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Bridging San Francisco's Cultural Divides Through Art

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Visual artist Phillip Hua is bringing San Franciscans together by blending photos of residents who are polar opposites and displaying them on MUNI buses. The project, We Are San Francisco, was commissioned by arts nonprofit San Francisco Beautiful, and the assembled portraits fill the bus real estate normally reserved for ads. While riders generally avoid the gaze of fellow passengers, it's hard to look away from the haunting, stitched-together visages that marry people from different worlds.

Hua, 36 years old and originally from San Jose, has the same thing on his mind these days that many San Franciscans (and seemingly all artists) are thinking about: social change, economic pressure, and the dreaded G-Word (gentrification). Assuming you haven't just returned from a five-year voyage to Mars or the bottom of the sea, you might have heard that the soaring Price of Everything Index makes it hard for some people to live in the city, or even its satellites.

Hua has felt some of the market's bite himself—he and his partner were priced out of the Castro when looking for a home, which was a bitter pill to swallow. They ended up in the Portola district instead, and Hua acknowledges that's a soft landing compared to the many who can't find a place at all.

"Lots of artists have been priced out, evicted, and displaced. Were I not married to someone who works in tech, that would very likely be me," he says.

It's that "There But For the Grace of a Silicon Valley Paycheck Go I" attitude that in part inspired We Are San Francisco. Hua took photos of 72 San Francisco residents and sorted them into somewhat unlikely pairs: a plumber and a banker, a tattoo artist and a programmer, a teacher and a project manager, an entrepreneur and a homeless man.

There were other factors when determining pairings, most important being which faces looked good together. But whenever possible, Hua favored combos from dissimilar economic circumstances. Each portrait is half of one San Franciscan joined to half of his or her counterpart, right down the middle—meeting each other halfway, as it were.

The subjects came first from social media recruiting. When Hua realized that wasn't attracting enough have-nots, he began stopping in at non-profits and flagging people down at UN Plaza.

Once he had his digital photos Hua printed them, and the halves of each were laid together, like a kind of minimalist collage. Then he soaked them with water to create his trademark blurring and bleeding effect, and finally scanned them all over again into a single, swirling digital image.

There are programs that could blur the photos in a similar way, but doing it physically, with water, makes the results less predictable and more "natural."

The final products, which Hua likens to a series of smudged, bifurcated Mona Lisas in their inscrutable expressions, are billed as "unified portraits of a divided city." MUNI, the place where you're most likely to find designer suit sitting side-by-side with an unwashed secondhand coat, seemed a natural venue.

Hua is aware that with the city's social climate as contentious as it is, some people might not respond to his message of solidarity. But those are the risks of contemporary art. "It's a product of my experience. It's where I'm coming from. If people don't agree, that's fine," he says. No matter what your political bearings, the title of the series is irrefutably true: These people are San Francisco. For however long they can stay together. —Adam Brinklow

· Phillip Hua [Official Site]
· San Francisco Beautiful [Official Site]