Skip to main content
Arts & Entertainment

In the 80s, punk ruled San Francisco’s streets. Here’s what it looked like

San Francisco was a haven for outcasts and misfits long before it became a hotbed for startups, and the 1980s had its own special feel. People with spiky hair, ripped tee-shirts, and skin-tight denim swarmed the city and crowded underground clubs playing host to bands like the Dead Kennedys. 

Jeanne Hansen, a San Francisco-based artist and photographer who was 20 years old at the time, was there to capture the era with her camera. It was a time when art was a form of activism, and took to the streets not only to oppose gentrification locally but also protest policies coming from Ronald Reagan’s White House. The 1980s punk scene emerged as a result of all of this and more.

“That was my generation,” Hansen told Here/Say. “San Francisco was a fertile place that brought many people from other places to participate against the norm.” 

Starting on Oct. 9 at Jewett Gallery, which is housed at San Francisco’s Main Library, Hansen’s photos will be on display in an exhibit called “Alternative Voices.” The show explores the tumultuous cultural and political environment of the 1980s underground that helped turn San Francisco into a playland for punk music, art, and activism. 

Infused with DIY punk spirit, Hansen’s photographs depict a variety of site-specific events. A dance and poetry performance deep in the 16th and Valencia Gartland Pit, where an alleged arson-for-profit resulted in 13 fatalities, helped kickstart the battle against gentrification and displacement that is still raging in the Mission and across the city. 

The Urban Rats doing street theater on Valencia and 16th to protest a women's sweatshop. | Photo Courtesy of Jeanne M. Hansen

Another photo set depicts a 1983 march to protest Queen Elizabeth and President Reagan’s sumptuous luncheon at the de Young Museum, which featured 20-foot-high effigies of horrible animals placed atop MX missiles made by the Mission-based radical art group, Urban Rats. 

And then there are the shots of the 1984 Democratic National Convention when activists welcomed delegates with a dramatic huge banner reading “Do We Fear Our Enemies More Than We Love Our Children?” and artist Mark Pauline’s Survival Research Lab performance, “Sprinkler from Hell.”

For Hansen, San Francisco in the 1980s was defined by counter-culture. Art, music spaces and squats sprang up in the Mission District and elsewhere, giving people the freedom to explore the limits of their creativity. While contributing photos for publications like the North Mission News and zines like Ego and WATERDRINKERS, Hansen and her fellow creatives were able to transcend social barriers and convey their dissatisfaction in Reagan’s America.

“We all have voices and finding them is so important,” said Hansen. “My camera was my means of liberation and expression.” 

Alternative Voices includes photos Hansen shot as an active participant in the city’s simmering punk era, as well as interviews with well-known scene-makers conducted by masterful storyteller Jonah Raskin. 

“A lot of history can be learned about San Francisco by visiting this exhibit and hearing some of these stories,” said Raskin. “I’ve heard people refer to the United States as the ‘United States of Amnesia’ because we are often encouraged to forget and there is an emphasis on what’s new.”

The exhibition will transport visitors to a San Francisco on the brink of the HIV/AIDS epidemic and bristling at the reactionary strictures of Reagan’s America.

“This exhibit is an opportunity to go back into the past, see ancestors and celebrate a time when there was music, political protests, and performance art,”  said Raskin. “It will also be interesting to see what issues currently loom in the city that emerged from this era.” 

“You don’t have to have money to create news, political protests, and the most authentic performance art,” said Raskin. “It comes from the margin, not the mainstream, and that is hopefully a leading notion that people would get from seeing the photographs and reading the interviews.”

Alternative Voices opens October 9th at the San Francisco library and will be on display until January 23rd, 2022   

Meaghan Mitchell can be reached at