Xara Thustra - Hard-working, self-schooled, tireless artist/activist Xara Thustra [rules] 2-D, performance, drums, video. Manhaters, Love Warz AND the annual Calendar. HEART 101. All for FREE! Unbelievable


Names like Barry McGee, Margaret Kilgallen, and Chris Johanson are credited as some of the key players in the San Francisco 1990's art movement known as the "Mission School." The history books teling the story of this art movement and bringing it into the mainstream have left behind a few artists that were and still are artistically trailblazing, often times alongside those that received greater acclaim.
The story of the "Mission School" is definitely not complete without XARA THUSTRA. Both an activist and artist, Thustra has been pushing the envelope socially and artistically for 15 plus years in San Francisco. Xara's ever evolving creative medium has been graffiti, screen printed posters. calendars, murals, paintings, video, music, performance and protest. Socially, Xara has been responsible for anti-war actions, gay activism, feeding the hungry, anti-capitalist actions, squats like 949 Market, and so much more...
This beautiful 500 page book captures 15 plus years of Thustra's work in one package through photos and imagery. Not to mention, there are also cameos contained within from Xylor Jane, Chris Johanson, Barry McGee, Emory Douglas, Erick Lyle, Kyle Ranson, Ivy Jean, Sy Loady, and a cast of other SF punks, artists, queers, and activists. Such fantastic stuff. Don't miss this.
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"Feed the people! SF STOPS WARS. STOP MEN. Hard-working, self-schooled, tireless artist/activist Xara Thustra [rules] 2-D, performance, drums, video. Manhaters, Love Warz AND the annual Calendar. HEART 101. All for FREE! Unbelievable." – Xylor Jane

"Thustra's art fills me with a crazy unhinged joy. It makes you want to do something joyful and spectacular and very illegal. I would like to think that my heart looks something like this, and yours too." – Michelle Tea

"I have always been inspired by the creativity of Xara. It is always 100 percent care. One of my favorite artists that I met in SF. Making things to make people think and with so much concern. This book about creative ritual and meditation toward making things better is a good gesture in the Left direction. A non text book, but in the school of life." – Chris Johanson

"Like an invisible giant, silently stalking our city, converting it's ever-more-boring facade into an impassioned, beautiful call to arms, revolution, and to love. Xara has created an incredible genre and gender busting body of work. This is the freak flag flying high." – Bill Daniel




Free the free

San Francisco icon Xara Thustra looks back at 15 years of underground art

Friendship Between Artists is an Equation of Love and Survival
VISUAL ART It starts with the streets. Walls, the texture of walls, rough and colored in swirls of graffiti letters. Walls you feel you could reach out and touch their cold and grit. Establishing shots — the streets of San Francisco in the dot-com era. The photos are of their times: an unattended shopping cart in the streets appears as early as page three. Soon follows the spray-painted legend, "Don't let the good times fool you."
The pictures are inscrutable, their sequence seemingly random. Yet other than the gnomic title (Friendship Between Artists is an Equation of Love and Survival), the only text in Xara Thustra's self-published new book's 500 pages is a brief intro from the author insisting that the book is meant to be read from left to right, from top and bottom in the order the photos appear. There are no captions or prompts to lead the viewer. It is the mute gravity of the photos that pulls you in. What is happening here? It's like finding a box of photos on a trash pile in the Mission — old furniture, clothes out on the curb, a pile of books and CDs. Why is all this stuff in the trash? Did the owners die? Or get evicted? Photos of strangers. You go from one photo to the next and the outline of a missing life starts to appear. What is happening here?
The action moves in and out of the streets, cinematic — the interiors dark, claustrophobic. The streets provide narration. Everything is spray painted. Demand Community Control. Everything bright, everything clean. Everything they build be like fuck you, fuck you, fuck you. Familiar everyday locations have become enlisted as battlegrounds. At the Dolores Park tennis courts, someone has hung a screen on the fence, painted so that it reads "Sink the Ship" in shimmery, see-through letters. A subliminal message to the tennis players visible on the other side? Or a secret signal to an unseen underground army?
Cut to the interior. Some dim locations start to become recognizable: a performance crammed into a corner of Adobe Books, a crowd seen through a doorway at the old Needles and Pens. The images are at times grainy and low res, like bad cell phone photos or surveillance camera footage. Much is shot in indistinct rooms or hallways, tightly cropped. The people in the interiors model homemade clothing or stare back at us from unmade beds. They are dancing in high heels or fucking each other, holding whips and dildos. No one is smiling. Instead they stare defiantly into the camera as if to ask, "Who are you to watch? Which side are you on?" This is not the careless and fashionable hedonism of Ryan McGinley photos. Instead, like the subjects of Nan Goldin photos, the people in these images know how much their search for freedom costs, and who will have to pay.
Meanwhile, the battle in the streets continues. Scum bags dressed as imposter yuppies stand in front of the mall on Market Street, holding handmade signs reading, "The bombs are dropping, lets go shopping!" An effigy of Gavin Newsom burns at 18th and Castro. Back inside, homeless guys from Fifth and Market calmly eat free breakfast at the 949 Market Squat. More drab interiors, more surveillance footage, and then what is happening here? Scenes of naked people grimly carving designs into each other with razors, holding dripping, bleeding arms up to the camera. It must be 2005, I think, when we all started to give up on ever stopping the war and just started hurting each other.

