Hugh Leeman's apartment at 6th and Market is across from "Fear Head," a mural with three faces in different stages of fright. It's a fitting image for an intersection where it's almost impossible to tell the good guys from the bad guys. San Francisco's characters – most of them looking off-kilter, homeless, or down on their luck – drift by as I wait impatiently for Hugh to answer the door.
He buzzes me into the building. We enter the elevator and clank, clank, clank up to his floor. His tiny studio is a mess of paints, a collection of floor-to-ceiling portraits, and a charcoal-covered MacBook. With no kitchen or bed in sight, I get the sense he's focused solely on his mission: photographing, painting, and wheat-pasting the faces of the Tenderloin up around the city. They've become his friends, his subjects, and his business partners.
Hugh is quite a character himself. At 18, he grabbed his backpack and traveled the world, hopping trains to see as much as he could. Three years later, he was in the Tenderloin for a six-month stopover. He's not quite sure why he never left. Inspired by the work that Shepard Fairey and others were doing at the time with wallpaper glue from the hardware store, a world of possibilities exploded in his mind. This self-taught artist had found his medium.
Over the course of an afternoon, Hugh filled me in on the lives of the people in his portraits. Here are their stories.
Hugh often gives out cigarettes, just to get a conversation started with people in the neighborhood. Benz was the first person to ever turn him down for a smoke. He was interested in Hugh's project, though, and let him take his picture. Suddenly, his portrait, now recognized by most, was up all over the Tenderloin.
Benz passed away from cancer soon after, and his portrait pasted up on Polk Street became a memorial. People from the neighborhood gathered there and wrote their thoughts about him on the wall. It became the wake and the funeral that he would have never had otherwise. Hugh was touched when he heard that his art piece allowed Benz’s friends to pay tribute to him. "Everyone wants to be remembered," he says.
Bernard is famous for his coonskin cap, and is one of the most industrious people Hugh has ever met. He swears there are MBAs who don't have Bernard’s business acumen. This guy is savvy when it comes to making his change – he washes windows, collects bins, and hoses down cars out in front of a pawnshop, though he still sleeps on the street.
More recently though, Bernard has been making money selling T-shirts. Hugh screen-prints his inner city friends’ portraits on T-shirts and lets them sell them on the streets, with his buddies keeping 100 percent of the profits. The shirts have proven to be quite popular (I snagged one for myself).
Indian Joe was homeless for 35 years. He recently moved into an SRO (Single Residence Occupancy hotel) for the first time. He is constantly reaching into his pants pocket to make sure his keys are still there – afraid he'll lose them. He still can't quite believe he has a home.
Joe was adopted by a stranger when he was a toddler, and separated from his sister. They've never been reunited. He started train hopping at a young age and has memories that are fascinating but too disturbing for the general public to understand. Hugh helps Joe tell his stories by painting them as dreamscapes onto canvas.
Kenny is "crazy intelligent" says Hugh. He's famous around the 'hood, and has many street names, from "Crook" to "Papa." He's always surprising Hugh with his smarts. During a discussion about how people in San Francisco perceive him, Kenny said, "That's just the aperture of the shutter that they're projecting onto me." Hugh had to laugh – because it was true.
Blue's spot is at the cable car turnaround at Powell and Market. Hailing from New Orleans, he's a professional panhandler, and can be found singing and playing the harmonica. Though people may not guess it, he’s financially able to feed himself and pay the rent. That's about all he can afford, though.
Hugh sees himself in a lot of the people he paints, but Blue in particular. The man is talented, and he has given up everything for his art, from relationships to a "normal" life. He does the same thing that Hugh aspires to do, and that is to tell a story through his art. Despite adversity, he soldiers on.
There are many other folks Hugh has met along the way. When he first moved to the city, Hugh bartended regularly. He would walk back home down Jones Street every night and see the same guy dealing OCs (OxyContin). One evening, he introduced himself and asked if he could take the man's photograph for a painting.
They got to talking, and it turns out the guy had kids and was living in an SRO. He was clean himself but selling pills to put food on the table. "He wasn't at all who I thought he was," said Hugh. It shattered his notion of who people are in the Tenderloin.
And that is what Hugh is trying to do with his art. If he makes you stop, question for a moment who the person is up on the wall, and maybe even think about the beauty and frailty of the human condition, then he's done his job. I’m happy I took the time to slow down and look at his work. I hope you will too.
It's not hard to experience Hugh Leeman's work in person – the Tenderloin is his art gallery, and his portraits are hard to miss. You can also keep an eye on the White Walls gallery website for the occasional show. To help the people in his portraits, you can fund his "Voice to Voiceless" T-shirt project by scanning the QR code that appears at the end of our video. In case you don't bump into a T-shirt seller on the street, you can purchase one on Hugh’s website, where you can also buy and download free prints of his work.