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‘Art is a Way of Telling Our Story’ — An Interview with San Francisco’s Chris Gazaleh

posted on: Jun 26, 2021



The creator of one of the city’s most visible murals talks about his Palestinian heritage, political art, and his changing hometown.
‘Art is a Way of Telling Our Story’ — An Interview with San Francisco’s Chris Gazaleh
SF muralist Chris Gazaleh stands on Elgin Park in front of one section of his mural “Humanity Is Key.” Gazaleh’s family is Palestinian American, and he grew up absorbing its history as well as local hip-hop, street art, and skate culture. (Photo: Pamela Gentile)

Every day, tens of thousands of motorists drive on and off the Central Freeway at Market Street and Octavia Boulevard. Paused in traffic, perhaps they’ve had a moment to take in Chris Gazaleh’s “Humanity Is Key” mural that sprawls across an Elgin Park apartment building overlooking the onramp.

Elgin Park is a tiny street at the confluence of several San Francisco neighborhoods, where some of the city’s most dramatic street-level changes of the past 30 years have taken place.

The mural, a celebration of Gazaleh’s Palestinian heritage, features a boy atop the separation wall, a woman with an ornate thobe, and drifting lines of Arabic calligraphy decorating the sky like wisps of cloud. The work also weaves together several threads of the 37-year-old’s life: American street art and culture, political and cultural awakening, and recognition of immigrant history and legacy. This week marks the three-year anniversary of its unveiling.

“Humanity Is Key” also happens to be across the street from the site of a more recent mural that stoked heated debate: a series of honey bears on the wall of the LGBT Center by the artist fnnch.

Gazaleh continues to make political art, such as a ground mural on Valencia Street last month and one last weekend in front of the Israeli and Colombian consulate buildings. (Both have since been scrubbed off.)

The Frisc met Gazaleh last week at a cafe near his mural to talk about art, music, politics, life, and above all, a changing San Francisco.

The conversation has been edited and condensed.

The Frisc: You’re from San Francisco, right?

Chris Gazaleh: I was born in San Francisco, my mother was born and raised in San Francisco, and I grew up between the Bay Area and Detroit. I went to three high schools: one in Detroit, and two in the East Bay. So I don’t claim “born and raised,” but I’ve been around here my whole life, and my community is here in the bay. I worked in the city in high school, and since I was 12 years old, I was skateboarding on the piers. My grandfather would drive us there and park his car at Pier 7 and we would skate all day.

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Even when I was living in Detroit, I was out here three, four, five, six times a year. All my family is from the Mission and Noe Valley. That’s where my roots are.

Chris Gazaleh’s grandfather Fuad Harb at his store on 26th and Sanchez streets in the 1970s. (Courtesy Chris Gazaleh)

How have you seen the city change?

There used to be lots of families and kids. The youth used to be in the streets. Wherever you went, you were in a neighborhood. I remember when the freeway was right here over Octavia, and Hayes Valley was pretty rough. [Former professional skater] Lennie Kirk used to live on Fell Street, and my mom wouldn’t let me go over to his house.

Gentrification tends to push out families, who have moved to Antioch and Sacramento and other places, and bring in young professionals. The dot-com boom and the tech boom pushed that agenda a little more. Plus the police were very involved. You had the gang injunctions, which targeted Black and Brown youth.

Has your relationship to the city changed?

San Francisco is always going to be in me, things I’ve seen here that I’ve never seen anywhere else, things I’ve experienced that are part of my life. I miss a lot of things.

Market Street used to be clothing shops and hustlers and all types of stuff, and it was a vibrant place. It could be kind of shifty, but it was the heart of the city or one of the main veins. And it’s different now. I’m a little bitter because I want to stay here, but damn, there’s nowhere to hang out! [Laughs.] I’m old school, man. I grew up in the underground hip-hop scene and that mentality of the underground remains. I like things that are independent.

‘Art is a Way of Telling Our Story’ — An Interview with San Francisco’s Chris Gazaleh
Chris Gazaleh’s grandmother, mother, and aunt in the Mission. (Courtesy Chris Gazaleh)

How did you get into art?

When I was a kid, art just came to me. I’d watch a movie and start drawing characters, or make up my own. I loved comic books. My cousin Mike Kazaleh was actually the original artist for Ren and Stimpy. So it’s in my family.

Around fifth grade I got more into hip-hop, and by middle school I was doing my little letters, tagging and stuff. In high school I did my first piece. This was out in Detroit, but that same year I moved back to the bay, so I was tagging on Muni and BART and everything.

