement law, no anything. You’re hunkered down, you’re sheltered in place. The only people in the streets here in the Mission where the taggers and they bombed the place. Bombing is when you take a giant, it’s called a fat cap. It’s an aerosol can. The cap has a nozzle on it like this, and you put that nozzle on and it’s like a paint sprayer and it’s just spray, that whole cam will go in a nanosecond. It’s like a big spray gun. And then they have a thin cap. There’s like 35 different caps to use on these aerosol cans to get your desired effect. But they’ll take a fat cap, just bomb. They bomb the whole entire area.
So now I’m working with city hall to try to bring this back to good, “Let’s reinstate these graffiti vandal laws and the abatement and all that.” So the reason I’m telling you this, during that time period, Ms. Lee does not live here. She was hunkered down wherever she was. And so we had a couple artists in and I’m like, “Guys, I’m just telling you. I can’t tell you not to paint on this property. It’s not mine, but I’m telling you, if Miss Lee rolls in in her Mercedes, you better run because she will throw you in jail.” And so they’re like, “Oh, we’ll take our chances.” And they paint the most beautiful mural. It took them from 68:00 in the morning to midnight. And I have to say deduction wise, they put about $1,500 of spray paint onto that mural. And it was just abstract. And it wasn’t political or controversial, it was just a beautiful work of art.
And it ran the entire 15 months that we had this shelter in place. Well, everything just lifted. Eventually Ms. Lee roll in her Mercedes and she’s like, “Oh!” She calls me, she’s like, “Lisa, you going to jail.” And I’m like, “I didn’t do it.”
Melyssa Barrett: Paint your building.
Lisa Brewer: So I’m like, “I understand, buy the paint, I’ll paint it for you. I get it.” As a property owner, I would get that. So I tend to do this conflict resolution. So we paint her property, moss green, it’s elegant. Melissa, I’m telling you that paint was not even dry. That green paint, I’m covered in green paint. Two stories, right? I’m painting it because I want to respect all people and I didn’t paint it, but I know that there’s a problem. So let’s resolve this. The paint was still wet and all these people came in and they tagged it. And I should have taken a picture to use as an example. It is from top to bottom, not one piece of green is showing. It is silver names, bubble, big bubble letters, big, all kind of just wild style tagging. Some horrible messaging. And I’m like, the only way that DPW will get involved now is if there is gang or antisemite messaging on a wall. They quash that instantly. But if it’s just John loves Jane or I hate Sam or whatever it may be, it runs.
Melyssa Barrett: Wait, wait, wait. So you said, did you say $500 a day?
Lisa Brewer: Until you buff it.
Melyssa Barrett: I thought you meant $500 they’re fined. $500 a day?
Lisa Brewer: Yes.
Melyssa Barrett: Oh my a goodness.
Lisa Brewer: So the motivation is let’s go out there and take care of this graffiti. Because the longer you allow graffiti to run on anything, a garbage can, a mailbox, your property, it just encourages more graffiti. So they want to quash it instantly. So if they don’t quash it instantly, it’s just going to turn into this hotspot. And there are several graffiti hotspots. It’s called tagging. So here’s the education with graffiti, it’s all aerosol. And it used to be in the day in the ’60s when this first started, it started with a gentleman, which I love, his name is Darryl, they call him Cornbread. Cornbread was born in inner city Philadelphia and he was in high school wanting to impress his girlfriend. Now we’re going, Cornbread’s probably, we’re going back maybe early ’50s or mid ’50s this happened. He broke into the Philadelphia Zoo and put “Cornbread” in heat letters on a gray elephant. Living elephant, an animal, a live animal.
Melyssa Barrett: Oh no!
Lisa Brewer: He was incarcerated, he was arrested but he was the first documented person that wrote on anything exterior.
Melyssa Barrett: Oh my goodness.
Lisa Brewer: So that started the graffiti movement which went to New York City, Brooklyn, the Bronx, and then the trains. And then that came to San Francisco with the Wildstyle. So it’s a beautiful journey where it started. So the lesson of graffiti is it is aerosol and it used to be Krylon and Rustoleum, those were the only cans. There was black, red, silver and white, period. That was your color palette. So with this evolution of graffiti, and I just spoke to Kelly Moore about this, it is a billion dollar industry. A can of quality is called Montana, expressly made for the graffiti artist. It goes for like $9.50 a can. And like I said, if you put a fat cap on it, it’s gone in a nanosecond. So every mural that you see outside costs between 500 to $1,200 to do this mural.
