Mission School

Barry McGee

Margaret Kilgallen

The Mission School (sometimes called ‘New Folk’ or ‘Urban Rustic’) is an art movement of the 1990s and 2000s, centered in the Mission District in San Francisco.

Artists of the Mission School take their inspiration from the urban, bohemian, ‘street’ culture of the Mission District and are strongly influenced by mural and graffiti art, comic and cartoon art, and folk art forms such as sign painting and hobo art.

This movement is generally considered to have emerged in the early 1990s around a core group of artists who attended (or were associated with) San Francisco Art Institute. The term ‘Mission School,’ however, was not coined until 2002, in a ‘San Francisco Bay Guardian’ article by Glen Helfand.

The Mission School is closely aligned with the larger lowbrow art movement, and can be considered to be a regional expression of that movement. Lowbrow arose in the Los Angeles, California, area in the late 1970s with its cultural roots in underground comix, punk music, tiki culture, and hot-rod cultures of the street.

These artists are also noted for use of non-traditional artistic materials, such as house paint, spray paint, correction fluid, ballpoint pens, scrapboard, and found objects. Their gallery work is often displayed using the ‘cluster method,’ in which a number of individual works (sometimes by different artists) are clustered closely together on a gallery wall, rather than the traditional gallery display method of widely separating individual works.

Street art has always been an important part of the Mission School aesthetic. Several Mission School artists crossed over into San Francisco’s burgeoning graffiti art scene of the 1990s, notably Barry McGee (who wrote under the name ‘Twist’), Ruby Neri (a.k.a. ‘Reminisce’), Dan ‘Plasma’ Rauch, and Margaret Kilgallen (a.k.a. ‘Meta’).

Artists considered to be part of the Mission School (past or present) have included: Barry McGee, Margaret Kilgallen, Chris Johanson, Alicia McCarthy, Ruby Neri, Rigo 23, Aaron Noble, Carlos Santana, Clare Rojas, Thomas Campbell, Jo Jackson, Scott Williams, Bill Daniel, Xara Thustra, and David Arnn. The profile of these artists was raised considerably by the inclusion of the work of Barry McGee in the 2001 Venice Biennale and the works of Chris Johanson and Margaret Kilgallen in the 2002 Whitney Biennial.

In 2003, not long after the term ‘Mission School’ was coined, a panel at the Commonwealth Club of California named several emerging San Francisco artists as constituting a ‘New Mission School.’ These artists included Andrew Schoultz, Dave Warnke, Sirron Norris, Neonski, Ricardo, Damon Soule, Misk, and NoMe, though many of these artists do not embrace the label. The term Mission School has been criticized for being too geographically specific (many artists outside of San Francisco share this aesthetic, while others living in the Mission District do not), while at the same time being a vague catch-all, with many artists who are referred to as Mission School having a hard time seeing how they are part of this ‘school.’

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