From the streets to museum walls, Barry McGee is still a tagger at heart.

From the streets of San Francisco to pristine museum walls, Barry McGee is still a tagger at heart.

In the early 1990s, Barry McGee, himself only in his early twenties, was already emerging as the most noted figure of what became internationally known as the Mission School of San Francisco artists. The name came from the working-class, largely Latino neighbourhood in which he and his friends lived. His then wife Margaret Kilgallen, along with Chris Johanson, Alicia McCarthy and many others, simultaneously invented a style that celebrated a life of improvised urban poverty, skater and surfer attitude, graffiti struggles to claim city turf, art school punk point of view, and other youthful shenanigans. Their art was highly skilled but determined to not look like it, with values including use of the cheapest materials, quick and dirty rendering of images, and subjects ranging from feminist heroines to the bums on the street, archaic typography and hobo train art.

At that time, I was curator of the large Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in downtown San Francisco, a brand new institution looking for a niche and a constituency. I had come up as director of a tiny experimental artist-run centre in San Francisco, which McGee mentions in our talk that took place as we strolled through his retrospective at the Berkeley Art Museum in Berkeley, California (across the Bay from San Francisco) in the fall of 2012.

I knew that the way the art world grows and evolves is that great artists move the flag that marks the boundary of what is permissible way out to the margins, and that open-minded curators and institutions follow their lead out into that new territory. I had commissioned McGee to paint the fence around Yerba Buena when it was still a construction project. That project became his most known early work, with hundreds of yards of imagery – cops, winos, tools and the like depicted in black on a screaming red background. I then heard about an unusually generous grant opportunity for artist travel – $25,000 (in 1990 dollars!) to go anywhere to further career research. I approached Barry about where he’d like to go and he said Brazil; Barry was, and is, a quiet shy man and only explained that he’d heard they had a great street art scene there. His planned three-month trip stretched to six months as he explored the lively multicultural reality of that country. (McGee has a diverse heritage, his mother being Chinese).

At the conclusion of the project we had agreed that he would manifest his experience in Brazil at his first museum exhibition, at Yerba Buena. Soon after the publicity went out for the show I received a furious phone message from an irate citizen. “Barry McGee is not an artist, he is a vandal and a criminal and deserves to be put in jail, not given a museum exhibition!” It turned out she was on the mayor’s anti-graffiti task force. Two decades later McGee is an internationally acclaimed artist, but he has also spent the night in jail on occasion, as we learn in this conversation.

We began by talking about Barry’s early experience as a young artist in San Francisco, and how New Langton Arts, where I was director, was a resource for him around 1990. Langton was a national leader in the artist space movement, begun in the mid-1970s, in which artist power – on the board of directors, on the staff, in the choice of exhibitions – was manifest, and artists were always paid for presenting their work.

McGee: All my foundation was at New Langton Arts. You know that, right?

Pritikin: I had no idea.

McGee: I was talking to Chris Johanson about how important the non-profits were in San Francisco at that time, like a perfect storm. It was so rich… [Besides New Langton Arts, there was] Southern Exposure, Capp Street, Camerawork, Galeria de la Raza, The Lab, Luggage Store, ATA. There’s nothing like the San Francisco alternative scene. It’s unbelievable. It’s like the independent record labels [scene].

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At one point, talk turns to specific early influences and McGee smiles as he recalls “that big Daddy Roth show”. Roth was a pioneering Southern California car customiser and hot rod designer, and creator of the infamous Rat Fink alternative to Mickey Mouse. Other influential artists, as McGee goes on to mention, were Bruce Tomb and John Randolph who, working together as The Interim Office of Architecture, made an elaborate installation in which car traffic outside the gallery triggered the windows of the gallery to flash instantly from clear to opaque. The way in which their work bridged the indoors and outdoors and made the insular gallery space responsive to the real world left an indelible impression.