And when if I first started, the tradition was, and I learned this from Cuba who would speak extensively about this, it was called racking. And you would go into a hardware store and you would, racking is stealing. They would put the paint down their sleeves, in their pants and they would walk out, and there’s blender balls in spray paint. You have to shake it to blend it?
Melyssa Barrett: Right.
Lisa Brewer: And they’d be walking out the door jiggling like these blender balls. And then they would steal caps, different size caps ’cause your cap is where you get your control. So they’d steal their paint and that was the culture. You stole it, you didn’t buy it, they probably didn’t have money to buy it anyway. You stole your paint and then you’d take these caps of easy off oven spray, easy off oven spray and Windex and you’d put them in your mouth so you’d have different streams to actually paint your mural with.
So that was the culture of it. And then as this evolution came, they start locking up spray paint. If you’re in San Francisco and you go to a hardware store, that paint is locked up. You have to ask for permission to get your paint and that is the reason why. So somewhere in the early ’80s, two German scientists came up with this paint called Montana. Montana is expressly designed for the aerosol graffiti artist with a pressurized cap with offering 30 different caps from very thin to get the eyeliner, from very broad to the fat cap, so to get your quality control of your can. It is probably the most quality spray paint. And it runs the Pantone color pellet. It goes 15 shades of green, 20 shades of orange, so you your fades and it’s expensive. So I said to Kelly Moore, which makes Krylon I said to them, “You’re really missing out on this graffiti thing because you should really monetize on designing a spray can paint just for the graffiti artist.”
They did not quite understand that concept, but I could tell you from my experience, it is a billion dollar industry that one company has monopolized on.
Melyssa Barrett: Wow.
Lisa Brewer: Just saying. Anyway, just the graffiti started as just a name, somebody’s name. It was Cornbread’s name. And then it started into evolving the evolution of a design. Keith Haring was known for one of the early graffiti artists with Basquiat. He was known in New York City, Manhattan for painting these chalk outlines of everything; big hearts, very childlike in his artistic design. Something that you and I have done all in our lives. Big heart with the little arrows coming out of it, very whimsical. But it was Madonna that found him. Madonna was walking down Manhattan and said, “I love this artist, I’m going to buy his work.” And she spend an exorbitant amount of money on one piece and therefore Keith Harings, now his pieces go for millions of dollars. The lithographs go for 6,000. But his originals, they go for two, three, $4 million.
Melyssa Barrett: This is why I love hanging out with you because it’s not solely about the art. You bring all the history and the stories with you, which is amazing because you know, you lose a lot of that. You don’t have a lot of books on necessarily the graffiti artists you’re talking about. So I think it’s awesome that you kind of keep the history and explain that as well because it’s so important.
Lisa Brewer: Thank you for that. And it happened extremely organically because graffiti is a whole lexicon of its own. You’ve got bombing, you’ve got wildstyle, you’ve got at tagging, you’ve got two color throw ups and it becomes a language. Side busting, which is a horrible thing to do. So only ’cause I was in the street and I learned… I mean I started with this when I was 42 years old and I just turned 64. So I’ve learned it through being in it and this, you learn this in education, you have your clinical and you’ve got your practical. You can read all the books you want. Until you get on that street and you start hanging around these people, it doesn’t translate. You need to be in it to learn it. So because I was in it buying food or talking to them or thanking them or just hanging out with them, it became something that I just kind of osmosis developed.
But there was, and back to the wildstyle, wildstyle was actually developed in San Francisco. So we had the name, the tag name and tagging is your name. And it becomes with my psychological background, psychology background, when you put your name on something you identify with, I don’t care if it’s a library book or a school book or a garbage tag, my name’s on it, it belongs to me. What I’ve deduced, and this is my own assumption, introduction from being in this industry, you have a lot of… And the age is anywhere from 12 to 90. It’s not determined by age. You have a lot of massive humanity that has no identity. They are especially in inner cities and you see them on the streets and they’re lost and they have no direction, they don’t have any guidance, and once again it’s not contingent on age.
And you’ll see them writing their name on something and therefore if my name’s on something, therefore I exist. I’m part of this world because my name’s here and I get it. And even though I don’t, I think, it’s still graffiti vandalism, I understand the psychology behind it. So what we’ve managed to do is give these artists that want a voice and show some kind of interest in talent, hopefully both, we give them this platform to paint outside where people can actually see them and watch them and talk to them, discover them if so, and support them with a donation or a can of soda. So we’ve given this platform to help artists, struggling artists or people that are lost have some sort of identity.