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When I went to SF State, I was with the General Union of Palestine Students, and I made T-shirts. I wasn’t putting my stuff out there — it was more just for organizing and for the community.

By 28 or 29, I shifted into doing my art in the street. The first piece I did on the street was at Little Heaven Deli on 20th and Mission in the doorway — it’s a foggy little cityscape. I used to work in Hayes Valley, which is how I met Huf [Keith Hufnagel] and became friends with him, and also how I met CUBA, who’s an OG graffiti writer. He was painting on an old liquor store. CUBA saw me in a cafe one day drawing and was like, “Yo, you told me you do art, but that’s what you do?” So he gave me a wall in Clarion Alley and I started painting there, and then I just kept going.

Do you consider yourself a graffiti writer or a street artist?

I like the term muralist because it’s more professional. Sure, I did some graffiti, but I’m not gonna claim I was hella up. But I was always watching and I know who the best were. People like Saber, Twist, Spy, TDK [Crew], TMC [Crew]. [Mike] Dream, you gotta know Dream. I know the original crews, because that’s who I used to look up to. And I liked the bus hoppers too. It used to be that the whole bus was tagged. Seats, floor, the fuckin’ ceiling. [Laughs.]

After Little Heaven, did you get more paid murals?

Nah, dude. I didn’t get paid until I was older. For the Little Heaven piece, he paid me like $100, and he was kinda mad that he had to pay me $100. [Laughs.] I didn’t really start getting paid until my mid-30s. I’m 37 now, so it’s only been a few years.

‘I don’t agree that you have to be from here to be legit. It’s not the only part of the equation.’

I’m grateful, though, because it pushed me. I’ve been working multiple jobs since I was 14 years old. My mother was a single mother, no college education, so she had to hustle. She had to work her ass off.

Do you remember a specific moment of political awakening?

I grew up knowing that something happened to our people and our family, and that that’s why we’re in America. I understood this at a pretty young age, but I didn’t know I was Palestinian until I was about 10 years old. I didn’t even understand the concept of identity, because it wasn’t taught to me, but I knew something about us was different.

Since my parents were divorced, I spent a lot of time with my grandparents, who lived in San Bruno, driving around listening to Arabic music. We would always be in the city. My relatives had a few stores, one on Mission and César Chávez, and my uncle had one on 26th and Mission. It’s still there.

With my other grandparents in Detroit, we’d watch Detroit news, but also watch world news — I think it’s part of the Palestinian-American experience to always watch the news. I remember at a very young age seeing my grandmother cry and my grandfather get mad and change the channel.

My family had an orange orchard on the coast, just south of Tel Aviv, that was stolen. My great grandfather didn’t want to leave and the Zionists were going to kill him. But let me say this: The neighbors we had at the orchard were all Jewish, and everybody was cool, man. They borrowed sugar from each other. And they all spoke Arabic, they didn’t speak Hebrew yet, so there was a communal feeling. And that all got destroyed with the creation of the Israeli state, because it became exclusive.

‘Art is a Way of Telling Our Story’ — An Interview with San Francisco’s Chris Gazaleh
Tens of thousands of cars pass Gazaleh’s mural each day as they drive on and off the Central Freeway at Market and Octavia. (Photo: Pamela Gentile)

When did your Palestinian identity begin to influence your art?

I remember creating this cartoon character in seventh grade and his name was Rage. He was a Palestinian guy with a big sword, muscles, he was almost like a comic book character, but he was wearing a kaffiyeh on his head, and his sword almost looked like a pen.

When I was 14 or 15, I started to question identity a lot more. Being second generation, I was able to see my people struggle from an American perspective and a Palestinian perspective.

My grandfather served in the U.S. Army. My dad’s older brother served in Vietnam. We did our part. We came to this country and worked our asses off. My family never did anything crooked. My grandfather was such a good citizen, dude. I’m talking about goody two-shoes. He was so damn careful, and people loved him. My grandparents had a deli in downtown Detroit and during the 1968 riots, our store was one of the few that didn’t get burned down. Why? Because we employed Black people. Other people didn’t do that, and they got their shit burned down.