Full disclosure: I am in this book. I might be too close to the people and events depicted to discern whether the images are strictly documentary or whether their arrangement is intended to create a new story. But the juxtapositions, eerie and dreamlike, pack a wallop. In one two page spread, my dead friend, Pete Lum, stairs from the left page into another photograph on the right of an unknown drag queen out front of Aunt Charlie's on Turk Street. Their eyes seem to meet across the gutter of the book and across time and space, as if sharing a secret the rest of us cannot know.
Ultimately, perhaps the one indisputable narrative of the book is the tremendous progression in Xara Thustra's artwork, as the early agitprop graffiti by "Heart 101" in support of street protests slowly morphs into a far more ambitious project, an ongoing collaboration with countless others through performance, print, and cinema to abandon protest and instead collectively embody through art the autonomy and ethics of a truly different world. Perhaps inevitably then, Friendship Between Artists is both a monumental achievement and something of an anti-climax. The protests, the willful art world obscurity, the dead friends — what did it all add up to?
I am certain, anyway, that nothing in the book was conceived with the idea that it would one day appear in an art book. Instead, the interventions, experiments, and protests detailed herein, while at times quite joyous, were, as the book's title suggests, originally part of a deadly serious struggle to keep oppositional culture alive in San Francisco, and for many that struggle now feels lost. But life must go on, and this is no museum piece.
The book's 500 pages positively overflow with life, salvaging from oblivion the raw, visceral feel of 15 years of ephemeral underground freedom. While some will be haunted by the suspicion that the answer to the above question is "not enough," the people in these photos stare into the camera and demand we consider instead a hard-earned and far more redemptive possibility: that this isn't an art project, it's how we live. This isn't representation of a different reality, but about being a different reality. And fuck you, anyway, because being free is its own reward.
For an interview with Xara Thustra, visit sfbg.com/pixel_vision.

Freedom fighter: SF underground art icon Xara Thustra

Courtesy of Needles and Pens
Since the late 1990s, Xara Thustra's art has been inseparable from resistance and community in San Francisco, providing many of the signature visual images of the anti-displacement and anti-war struggles of the era. His work first appeared as graffiti in the streets of the city during the height of the first dot-com boom and soon grew to include artistic collaboration with and in support of neighborhood organizations, like the Mission Anti-Displacement Coalition and the Coalition on Homelessness.
As his work evolved over time from agitprop street art into elaborate performance and filmmaking, Xara has collaborated with countless others on many now-legendary art events like the Anti-Capitalist Fashion Show, the 949 Market Squat, and the band Manhater, while contributing stunning murals to Clarion Alley Mural Project and the Mission Neighborhood Health Center (with Kyle Ranson). Xara appeared in the 2002 Bay Area Now show at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, but has since resisted overtures from the art world, and preferred to instead make work in spaces like Adobe Books, Needles and Pens, and, still, in the streets.
Thu/6 at a presentation of new work at Needles and Pens, Xara and friends will celebrate the release of the self-published, 500-page book, Friendship Between Artists is an Equation of Love and Survival. It's an epic photo documentation of the past 15 years of his work and collaborations in San Francisco.
Note: this interview took place between Erick Lyle (in Brooklyn) and Xara Thustra (in the Redstone Building) over Skype ...
San Francisco Bay Guardian So, let's talk about the book. I’ve read it twice this week — two four-hour sessions, straight through. Its pretty heavy shit.
Xara Thustra It's deep. The book is deep.
SFBG As long as we’ve known each other, you’ve always been pretty quick to move on to the next thing. There’s a lot of self-reinvention in your work, not a lot of looking backward. I’m curious why it was then that you wanted to make this retrospective book now and bring all this material together from the past 15 years?
XT Well, it really doesn’t have much to do with the public. I had a pile of documentation that I had collected by throwing things that were mine into a box. I don’t know how much I really want to say about it in an article but the reality of it was that I was evicted about five times, and I kept moving and just throwing stuff in a box, and the box kept coming with me. That’s the stuff that didn’t get thrown out, those pictures.
Mostly, for me, though, it was that if I didn’t make a book out of that stuff then no one would know I did it, because, like you said, I keep moving on.
SFBG Was this the stuff you most wanted to intentionally save, or just what happened to be left over when you had a chance to look at it all?
XT This was just stuff that was saved, period. A lot of stuff was not saved. It's interesting because [the book] seems like the whole ball of wax, but it really just is the cherries of individual moments — some of the nicer stuff to look at during those happenings. But, really, I’m not very focused on the book right now. I’m working on art show for the book release and I’m more interested in the art show right now.

