I know I’ve mentioned it before—I’m “soft on crime.” By my own admission, that inflammatory smear, usually reserved for the final days of gritty political campaigns, fits me like a glove.
It’s not all crime, mind you. It’s only vandalism—but not even your workaday, back-alley Krylon tagging. I’ve got a soft spot for street art, the growing movement that’s sweeping across cities around the world. In 2005, I wrote about Banksy, the London street artist who has since become an international sensation. Last year, I told you about Albuquerque’s “Rainbow Warrior,” who scaled tall buildings downtown and poured rainbows of paint down the side.
Somewhere within me, beneath the buttoned-down façade, is a counterculture sympathizer, and these simple acts of subversion light up his wide, childlike eyes. Street art is at once a quiet revolution and an inside joke—with all of the smug but exciting trappings of each.
That being said, there’s a new series of street art installments capturing the imaginations of pedestrians in San Francisco. It began with a small red door, about 15 inches tall, mounted against an alleyway façade in an area with a lot of foot-traffic. The door might have gone largely unnoticed, if not for the half-dozen interior locks—chains and deadbolts—and a built-in amber light that spills through an oversized keyhole.
The door is the work of Jeff Waldman, a Bay area artist who plans to install about twenty around the city before the project is through. The tiny doors will be designed by artists around the country, and deftly mounted in conspicuous spots, sure to tug passersby from the doldrums of their everyday routines. “We’ll select spots that bode well aesthetically with the individual doors and are in areas that will see a lot of traffic but are least likely to be removed by anyone,” says Waldman. “Sounds contradictory? It is, but we’ll do our best.”
Waldman’s door project has already evolved into a nationwide conspiracy. Scott Braun is professor of sculpture at Yale, and his students have wholeheartedly embraced the project. (“Yale doors are like regular doors, but fancier,” says Waldman.) Braun has also reached out to other artists around the country, encouraging them to submit doors of their own.
Waldman’s work is familiar to many San Franciscans. Last year, he and his friends installed swings in trees across the city—“a lot of them,” says Waldman. It was the first part of what he has dubbed “The Happiness Project,” designed to help people recapture “the unexpected, lost and often ignored pleasures that make life so amazingly joyous.”
And it worked. “Each one I passed the following day was in use and every person I spoke with that day and in the days subsequent talked at length about how such a simple act impacted his or her emotions greatly.” Again, it was enough to break their routine, and fill them with childlike wonder and amazement. “People passed these on their way to work. Walking home. Running errands. Going through the motions of a mundane existence,” Waldman recalls. “Every one of them learned an incredible lesson in giving yourself up to simplistic delights that every child knows so well and so many adults have dismissed or forgotten.”
While the swings awakened a city’s sense of playfulness, the doors are designed to do something more. Waldman hopes to give the impression that the doors don’t lead in to anywhere—but rather out, to another world, another dimension, something beyond our day-to-day existence. (And with the first door, I believe he portrays that nicely.) This project is about re-energizing our imaginations, and encouraging us to explore what’s behind that tiny, unopenable door.
Originally printed in “Pulse,” 03/17/11.
© Damien Willis, 2011. All rights reserved.