Melyssa Barrett: Well, and I mean that just goes to show you though in so many different ways. I know a lot of the schools have lost a lot of the art and there’s so many challenges with respect to just highlighting artists and art is such a critical aspect of culture and our lives that it’s so great to see that you know, are kind of putting a different spin on things and really bringing… I mean, tell me the story about the mural with Santana. I mean, that was incredible.
Lisa Brewer: So as we’ve been doing this for two decades, we’re painting side streets and we had a great commission with… Not a commission ’cause it wasn’t financial at all, but it was very spiritually rewarding. All the California parking lots called us to bring artists to paint the exteriors because they were tagged. So we worked with some good companies. In the graffiti industry right now we have probably… Oh, we work with thousands but there’s a scintilla that have mastered this form of aerosol. And if anybody is listening to this, has the opportunity to watch anybody paint with aerosol other than furniture, please watch it. ‘Cause it is masterful to watch this liquid spray turn into something magnanimous. So there’s probably, I can count on five out of my whole collection of artists that can actually wow somebody with an exterior work of art from photo reel to surreal. And it’s just everything in between
I can take a picture and say, “Paint this.” And they do it massively to spec. So we had this wall space in the mission and we have 15 blocks in the mission of murals. Probably, it is the largest exterior mural project in the world. So I had this property space and it was private, which is a blessing. When you have public spaces, you’ve got to work with public government, the officers, the officials, rec and park, arts commission and they control that. When you have private properties, somebody’s home, they’re like, “Have at it, paint anything you want. I’m not painting for it, so do you thing.”
So we had this space and it was beautiful and it was right on the 24th street Bar Station. If anybody knows where that location is, it’s the heartbeat of the Mission District. So I had this two story property, it was a coffee shop and it was wooden, it was tired, it was old. And I’m like, I need to put something up here that’s going to inspire masses of humanity that pour out of this Bart Station. And the numbers pre COVID, it was staggering. It was like 100,000 people a day poured out of that one station. So you’re impacting, as soon as they’ve come up the escalator, all they see is this giant, tired, nasty building falling off with paint and everywhere. Whatever they see, at first they see a big blue sky and then this, whatever it is, has to be inspiring. So I’m thinking, and a friend of mine knew Jorge Santana. Jorge Santana, the Santana family grew up about three blocks from the Bart Station in the Mission. They moved from Jalisco, Mexico where they were all very young. And the story is Jose Santana and his wife Josefina had their family in Jalisco. Jose Santana, probably when he was 20s, late 20s, came to the mission district from Jalisco to play as a mariachi.
Now we still have beautiful mariachi. If you’ve not seen mariachis walk through all the restaurants, come to the Mission, grab a burrito and watch these mariachis. They come in, they play their instruments and they’re all syncopated and they walk around with a little bag and you give them change. I can’t imagine, in the ’40s there was a lot of money in that because there’s not a lot today. But he played in mariachi and lived here for several years to save enough money to go get his family and bring them back legally. And I think there’s eight, seven or eight siblings to bring them back legally to live in the Mission. And he wanted a better life for his family. So that was the story that hit me like, wow, do you need any more inspiration than that. Because you’re working hard? It’s tiring. He’s sitting in a house with maybe 10 other guys, musicians, and every day he’s out there playing.
So I wanted to share his story, but I met his son Jorge Santana. Jorge is Carlos Santana’s younger brother. And he was just lovely. He was such a precious soul, I wanted to just honor him because he was a precious soul and he was gentle and kind and articulate and he was like a breeze, just peaceful, no ego, gentle. I took him down one of the streets and someone was sitting on the side of the cement doorstep and he just gently took some money, I don’t know what denomination, out of his pocket and gently handed it. He didn’t like slash it out, here’s money. He was just very respectful to the press’s plight, their position.
And so I met him at the gallery two years ago on October 9th. He walked into the gallery to talk to me about this mural with this big bouquet of flowers. So my birthday’s October 30th and I’m like, “How’d you know it was my birthday tomorrow?”
Melyssa Barrett: Aww, happy birthday.
