Art enthusiasts have plenty of options for checking out the latest gallery exhibitions in San Francisco, but it’s in our local dive bars where we can see how our street culture permeates the art scene. The unique collections gracing the walls of our watering holes live with us in the debaucherous underbelly of the night and often reveal the bar owner’s secret obsessions.
As I looked around for the best dive bar art in town, I was struck most by the compelling and accessible stories behind the work on display. These aren’t just decorative wall hangings and sculptures, they have lives of their own. In every place I visited, there was an owner, bartender, or devoted regular willing to pass on their tales about the artwork surrounding us. San Franciscans are obsessed with good stories about one-of-a-kind finds and are usually happy to share them with you over a beer.
AUB ZAM ZAM
I couldn’t resist the combination of Persian history and art deco interiors of Upper Haight’s Aub Zam Zam, formerly known as the Persian Aub Zam Zam (meaning Persian oasis). The oil painting behind the bar depicts the love story of King Khosrow and Princess Shirin by the river. People often scrutinize the king’s apparent two left arms, but Zam Zam owner Bob Clarke believes it’s a sign of royalty, or maybe it’s just a result of the flat perspective. When Bob had the painting restored to remove 60 years of collected tobacco smoke, it revealed imagery he never knew existed. The epic scene was part of the original bar in 1941, and along with the bar stools, is one of the many vintage details that has remained intact.
Homestead’s sultry nudes have roused enough desire in some people to make them run out the door with them. But the two theft attempts were thwarted by the Mission bar’s ardent staff. Petite barback Andrea Frias went so far as to run after a thief and found him hiding under a truck with the naked lady that now sits above the bathroom. Larry Garrison, the San Diego-born artist who painted these women, signed his paintings as Vincent, a rumored joke on the fact that he was no Van Gogh. He liked using the same two or three gals as models, changing their wigs for different looks. If the private room is open, make sure to sneak a peek at the extra nude it hides.
The nudes down the street at Casanova share a similar seductive ’60s vibe, but this collection includes a number of black velvet paintings as well. Owner Don Alan and his wife have an infatuation with salvaging artwork from thrift stores around the country. Some of their finds cost as little as $3, like the proud Mr. Casanova centerpiece facing the bar that Don’s wife found at a yard sale. As with the Homestead, the staff has to keep an eye on the art. Don once caught a man trying to walk out with two paintings. He hasn’t always been so lucky, though, as one of his favorites, a Mexican black velvet painting from the ’30s, managed to slip out the door. Unfortunately, some patrons also find it amusing to tag the nudes. One has an X over her nipple and another has “I like pussy” tattooed on her arm in ballpoint pen.
Don from Casanova also owns the Hemlock in the Tenderloin. Yet you won’t find naked ladies here: The budget ambiance tilts toward Americana and ocean-themed paintings. Don and his wife found the paintings that hang over the front door for a whopping $7 a pop from an antique store in a tiny town in Montana. The incredible art deco light fixture over the bar used to light an airplane hangar on Treasure Island in the ’40s.
Marco Senghor, Little Baobab’s owner of 14 years, was eating dinner at the Mission bar when I walked in to photograph the painted panels on the wall. He shared that his cousin Benji, who lives on Gorée Island in Senegal, made the colorful paintings as a gift during a visit to San Francisco. The soccer player and boxer mimic classic Senegalese matchbox designs. I particularly like the charmingly awkward proportion of hands and limbs. The bright primary colors add to the vibrant atmosphere as the space transforms from a traditional Senegalese restaurant to a dance club after dinner.
Bartender Jason Cole described Buckshot as every 15-year-old boy’s wet dream. Having a beer here feels like being inside a display case for Shanti Seigel’s (one of the owners) addiction to acquiring taxidermy, games, and toys. There are some iconic pieces by famous tattoo artists like Chris Kahn, Sailor Jerry, and Hiriyoshi scattered throughout the Inner Richmond bar. The Wyoming antelope behind the photo booth is Shanti’s first kill, and the staff still enjoys its meat stored in the freezer. If you strike up a conversation, they might even offer you a piece of jerky.
SPECS TWELVE ADLER MUSEUM CAFE
I was lucky to meet Matt, who was born and raised in San Francisco and has been coming to Specs’ regularly for at least 10 years. He clued me in to the rich history that exists at this North Beach institution, which displays layers of naval and beatnik culture that have collected here since 1968. Many of the pieces pay homage to the owner, Specs, who was nicknamed for his characteristic eyeglasses. The sarcophagus in the back shows him holding the bone of a whale’s penis and a bottle of liquor. Black-and-white photos recall memories from as far back as his 20s, and newspaper articles depict the time he was rescued from a sunken sailboat. Specs is now in his 90s, and when he rolls in on his wheelchair, the bartenders know to have his gin and tonic ready.
Named after owner Flicka McGurrin’s father, Sweetie's houses a comprehensive collection of artwork from the neighboring Art Institute community. The funky front room features rotating artists, as does the larger event space in the back. The rest of the North Beach bar holds permanent pieces created by Flicka, old colleagues, and emerging artists. The building was a stained glass factory in 1931 and its wooden interiors and high ceilings offer plenty of space for hanging artwork. Flicka, who lives above the bar, even has paintings for you to enjoy in the loo. Sweetie’s is another victim of bar art theft: Someone cut a canvas out of its frame in the men’s room. The impressive gilded frame in the back room used to hold a Francis Bacon.
The Russian propaganda prints upstairs in Laszlo reveal the owner’s infatuation with Eastern European Industrialism, though he’s not Eastern European himself. Named after a Hungarian actor in Jean-Luc Godard’s film Made in U.S.A., the Mission bar has décor that complements the vintage black-and-white films shown at adjoining Foreign Cinema. The skate decks downstairs display custom pieces that local screen artists made for Laszlo’s 10-year anniversary last year. Bartender Bryan Ranere, who also curates the film selection at Foreign Cinema, is particularly fond of the “Love Me” skateboard made by well-known tattoo artist Grimey.
I’ve always been a fan of the classy meets kitschy oasis atmosphere inside the Mission’s Lone Palm, which owners Jane Seabrook and Mark Green acquired in 1991. The previous bar was called The Mirage, so it seems to have maintained a special theme. It took me a couple visits to notice that the art-deco sculpture emerging from the wall is actually a fountain. It no longer functions, though – apparently it had continuous leaking problems. Have a closer look to see which part of the woman’s body the water used to spout from.
DO IT YOURSELF
San Francisco is teeming with more dive art to be discovered, and there were many bars on my list I couldn’t make it to. The next time you’re enjoying a beverage at one, take a look around and consider the tales behind the pieces on the walls. Better yet, ask a bartender or regular about them, and you might discover some unique backstories.
If you have a favorite piece of dive art not covered here, please share your story about it in the comments section below.