According to my (very messy) photo archives, the first picture I took of Hugh Leeman‘s artwork was over two years ago. It was a wheatpaste of this guy (this photo is from last year, though):

If you live in San Francisco, I’m sure you’ve seen some of Leeman’s artwork somewhere too. All around the city, but especially in the Tenderloin as it’s his neighborhood and the focus of most of his work. A couple of months ago, for example, there was this great wall at the corner of O’Farrell and Jones that had some of this popular portraits alongside other well-known street artist works (such as Eddie Colla, David Young V, Gaia, etc):

(Unfortunately that wall has now been painted over, but you can still see a couple of Hugh’s works surrounded by blank plywood.)

Even more recently, Hugh participated alongside a whole bunch of artists in a giant mural at the corner of Haight and Laguna.

I can safely say that since I moved to this neighborhood, I had gotten used to Hugh’s wheatpastes as part of the Tenderloin landscape. After an exhibit at White Walls Gallery last year, I finally learned who he was. But it took me a whole year to end up meeting him and visit his studio (thank you, blog).

Like half of San Francisco, Hugh Leeman is originally from Indiana (the other half is from Ohio) and moved to SF about five years ago after a long back-packing trip around the world. He had spent three years traveling and doing various jobs to pay for the trip, such as teaching English in China and Vietnam or bartending in the Virgin Islands (which he describes as Groundhog Day). At one point he got a job picking up trash in the Egyptian desert and one day he shared a taxi with a woman from the Bay Area who gave him her card to thank him for his exceptional taxi bargaining skills.

When he was ready to move back to the US, he was deciding whether to go to NYC or San Francisco and gave a call to the woman he’d met in Egypt for some advice. It turned out she was going on a business trip for two weeks, and so she gave him the keys of her house so he could look for a job and a place to stay while she was away. The day before the woman came back he saw several apartments in one day, and ended up taking the one where he currently lives because of its location – Golden Gate between Jones and Market.

Hugh says that during his travels he always had a sketchbook with him, and he would spend hours sitting in a street corner drawing people. Because of the language barrier, he would spend days without really talking, just communicating through his artwork. So making art became increasingly important for him.

His three-year trip also made him realize that there is a whole world out there to explore, a world full of diversity and generosity. During his travels he usually didn’t have much money and so he often stayed in poor areas. But that’s where he usually found the most interesting stories and characters, and he was deeply thankful of the kindness of strangers that he always encountered. That’s why when he moved to the Tenderloin he immediately felt that it was his time to be generous towards the community, and he volunteered for a while at the Saint Anthony’s Foundation around the corner from his apartment.

Volunteering in a soup kitchen he met a lot of homeless or low-income people who became the subjects of his portraits. Such as beloved Tenderloiner “Indian Joe” (pictured on the right in full feather headdress), whom we featured here a while back giving his opinion on budget cuts. (He’s also featured in Mona Caron’s mural “Windows into the Tenderloin“.) Hugh was happy to report that, after being homeless for 34 years, “Indian Joe” finally managed to get a room in an SRO and is very happy about it (although he’s very stressed about loosing the key).

A while back Hugh thought it would be cool to print a portrait of a guy he met on a t-shirt and gave it to him, and then made others for other people who asked. At one point his t-shirts became so popular that he decided to turn them into what he calls “The t-shirt project”. Which basically means that he prints his portraits of Tenderloin residents and then gives them to those people in bulk for them to sell around the neighborhood and keep 100% of the profit for themselves. At first he wanted to sell them (at the low cost of $1 or so) so that people would appreciate them more than just free stuff, but one day he almost got busted by the police as he was doing the transaction in the street. So now he funds the full cost of printing the t-shirts, although donations to help him are appreciated.

On November 29th he will be showing new street works as well as pencil drawings in conjunction with a clothing release at Black Scale in San Francisco.

After several years of working with marginalized people in the Tenderloin, documenting other people’s lives, Hugh says that now he’d like to branch out and add more of himself and his own feelings into his artwork. We can’t wait to see the direction his work will take, so we’ll keep an eye out for his street art.