Lisa Brewer: Thank you. He said, “I didn’t.” And I thought, I just thought somehow Facebook, whatever, he knows my birthday, no big deal. But he didn’t. He just brought in this big flowers as a kind gesture of love, which I’m like, who does that? I mean really? So this guy was just so beautiful and blessed. So we walked over to this very tired, tattered building that needed some love on it. And I said, “I’d be honored to honor your family with a mural on this building.” And these big tears rolled down his face. He’s like, “I can’t imagine.” So he was a great musician. He wrote the song Suavecito, which is the theme of the Mission. If you have a chance, Google it, you know it. He played it at Chase Stadium with his brother Carlos. Suavecito is, my husband, Randolph, it’s our favorite song.
So he wrote the song and he was an excellent musician, but Carlos was the discovered musician. So he, I don’t want to say he was in his shadow because he was equally as great, but Carlos made it to fame. So he wasn’t bitter at all. He was just gently receded from the rock and roll thing. So we’re talking, I’m like, “I definitely want to honor you. What do you see for this mural?” And he said, “I see Carlos to the left of me. I see myself in the middle, my mom and dad, and I want my nephew, Salvador, who’s Carlos’s son.” So there was Carlos Santana, Jorge Santana, Jose, Josefina, and Salvador on this mural.
And so I said to my husband, “Randolph, this is what Jorge wants for his mural. Put it together on a sketch design.” So the first process in a design of a mural is to get down to the computer, put all these elements in, to the client’s request or the honoree’s request. So Randolph threw together some things. Jorge approved it. We were getting ready. It was privately funded. It was a very ambitious job for me. I worked with two other people, Dr. Bernard Gonzales and Dr. Annie Rodriguez on this. And the goal was Dr. Bernardo Gonzales is the founder of Latin Rock. And the goal was to get people to donate so we can paint this mural. And it was expensive. It’s a two story building. It’s wooden, it needed sanded down, it needed primer. It needs improvements, it needed insurance, it needed paint, and these are great artists. So all these factor in, it was a lot of money. So we’re just getting ready to paint this mural and COVID hits. So I’m reaching out to Levi Strauss, that had funded us before, in different projects. I’m like, “Do you want to be a sponsor?” So when you’re a sponsor with a mural, we give you a big bronze plaque. We put all the sponsors on it. These people made this happen. So we do unveiling ceremonies where you get to speak. All the sponsors are a visceral part of this project.
I called the people that, Harley Davidson. They’re like, “It’s COVID, we have no idea what’s going to happen to us. We’re shut down, there’s no money.” I’m like, oh my goodness. And so you talk about faith and prayer and manifestation. I’m like, somebody out there has to have money. Somebody has to love the Santana family. So I just start calling everybody I knew from my fine art collectors around the world, Sri Lanka, Singapore, Dubai, Paris, “Do you want to just sponsor this?” Germany. People, local people. And honestly we inspired like a hundred at a time, couple thousand dollars donations. And it was miraculous. Up until the day we had the unveiling ceremony, I’m still fundraising.
So we get this mural and we’re ready to paint and everything’s great. We got some money to start and we get a phone call and it’s Dr. Annie Rodriguez. And she said, “I have terrible news. Jorge Santana passed away of a massive heart attack in his sleep.” And I’m like, oh my goodness, this beautiful, gentle, blithe spirit that was so honored to be honored is not going to see this. And I was like, what do we now do? Do we carry on posthumously? And I just stopped everything. I’m like, “Do we give the money back?” I think we fundraised like 15,000. We just disperse it back. And I just prayed about it and I said, sorry, this is very emotional for me. I haven’t talked about this since it happened.
I just said, “He’s still with us.” I know when my mom passed, I feel her every day. I’m like, “We still have to honor him even though he’s not here. He’s on another dimension. He still is here with us.” And so we did this mural posthumously in his honor, this big halo around his said. And you can Google all this. Santana Mural Mission and you can see it. So at this point I’m still little bit in shock. We got the COVID situation. The artist is freaking out. So lot of drama. It was not a seamless mural at all. Still trying to fundraise. So it was the story of the Santanas, that Jose and Josefina and Carlos, and it was the story that made people open up their wallets and it’s a charitable tax donation. So I’m like cold calling. I called Jerry Lewis on the telephone. Like, “It’s a tax donation! Anything over $500, I’ll give you a letter, just help me.”
So we had this handful of people, and I want to say it was probably about 80 people from around the world that threw some money together. And when we first decided to do this, I had to reach out to Santana, Carlos Santana, to get his permission for his likeness rights. So I talked to his gatekeeper, and I’m not going to mention any names, but that man made me cry. He was so… If anybody needs a gatekeeper, this guy is him. He will keep everybody away from you. And I know that’s his job, but he was, woo. I got off the phone and I literally shook and cried. He was just like, “What are you talking, we’re not giving you any money.” I’m like, “I’m not asking for anything. We just wanted to honor Jorge and ask for him, to honor his wishes.” I got off that phone call, I’m like, not talking to them again. It was not even an option.