‘Art is a Way of Telling Our Story’ — An Interview with San Francisco’s Chris Gazaleh
Gazaleh’s grandfather on Guerrero Street in San Francisco, undated. (Courtesy Chris Gazaleh)

My older brother is an artist, he’s the one who got me into skateboarding, he got really into hip-hop, and he was also reading socialist books. I wasn’t doing that — I took a more humanitarian and cultural approach, and my brother was more political and ideological. But I knew that I cared about my people, and that’s where my love for Palestine came from.

What’s the purpose of the art you make and of political art in general?

As a Palestinian American, I’m creating my own expression. At the same time, I’m working for our people’s liberation and our voice. Being an organizer for so many years — I do work with the Arab Resource and Organizing Center in the Mission — I feel like I understand my people’s needs very well. My thing is to raise consciousness about what’s going on in Palestine. Here in the United States, we’re in the belly of the beast. This place is very aligned with the state of Israel and its policies, and the issue in Palestine is historically connected to the structure of racism.

Art is a way of telling our story, and we often don’t have the access to tell these stories in the media. So with the underground mentality I grew up with, I realized we can do things without their help, without corporations, without the city. All my art has been without city approval. I’m not against anybody who does go through the city, but I realized you don’t have to.

What’s your take on the fnnch controversy?

I think fnnch has a very corporate approach to his art — mass production, putting it everywhere. I can see his lack of understanding about how art is powerful, and also about how it’s used in gentrification. I see him as the Starbucks of street art.

Some art is political without having to say it’s political, because it’s just about people’s experiences. I think all artists should be tuned in to what’s going on around the world. That’s why art is powerful and why it’s useful.

‘I was like, “That’s your building?!” And he was like, “Yeah, you know it?” I was like, “Yeah I know it, man!”’

Fnnch’s art, his honey bear, is so ambiguous. What is it? What does it represent? Who is he making art for? And who is he? He’s from Missouri, he’s in the tech industry, his wife is in the tech industry, I heard a story that she owns one of the Painted Ladies.

We have to keep quality control, as artists from San Francisco. You can’t just hop into the art scene and start taking up space. You gotta earn your stripes. SF historically was a working-class city, and a city of artists, makers, creative people, inventors, and people who were down with social justice, human rights, and leftist politics.

What does “earning your stripes” look like? How can artists from out of town gain respect?

That’s interesting. You almost have to come from a place of authority to answer that question — who’s to say what the rules are? Everybody will have a different opinion, and I don’t want to present myself as the overseer. [Laughs.]

That said, I think the way of earning your stripes is putting in work. I think it’s about creativity, skill, and heart, or persistence. Obviously if you do wack shit, people aren’t going to like it. Certain graffiti artists, if they’re going big and getting up, they get a lot of respect because that’s what people want to see.

Another thing is getting involved. There are different cliques, crews, circles, and they socialize with each other. San Francisco has an old art scene and graffiti scene, and there’s a lot of history. It’s important to learn that.

Can the protective, insular attitude go too far?

If people are only focused on where someone is from, then they’re obviously seeing very narrowly. It’s very myopic. I don’t agree that you have to be from here to be legit. It’s not the only part of the equation.

Look, man: Everybody wants to be from San Francisco, so people are very protective of this identity. But also it’s not where you’re from, it’s how you come. If you come out here flexing, people are gonna be like, “Who the fuck are you?” If you’re gonna come out here and do your thing, just kill it, represent, and have respect.

‘Art is a Way of Telling Our Story’ — An Interview with San Francisco’s Chris Gazaleh
Chris Gazaleh on the balcony of the Elgin Park apartment building that bears his mural. (Photo: Pamela Gentile)

How long did you work on the Elgin Park mural?

About seven months, including design. The building owner, who’s also Palestinian, posted on Facebook that he was looking for someone to paint his building, and one of my aunties told him to get in touch with me, and then another one of my aunties told him to hit me up, and then Ron, the owner, reached out to my mom.

I used to look at this building every day when I was getting on the freeway because it always had graffiti on it, and I always thought it would be cool to paint it.

I was like, “That’s your building?!” And he was like, “Yeah, you know it?” I was like, “Yeah I know it, man!”

It was my vision, the mural. He wanted to do something inspired by Andalusia — southern Spain and northern Africa vibes — and I was like, “That’s not our culture. We’re Palestinian. We’ve got to represent our culture.”

I kind of had to convince him on a few things. He didn’t want anything to do with the Israelis. He was like, “That’s not their space. We do this for us.” I was like, “OK, I’m putting in the wall, though.” And he said OK.

Max Harrison-Caldwell covers local news and culture for The Frisc.