Last week, SF Weekly announced the winners of their Masterminds Grants during their fourth annual Artopia event. More than 300 artists — a record number — submitted materials in to the competition. So, of course, we were thrilled to learn that Tenderloin street artist and Tender friend Hugh Leeman was awarded one of the three highly coveted grants. As you might recall from the interview we published back in November, Hugh’s work focuses on drawings and paintings of marginalized inner city residents (mainly in the Tenderloin and along Market street). I’m sure that by now all of have already seen Hugh’s wheatpastes at some point, as he’s put up several of them in the neighborhood as well as around San Francisco, but you might be less familiar with his interesting t-shirt project. Basically, he prints his works onto t-shirts, and then gives those shirts to the very people who pose for his artwork. They in turn sell the shirts baring their own likeness, keeping 100% of the profit.

Here you can see Blue, one of the models for Hugh’s artwork who’s often playing at the Powell cable car turnaround, accepting the oversized SFWeekly grant check on behalf of Hugh’s t-shirt project.

Photo by Gil Reigo Jr

Since Hugh Leeman received the grant for his art as well as the t-shirt project, we asked him to tell us a bit more about it, especially about how he came up with the idea and what his plans for the future are after receiving this grant:

The project began by giving away my old clothing on the streets of the Tenderloin and in turn asking if the clothing recipients would like to pose for a painting. The response was overwhelming in that I was initially filled with doubt that anyone would care or even dislike the idea of having their picture taken for a painting. The idea to put my subjects images on the clothing was less my idea and more that of people who received clothing at these first giveaways, “Hey can you do one of me?”, “what if I bring you a picture of my friend or cousin, can you draw one for that?”. Over time it has evolved into what it is now. Having gone from old clothes to new threads baring real peoples likenesses, the project acts as a real life Facebook. Introducing people who otherwise unlikely to meet can now not only know of one another, but be included in a project and possess a wearable part of it. The t-shirt and murals in turn act as an advertisement for the very project they were created from. Introducing not just people to one another but an entire micro economy based on the artwork, driven by all who pose, and funded by virtually anyone.

The project has acted as a self empowerment project for the homeless and low income residents of San Francisco. Realistically the project is drops of water in the ocean, however those drops have made a sincere difference for some. The project vendors have used their t-shirt incomes to furnish an SRO unit on 6th street a la Goodwill to being used by vendors to buy tents offering some sort of shelter. Steps have been taken in a powerfully positive direction. One of the recent successes of the project, is that after two years of being entirely self funded it has, in the last three months, become entirely self subsidized by people going to my site, and purchasing their own shirt for $10. With this success has come the idea to expand, however the reality of this expansion has been painfully slow. One of the shortcomings of the project has been that in keeping the projects capital tied in so that shirts can be consistently produced to be sold by “vendors” I have previously taken on, I have found expanding to new vendors an incredibly slow process.

The power of this grant, however, is that I will be able to expand and in turn help others whereas in the past it would have taken weeks or longer to get the money together to bring a new subject’s photo shoot to a drawing or painting then a silk screen and finally to a consistent flow of shirts all while keeping other subjects stocked with shirts.

As far as the project has come, it has an incredible potential to multiply exponentially and go so much further.

You can get your own shirt or a free interactive street poster at