So it took about a year. It took about a year to manifest this mural. So last, your timing is perfect on this call. Last October 29th. Let’s go back three days before October, let’s say around the 26th of October, the mural’s done and we’re proud of it. And so I work with Bart and I work with DPW and I work with SFMTA for our little projects, festivals. And I have a great relationship because I support art festivals. Me and Randolph, we give them money to get the permits and get the food vendors and get all these artists together to support the arts. They [inaudible 00:39:55] the proceeds. We do it around the Bart Station. We’ve done it for 10 years. It is cost prohibitive for us to do this every year. It was once a month. So there’d be rent and there’d be the festival. There’s rent and festival. That’s all we lived, rent and festival.
So because of that, I said to Bart, “Hey guys, we just need to shut down a little portion of this.” I don’t have any money, I have no money for anything. We’re like, “Just take this little sliver and have this.” They’re like, “All we need is a sliver.” And now between the mural and the Bart Station, there’s a little street called Osage Street and it’s just a little tiny service alley, but it’s still a road. So I’m like, “Hey, SFMTA, can you maybe shut this down here just for five to 10 minutes, a half an hour?” They’re like, “Nah, I can’t do it, Lisa.” I’m like, okay, fine. So we have the mural that we’ve got to be over at the Bar Station. You can still see it. Not a problem. So two days before this unveiling ceremony, I get a phone call from the man that made me cry, the gatekeeper. And he’s like, “Change the direction, Carlos wants to attend.”
Melyssa Barrett: Wow.
Lisa Brewer: And his whole family. So they took that opportunity and here’s the blessing and this is the tapestry of spirituality and living your life where God wants you to be. We did this mural, tall order, it happened, it was done, and then it turned out to be a memorial service for Jorge for the family and all the siblings and the cousins and the extended family. It was not only London Breed and Bevin Dufty from Bart, the director and the SFMDA and DPW and all the powers that be, the police department, the fire depart, everybody showed up. But it was the whole entire Santana family. And they shut down the Bart Station for that, which never happens. And if you did have the money to make it happen, it would take you years to get a permit. They shut it down in hours.
Melyssa Barrett: Wow.
Lisa Brewer: I’m like, okay. So all that neighbor, all that community service, I guess I did a really great job. So we had this mural unveiling ceremony, which was, as I look back in retrospect a year later on that celebration, it was nothing short of a miracle. It was an honor. It was for Jorge. Jorge made that happen spiritually. But Carlos Santana does not come back to the Mission. He hasn’t been back here publicly, he may drive through or whatever, since he left. So he goes to Chase Stadium. But it was pretty epic because he grew up here and I couldn’t advertise any this because it would’ve been a mob scene. If we would have advertised, there was no press release until after it happened and everybody was safely gone.
It was really interesting because when he gave the speech at the end, and if you pull it up up online, you’ll see a copy of his speech. But he said, to paraphrase, of course… And people were standing all around the side ’cause something, they knew something was happening. And then of course the loud speakers, so they knew it was Carlos. But he said, and I’m paraphrasing, “everybody is destined for greatness.” And his tone of that was so amazingly sincere. That man is so spiritual that he probably does not touch the ground when he walks. His heart, and that’s why he has people around him to guard him from things, because his spirituality shined like a beacon. And he was passionate and he was emotional. He said, “This is for my brother Jorge, and he just went to a different zip code.” He said, “He just passed onto a different realm. Don’t ever let anybody tell you you can’t do something.” And he said, “Well, I’ll see you on the next dimension. We all live somewhere forever.”
And that messaging was just, it reverberated, it touched many lives, just reverberated around the whole Mission District. It was something that I did not do. It was not about Lisa doing it or Randolph doing it. It was something that, that was a hand of God or Jorge that I could never have manifested that. So that’s what we do. And we did the same thing with Earl Gates Jr., who was the first black firefighter of San Francisco. This man, he opened a door for people of color and transgender and different walks of life to enter into the fire department. It was Irish, it was old school, it was a club. You would not be a fireman. He entered into this at the heart of segregation and Martin Luther King, he walked into the fire department. I would’ve ran the other way, I mean, that’s not for me.