SFBG OK. What is the art show at Needles and Pens about, then? How does that material for the book release show relate to the book?
XT The book is giving me footing to stand on to continue to speak to the public. Hopefully it creates a platform to show people that I am conscientious about my work and that it's a daily practice. The residue of that daily practice is in visual form.
For Needles and Pens, I’m working on something about the Valencia Street corridor and its relationship to death from poverty in the streets. That’s the art show I’m working on.
SFBG That’s mostly what I think about these days when I am on Valencia Street. I wonder how you’re approaching that.
XT Well, jeez! [Laughs.] I don’t want to give the show away! That is the backstory of the show, and I just blurted that out. I don’t normally provide even that much information. But I’ll say their relationship will be seen through sugar coating and pretty colors [laughs].
SFBG It seems to me that now more than ever, public streets in SF really are a battleground. That’s something you and I have related to for the last 15 years in what we do. This book starts with pictures of the streets, like establishing shots in a movie, and the narrative that follows threads in and out of the streets. The things you see in the interiors are always situated specifically in the context of this city and, particularly, its streets: homeless guys and cops harassing them and graffiti and protests.
But the streets themselves feel a lot different to me now than when you started out doing work in the streets. Art in the streets is different, too. I wonder what your perspective is on how the streets feel now?
XT I would say I am not necessarily relating to the streets but more like being the streets. [Repeats like a mantra.] Being the streets, being the streets, being the streets ... not that you were saying anything much contradictory to that. But, I am only looking at reality and the streets, how they are right in front of me in the present and not in relationship to anything.
Every street in SF is pretty different in a lot of ways. There are so many different realities in SF. But if we want to talk about the bougie rich folks, walking all over people — that’s happening on a lot of streets. The number of streets where that is happening has risen, and the number of streets where there’s good culture ... Well, I can’t just say "good culture." But as for culture that is deeply related to art, and the soul, and history, and kids, and love, and all that shit — yeah, those streets are dwindling.
I have to give it to the people who are able to utilize the Valencia corridor for their eating places. They are healthy, good-looking people. You can’t argue that! They’ve got the teeth and all that shit. They look great! [Laughs.] So you can’t really say nothing bad about them.
SFBG Yeah, but I guess I’m thinking about how it feels different to even put art in the streets now than it did during the first dot-com boom.
XT The demographics of the audience have switched so much to just being privileged people, period. When you are showing stuff to privileged people, they already have so much stuff to look at, so much stuff to choose from and their relationship to it is not the give and take it could be. It’s seen through a commercial lens.
Here’s one way to explain it: if I write the words “None Profit” on a wall in SF, it could easily be seen to be about folks here getting rich and getting money but still not profiting in some way. You’d be making a commentary. Write “None Profit” on the wall in St. Louis or Philadelphia and people walk by and feel like, “Yeah, no shit. Why you shitting on me?” The same words mean different things to different audiences.
SFBG The book features photos of performance in the streets, too. And in empty lots, in squatted abandoned buildings. Or smashed into a corner at Adobe Books — even crammed into a hallway in a house. In some ways, the book’s narrative is to me almost about this search for space in the city. It’s not necessarily a literal search for space, because we could, I suppose, be doing events any night of the week in a bar or something like that.
Even in the Bay Area, there is still space, per se. But it’s a search for a freer space. A non-commodified, less controlled space where perhaps we could be our true, authentic selves. What then is the relationship to this search for space in your work?
XT What’s my relationship to space? I could go for a lot of space! [Laughs.] Space that is lawless and fun and freedom-oriented and sustainable and nice! It’s just such an enormous issue. You and I ran in squats together to try to envision what we though would bring about community. Why did we have to squat a building to get that? It’s just ridiculous.
SFBG I think it’s been maybe 10 years since we sat down and did an interview like this together. At that time it seemed like you were moving past graffiti being your main focus. You were about to appear in the Yerba Buena Now show at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, but you were not excited about that either. You weren’t feeling like the museum was a real place to make art, and were wondering what for you is a good place for art.
Again, there is the search for a specific type of space. How are you feeling about that search for the right spaces to make art in today?
XT Well, there’s a lot in there, but first of all, graffiti has never NOT been my focus. It’s actually unfortunate how ridiculous of a main focus it has been for me. It's like the only thing there is — being able to publicly express yourself freely. And I’m not saying that’s all that graffiti is. Sure, you’re taking advantage of people and being a vandal a little, too. But it also relates to what you are saying about space, because graffiti is about space.
SFBG Do you still get offers from museums or more traditional art world venues?
XT Not much right now. I’m fixing to try to get more offers by pushing in that community a little bit. If anybody wants to know, its basically true that if people call you and you don’t answer, and then people call and you tell them to go fuck themselves or whatever, and then they stop calling. So, yeah, I’m not getting too many offers!
SFBG I’m wondering, if you’re more interested now than you once were in doing shows in those environments, is it because there are different things you feel you can say there than, say, in the streets? What would you be looking to do?
XT I’m just trying to step up. In terms and space and the artwork I am interested in doing, I’ll take any stage I can get right now. Right now, I have this show at Needles and Pens and I ask myself first what is interesting to say in that space, and that’s what I always ask myself.