McGee: I remember all that, it was like my formative years. And Survival Research Laboratories. You would see their work on fire on a street corner in the middle of the night – that wasn’t going on at all [elsewhere]. That was really influential. It could be horrifying. They instilled real fear with their work. You could potentially die. Anything could go flying off it. I remember they did a show once at an abandoned pier on the Embarcadero. It was ticketed and it was sold out, and all these kids couldn’t get in, hanging out by this chain link fence. And I remember seeing Mark Pauline [the founder and director of SRL] come out with wire cutters and cut the fence himself for his own show. They informed me in so many different ways.

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For the 2003 tenth anniversary exhibition at Yerba Buena – where I had curated the above-mentioned McGee show eight years earlier – he asked if he could install one of his then-new, upside-down truck pieces using his dad’s old van. Not only that, but he wanted to do it on the sidewalk outside the front entrance, and have a hidden theatrical fog machine spewing smoke from the engine. I agreed but we ran into an unexpected dilemma: every time we tested it, unseen Samaritans working in surrounding office buildings kept calling the fire department. The firemen were Not Amused. In fact they were unamused to the extent of threatening that the next time a false alarm was called in they would charge us for their time. The amount of the fine was unstated but the inference was that it would be around enormous. We adjusted the gizmo so that the smoke was only occasional, with less of it, and put up signs saying in essence, ‘Art not life, please don’t call 911.’ We tried one last test, for five minutes: so far so good. Then suddenly, out of nowhere, an Australian tourist rushed up to Barry, hugged him, and said, “No worries mate, I just called 911. Everything’s going to be okay.” Cue to sirens in the distance.

McGee: I love how that happened. I don’t think it could ever happen again on the street in front of a museum. Thank you.

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Pritin: I read recently about a graffiti kid getting shot…

McGee: It happens a lot.

Pritikin: Have you ever been in danger?

McGee: I like that aspect of it. You have to get it done without getting caught. I’ve been caught so many times. I was in New York one time. I think I was writing ‘Abort Bush’ on Canal Street. I’d done three or four roll-up gates. On the fourth one – I think the Republican convention was in town, it just wasn’t the right time to be doing that – this taxicab rolled up and four cops jumped out. You just go into the system for twenty-four hours. Community service… that’s part of it.

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During McGee’s exhibition in 1995, I got a practical lesson in expanding museum constituency. I got a call from the front desk with a story that they thought I’d be interested in hearing. It seems that every day since the opening, a steady stream of wide-eyed teenage boys — with skateboards and holding their pants up with one hand — were coming in and asking with disbelief if there really was a show by Twist in the gallery. I told the receptionist that Twist was McGee’s street name, and to let the boys in.

McGee: There’s still just as many people tagging now as ever. I like that.

Pritikin: Who is it that’s doing it?

McGee: I have no idea. I’m fascinated by it. They’re still promoting themselves, that’s it. I love that. It’s counter everything that’s going on. Everything is for some product that you can purchase, or lifestyle. There’s still these kids that are interested in promoting their name. Showing people they have style.

Pritikin: Are things changing in tagging, evolving, or is it pretty much staying the same?

McGee: It exists in a whole other way. Everybody has cell phones. Before, it was people mailing photos or packets to people. Now it’s text messages with what you’re doing.

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Now in his mid-forties, McGee has managed to build an international career in galleries and museums. His retrospective travelled to the Boston ICA, for example. McGee became even more of a legend with the success of the travelling Beautiful Losers exhibition of a decade ago, and was greatly supported by the New York gallery director Jeffrey Deitch in several famous, over-the-top installations-cum-raves over the past decade. The Prada Foundation published a doorstop-sized artist book about him, and even his modest works, like his signature whiskey bottle paintings, sell for five or six thousand dollars. At the same time he has maintained most of his street credibility through his modesty, resistance to the cult of personality and dogged determination to live anonymously with his family in the same neighbourhood he did back in the 1980s. He travels a lot, of course, and recently was seen in an ad in The New York Times, but McGee, more than any other artist I know, has remained true to his youthful vision of rebellion and still loves what he does, as excited as ever about grassroots visual culture’s ability to resist mainstream authority.

Renny Pritikin is a San Francisco Bay Area-based art writer and curator, most recently director of the Nelson Gallery at the University of California, Davis.