And his daughter, Blondell Chisholm, Dr. Chisholm talked about that. She said, “My dad, he feared for his life every day going to work. But he was tenacious and they abused him. They threatened his life, they hung him off of buildings, they’d urinate on his cot. He had to take his old mattress home. ‘Cause when you work for the fire department, you sleep there for a couple days and then go home for a couple days. He was in that awful situation for days with these people abusing him and rose above it and became a civil rights leader and an activist and retired from the fire department.” You talk about honoring a hero. So my very good friend, Captain Sherman Tillman, who was at that time, the president of the Black Firefighters Association, great organizations. Sherman said, “Lisa, I wanted to honor Earl Gates on this mural.” And I said, “Absolutely.”
So we pulled in an artist by the name of Crayone. His property name is Rigel Juratovac. Rigel is Korean and mid East, mid I think European, Hungarians. But a great guy. He’s a pioneer in the graffiti world. He started spray painting. He started break dancing when he was 12. Break dancing, hip hop, break dancing, spray paintings kind of, it’s one big family. So he went from break dancing to spray paint. I’m talking 12 years old. He just turned like 55. He’s a legend. He can paint a portrait with a can of aerosol can that it looks like he took a little tiny brush. So he was my artist of choice to paint this mural for Earl Gage. And we honored Earl G during Black History month, which I have to say was nothing short of a miracle. So we’re ready to paint again and Crayone’s in the fire department. He’s ready to hit the wall, got the mural design and it’s a three panel mural on the side of Rosa Park School in the Fillmore. And it’s a massive exterior space. And when you have a trip, you have to have a continuity theme. Just a one big picture, it’s broken up. So you’ve got to continue this previous theme.
Melyssa Barrett: Right.
Lisa Brewer: So it is the day,he’s going to paint on Monday. We’re going to meet him at the school. I have his lunch. Sunday night at the fire department, they do drills, 3:00 in the morning, rushes into the fire truck. He slid on this fire truck, broke his arm, has pins in it in the hospital, major surgery. I had to get the artist to paint the mural, which was Wes Marks. Wes Marks came in, “Crayone broke his hand.” It was not just broken, it was smashed. It got stuck in the handle that he slid under the fire truck. So it was just gone.
Melyssa Barrett: Oh god.
Lisa Brewer: Wes Wong came in and the mural. So there’s always these, you have to pivot and adjust and change. But it’s a family. So when we get-
Melyssa Barrett: How is Crayone now?
Lisa Brewer: He’s ready to paint again. He’s going to be painting a beautiful mural in Japan.
Melyssa Barrett: Thank God for that. My god.
Lisa Brewer: It took a year actually, to heal.
Melyssa Barrett: Wow. That’s incredible. Whoa.
Lisa Brewer: So that’s our story and that’s what we do. And what I’d really like to say is people, don’t ever negate the power of art, especially the power of art in innocuous places you’d never expect. You’re walking down the street and you see something that wows you. If you go to the MoMA or the de Young or the Met, you expect to see great art. But when you’re walking down the street, something inspires you, that is magical. And big power to change your perspective, your attitude, everything.
Melyssa Barrett: I love it.
Lisa Brewer: So that’s what we do. And we honor not only the artists that paint for us, but we honor celebrities and people that deserve to be celebrated in that process.
Melyssa Barrett: Well, and that’s what I love is that when you talk about inclusion, I mean you go through the different alleys and look at all the murals, you have people from everywhere with different perspectives on… You know, coming from there, I remember an artist from Brazil you were talking about, and I mean there’s so much culture coming to be represented on these murals, which is fabulous.
Lisa Brewer: It is. And it’s the diversity that makes it really spectacular because everybody, art is kind of unique in itself. But then you have an artistic style from Brazil that is nothing you see in America. And then we had an artist that came in from Dubai and it was Farsi and it was more, it’s just a different flavor. But it’s all one art love. Art can be-
Melyssa Barrett: They all work together. They all together. Yeah.
Lisa Brewer: Yes.
Melyssa Barrett: It’s awesome.
Lisa Brewer: And I think I shared that story. We had a mural, there was a gentleman, he was Mayan by Heritage, Mayan and African American. And Mark Goody was Irish and it was five of these artists. One was mid Eastern, the other was from the Bronx. So they came from these different walks of life, different socioeconomic levels and different ethnicities. But they were up on a scaffolding, painting this mural with complete love, respect, and solidarity. And I stepped back and this was about maybe six months into our project when we first started. And I watched this and it hit me and I stood back. I’m watching these egos, I mean I’m talking independently, they all had their giant egos, they all had their different personalities. They were all a little bit challenging to work with, but they’re working together without flaw, with love. And I’m like, this would never happen in any other environment. It wouldn’t happen in a restaurant, it wouldn’t happen in a night club. It would not happen. So I realize then that love is that universal language between art and music.
