SF Artist Jeremy Novy thrives

S.F. artist Jeremy Novy thrives in outdoor gallery

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Jeremy Novy is walking South of Market, deciphering his own hieroglyphics.

"That's two men kissing," he said, pointing to a stencil of two sets of boots facing each other on the sidewalk.

On the side of an abandoned ice machine business, a life-size, shirtless man in a cowboy hat leans seductively. "That's an iconic gay image," Novy said. "Like a two-step guy. Or a Marlboro man."

Scribbling in a language of doodles, stencils and graffiti, Novy uses underground street art to honor San Francisco's gay history. Much as Keith Haring's anonymous chalk drawings in the New York subways drew attention to gay culture in the 1980s, Novy is emerging as San Francisco's street whisperer.

Novy posters the city at night with life-size caricatures of San Francisco divas Divine, Hecklina, Juanita Moore and Sandra O. Noshi-Di'n't. He draws male strippers, men in bondage, Madonna's pointy gold bustier, a set of handcuffs and leather-clad Care Bears in rainbow colors.

"I'm using a medium that's historically been pretty misogynistic to pay homage to San Francisco's gay history, to show queer youth how hard it used to be to be gay in the city," said Novy, 31.

Although it's illegal to draw on public property, Novy is careful to poster on abandoned buildings, construction sites and on the sides of businesses that grant him permission, such as Leather Etc. and the Lone Star Saloon.

He uses an organic flour, sugar and wheat paste adhesive for his paper stencils so they can be hosed away without damaging the walls.

He first started putting his creations on garbage bins behind his gym in 2008, after moving to San Francisco from Milwaukee.

From there he began stenciling koi fish on the sidewalks, often on top of graffiti tags, to "beautify the area." There are now more than 2,000 of his koi throughout the city, including commissioned ones at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, Quan Yin Meditation Center, Cafe Flore and the hair salon Every Six Weeks.

Gay bars and party hosts hire him to decorate their walls for events such as the Folsom Street Fair.

He's been featured in the book "San Francisco Street Art," and his clothing line, featuring stenciled ties and suspenders on top of dress shirts, sells at Swankety Swank. He was invited to teach mural painting to underserved high school students through the nonprofit Imagine Bus Project.

"A queer street artist is rare, and I want to give him a chance to put his art in a place where it's not going to be taken down," said Tony Huerta, owner of the Lone Star bar, where Novy's work decorates the back patio. His koi float from underneath the pool table in the bar.

"People ask me every day who painted the koi," Huerta said.

Novy is drawn to koi because he says he looks like one. He considered having the blotchy pink birthmark on his forehead removed until his aunt explained to him that what makes the koi so beautiful and unique is their individual markings. Novy adopted the koi as his power animal, and uses it as his signature. He likes to stencil them
over traditional graffiti tags - hastily scribbled monikers lacking artful intention - to cover up what he considers urban blight. In a sign of street respect, none of his koi have been covered up by other artists.

"Stencils are about pop culture. My pop culture happens to be queer. I like having shows in galleries, but putting stencils outdoors allows me to have an exhibition every day. Everyone can see it, not just the rich, educated people who go to museums," Novy said.

Novy's art and his sexuality are conjoined. He first picked up spray cans in high school so he could spend more time with the "hot" break dancers and graffiti boys.

"I wanted to hang out with them, wanted them to think I was cool," he said. "So I would do really good graffiti to get their attention."

After graduation he became an "interventional artist," using his stencils as social commentary on neighborhood blight. He'd paint doors and windows on boarded-up doors and windows to make the neglected Milwaukee buildings and homes look a little better.

He made the local paper, and the heir to the Pabst Blue Ribbon beer fortune hired him to stencil koi around the pool at his Milwaukee mansion.

Recently he was hired to paint over an abandoned movie theater in San Jose. He re-created the marquee to look as if the movie theater was open for business. He added King Kong and Dracula.

"I'm not a construction worker," he said, "but give me an hour, and I can beautify a neighborhood."


Let's Meet: A solo show by Jeremy Novy. Dec. 2-31.
San Francisco Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender Community Center, 1800
Market St., S.F. (415) 865-5555.

E-mail Meredith May