SFBG Where did the title of the book [Friendship Between Artists is an Equation of Love and Survival] come from?

XT I went and showed the book to my friend, Peter Plate, who is a writer and that’s the title he came up with. It’s a romantic title. There are a lot of ways to relate to it but its important to say that a lot of people’s energy and hard work went into the book. Other people’s photographs, too. The majority of the book, I have something to do with it in some manner, but people have been relating to it in their own personal ways and that’s nice.

SFBG And there are people in there that have since died. It’s a lot.
XT Yeah, that’s true. There is a storyline to it in that way, too.

SFBG One thing I got out of it, was that it seemed that as the narrative of the book progresses, the art moves away from being in support of protest or being literally protest art, and moves into efforts to instead embody a different, freer world.
XT Yeah, I think you’ve said it really well. It’s not a finished conclusion of mine, or anything. But just in terms of time and energy, if I’m going to spend my time and energy fucking with people for change, I think that’s the way to go. But trying to embody freedom and learn how to be healthy and enjoy your mental state on a daily basis ... that still goes hand in hand with trying to support organizations and people that are doing the logistical paperwork to fight the system.
SFBG The book’s title, the riff on love and survival, makes me think about how you’ve always been somewhat known for serving meals at your shows. When we were having that talk about Yerba Buena, I remember you were upset then because you wanted to do a big feeding of free food in the museum and they were not interested in allowing that at all. What is the importance of free food in your work?
XT [Laughs.] Uh, it’s actually, like, this cultural thing that people have been doing for years that has been lost on whatever the culture is right now. If you really want people to come and have a good time, there should be dinner there. It creates a vibe, where everybody is eating food and they’re eating the same food and they have different conversation relating to that. It creates warmth.
These days in this city that has shifted, as well, because free food is not really a necessity for people who are coming out to art shows or going to parties or whatever. But it still exists in my work.
SFBG Speaking of the changing demographics in the streets and at art shows, then, let’s talk about Clarion Alley. The Clarion Alley Mural Project just had its 20th anniversary. I think many of us have been thinking about the weird way that murals we have done there as a community to celebrate our lives and community and resistance have ironically ended up being so well-loved and such an attraction to the very people who are moving here to displace us.
It's something people are starting to think about but it seems like no one really knows what to do about it. Someone told me you suggested that we actually just black out the murals in the alley in protest. I wanted to ask you about that.
XT Yeah, for me, I say buff it. Period. Just drop it. It’s really sad, it’s a terrible way to look at it, and it would be a lot to walk away from, to walk away from those murals. But who knows? It wouldn’t be the worst idea to say something like that, to say that as a group and as a community, we should buff that shit and split and move somewhere else. If we’re not having a conversation about it, then the conversation is just being run by other people, right?
SFBG Yeah. I can see that. It seems nihilistic to me to just self-erase like that, though. On the other hand, the murals themselves have become almost strictly commemorative.
XT Yeah, what happened at the anniversary party wasn’t a celebration of a community that lives here at all. This year it was part of a funeral. People come there to see their folks and relate to the dead. That’s no big deal. We’re all good hard-living people and we’ve moved on and we’re doing interesting shit. But it might not be right here in this neighborhood or within the city walls even right now. It’s in the cracks and on the edges for now. But we’ll see. Personally, I’m looking for Ditter to come out!
SFBG Ditter? What’s that?
XT Ditter! The thing that’s going to replace Twitter! Because you know something’s going to come, right? They think it won’t, but we saw a lot of suckers straight up sad last time this shit crashed. [Laughs.] The next time the crash comes, I just hope it’s not too hard, because all these healthy, good-looking people are basically just MEAT, walking around! Meat! Better hope that economy stays up, y’all!
SFBG [Laughs.] Oh shit! The free food at Xara’s show ... “IT'S PEOPLE!” Well, here’s to Ditter ... and whatever is next!
Check out Erick Lyle's review of Friendship Between Artists here.
Thu/6, 7-9pm, free
Needles and Pens
3252 16th St., SF