Melyssa Barrett: Oh yeah.
Lisa Brewer: And it connects all of us.
Melyssa Barrett: I love it. That’s awesome. Well, I mean it’s amazing to see all of the things that you’re doing. I know you’re sitting in Mission 415 Gallery.
Lisa Brewer: Yes I am.
Melyssa Barrett: Do you want to talk to us a little bit about what you do there at Mission 415?
Lisa Brewer: Yes, I would love to. I’m honored. I’m honored to be here. So when we started the mural project, and it was a process, I was still working at a very fine art gallery down at the Embarcadero. And it was all wilderness landscape. And it was like Ansel Adams protege. His name is Rodney Low Jr. And it was massive works of art from Yosemite in Yellowstone. And they started at $20,000. And I’m with the tourist enclave of San Francisco. So I’m meeting people from all around the world. The people buying this arch came in from every walk of life everywhere. I mean, it was the most magical experience to network. ‘Cause not only was I selling amazing American National Park landscapes. It was a large format film, eight by 10 film in the day of digital is unheard of. So the detail was unprecedented and the art was framed magically and it was massive. Nothing that would fit into a flat in San Francisco. You’d need a mansion for this art.
So the people that came in to buy this, they were qualifying people obviously, but they came in from all of the world. So my networking connections started there. So I would work at this gallery and I loved what I did ’cause I loved working with people and giving them beautiful things to inspire their home. And for whoever’s listening, if you don’t have great art on your wall, it doesn’t have to be expensive art. It has to be inspiring art. What you look at every day affects you consciously and subconsciously. Not only that, it sets the tone for your home or your office. If you have a Heineken beer poster up, it’s going to tell me everything I need to know about you and that’s how you’re going to feel and that’s how you’re going to act. You put something magical, what you see here behind you, underwater photography, it gives you this whole spiritual feeling.
So I’ve mastered the skill of selling this landscape art ’cause I loved it. And when I love something, my passion kind of jumps onto somebody else and they kind of love it too.
Melyssa Barrett: You don’t say?
Lisa Brewer: It’s a gallery. I’m with this gallery loving my job and I’m the top salesperson. I’m just loving it. But it is a 9:00 to 5:00. It is a suit, it’s a briefcase, it’s high heels and it’s no come home and jump through the alleys and do that thing. So I’m like, I really need to do one or the other. I can’t do both anymore. I’m getting tired. I’m working 16 hours a day on both Mission Art415 Lilac Mural project and this gallery.
So at that gallery I had an opportunity to go to Singapore to open a gallery. Now if anybody’s been to Singapore, its, it’s so wealthy.
Melyssa Barrett: Wonderful.
Lisa Brewer: If you think San Francisco’s expensive, Singapore raises the bar. So I met this gentleman that was from Sri Lanka. He’s like, “I want you to open up a gallery in Singapore.” I’m like, “I have to.” So I said to Randolph, “I have a new job, I’m going to Singapore, I cannot miss this opportunity.” And he is like, “Are you kidding me? It’s like this 18 hour flight one way.” I’m like, “I have to do it.” And it was located at Raffles Hotel.
Melyssa Barrett: Nice. Yeah.
Lisa Brewer: Now let me describe Raffles Hotel. It’s British in architecture. It is opulent. I would walk in, I can’t believe God, is this really my life? I’m working at this opulent hotel, Lanais everywhere. So I was there for a couple years running this. And then it just became too tense between my husband being in San Francisco, me being in Singapore or zooming, but you can’t really commute. It’s not for long term relationship. And I just really missed home. So I said to my boss, “I got to go. I’m leaving.” So I came back to the United States, came back to San Francisco, and I’m like, Well, now what? Now what do I do? And it just made sense. I said to myself, talk about manifestation. There was a little tiny space, gallery, storefront between our projects. So the mission, the Lilac Mural Project is actually 14 blocks, but it’s a linear line and it’s just, it’s 14 blocks, it’s flat. So all you have to do is walk like this. Well, this store front was right in the middle of those blocks. What better place to sit down, use it as my office, use it as a headquarters? I could still broker art internationally. But better than that, I can put all the artists outside in this gallery.
So usually when you work with an artist like… Peter Dick is another landscape photographer that made a lot of money in Las Vegas. It’s called an ego gallery, one artist occupying the whole wall. But this has, my little gallery space has 35 artists and every artist in here has painted outside for us. So when I do a mural tour, I talk about these artists that donated their time and talent. We didn’t pay them, we gave them supplies, but they were out there under their own sweat equity and turned this into this. This is them, they did this. So I can actually talk about their dedication and what they’ve contributed and their ideology and their artistic style. And then when you come back to the gallery, you’re familiar with Nite Owl and 8 Tien and Mark Bodē, of the artists that we have in here that have painted for us for 20 years. So that’s what we do here in this gallery.
And I give free mural tours. I don’t charge for them. How dare I charge for something that’s free? So we do mural tours and we’ve had a couple people offer donations, which was a blessing. We put it back towards paint, but it’s more about talking about this happening and it’s just two people doing the right thing. Two people that cared enough to change where they lived, to change artists’ lives, to inspire people. And it’s reciprocity. And that’s the circle of life.
Melyssa Barrett: Well, I still believe that if you go to San Francisco and you want, it’s like being on a tour. When you take a cruise and you go on a tour, that’s what being with you is like, because you are telling everybody the whole story, the history, the culture. I mean there’s so many different components to it. So it’s such a joy.
Lisa Brewer: And we’re honored because we’ve helped children, put them through college. It’s become our family. Every Thanksgiving we open up our doors and we feed everybody that doesn’t have anywhere to go. It’s become something that these young artists can count on. They don’t have a mom, mom’s absent, dad he didn’t know. And we’ve had several cases like that where these misguided, they were on the cusp of either going to a bad dark path or they were going to make something on themselves and they could have chose heroin or graphic design. And they chose graphic design. And I always, growing up in my life-
Melyssa Barrett: Thank God.
Lisa Brewer: People would ask you what you want to be. I’m like, if I could change one person’s life, that’s all I need to do. And I don’t have to do anything other than change help one person change their life. And Randolph and I have done that and we’re honored to do it.
Melyssa Barrett: And I love that. I love that. My husband was a storyteller and so his focus was all about oral tradition, storytelling and performing arts. But when I think about arts and all of the components of art, it’s such a treasure. And I think it’s unfortunate that funding has eliminated it from schools for kids. And because it is really them that these young artists identify and really start to understand, maybe I’m not going into an office, but I’m an artist and I want to do this. And so it’s wonderful to see that you’re making such a transformational change and really incorporating inclusion into everything you’re doing over there in the Mission, which is awesome.
Lisa Brewer: Thank you.
Melyssa Barrett: And congratulations.
Lisa Brewer: Thank you. It’s my honor to be here. I don’t think people realize how expensive art supplies are. You’ve got the canvas, you’ve got the pain pressures, the materials, and when we can offer a free exterior canvas as your palette and give you your paints and put you in front of it, not only is it cathartic for the human being, for the soul, but it gives them an opportunity to, “Hey, I like this and maybe I can choose this as a profession. Or maybe I could just come out and have a cathartic day.” So it just works.
Melyssa Barrett: Yes. And I’m looking now, so your website is missionart415sf.org.
Lisa Brewer: Dot org. Yes.
Melyssa Barrett: And people should go and check it out, because I mean the mural projects… I’ve seen murals, people paint murals. But the fact that you have made this a process for rotation of art on homes throughout the Mission, it is an incredible site.
Lisa Brewer: Thank you. It was an honor having you here. But honestly, your viewers are more than welcome to call me. Call me, we’ll do a tour. It’s personal. Bring 30 people. Bring yourself. It’s something that I love to share because the story, it’s inspiring that we all know that we can all be heroes.
Melyssa Barrett: Yes. Yes. Well, thank you so much for being here, Lisa. It was such a treasure.
Lisa Brewer: Yes!
Melyssa Barrett: You have such a treasure trove of information.
Lisa Brewer: Thank you.
Melyssa Barrett: I’m glad we could pull some of it out of you. And I encourage everybody, if you haven’t been to the Mission and seen the Lilac Project from Mission 415 in San Francisco, check it out because it is fabulous.
Lisa Brewer: Please. Thank you. Thank you, sweetheart. Thank you for all the good that you do around the world. Thank you.
Melyssa Barrett: It’s my pleasure. Thank you so much.
Lisa Brewer: Okay.
Melyssa Barrett: Thanks for joining me on the Jali Podcast. Please subscribe so you won’t miss an episode. See you next week.