John Vochatzer says the “Weird Lady,” a googly-eyed, pink-headed boogeywomen that’s become a familiar sight around town, was meant to express “grievances with private property” and “challenge ideas of what public art should be.”
Now, he wants his new gallery in the Tenderloin to reimagine what an art gallery should be–and who it should serve.
Whether or not you’ve ever noticed the Weird Lady, she has almost certainly seen you. Vochatzer, working under his street artist moniker, Calamity Fair, spent a number of years wallpapering the city with wheat paste cutouts of the now-ubiquitous icon.
In that time, the veteran street artist has watched as guerilla muralists in cities all over the country—including his own—have made the curious transformation from gritty countercultural heroes to luxury apartment marketing assets.
Vochatzer, however, has no plans to partner with any fast-casual condo developers in the near future.
Instead, he has parlayed his hard-earned clout into Moth Belly Gallery, which he and fellow street artist, KT Seibert (aka Seibot), opened on Larkin Street last month. And rather than use the new gallery space to amplify or monetize his brand, Vochatzer is taking this time to ask himself a number of pointed questions.
“Is street art affecting gentrification? Is it contributing to it? Is it combating it?” Vochatzer muses. “I'm just kind of trying to understand as a street artist in San Francisco what my role is in that process. That's something that I think people need to be conscious of, especially if you're opening a gallery in a place like San Francisco.”
For Vochatzer, a gallery’s “moral alignment” is at the heart of that query.
“Weird,” “whimsical,” and “welcoming.”
That’s the vibe that Vochatzer says he wants to foster at Moth Belly. He and Seibert got the keys to their Larkin Street gallery earlier this year. After forming a fast friendship during the pandemic, the duo leased the space in February and—after a few months of renovation and “mid-pandemic brainstorming”—hosted their first art show, “Little Utopias,” featuring a lineup of all-female artists, in October.
Now Vochatzer and Seibert are in the middle of planning their second fundraiser, slated for Nov. 20, and hosting the gallery’s second exhibit, “Unmanifest,” which showcases Vochatzer’s fantastical fine art collages alongside surrealist portraits by Academy of Art University illustration instructor David Ball.
“He's the artist who I feel complements my work the most out of everybody in the Bay Area,” Vochatzer says of Ball. “We both kind of work in the same surrealist, fantasy-slash-abstract figurative style.”
The exhibit also stands as something of an inflection point for Vochatzer as he moves from being an artist known for collages and wheat pastes into his new role as “co-parent” to a gallery and community-driven art space.
Vochatzer explains that he is devoting one show to his back catalog because, well, it’s his gallery, after all. But, he adds, “Unmanifest” is also about getting his own work “out of the way,” so he can focus on promoting and exhibiting other artists.
“I've cut out those images too many times,” he says of motifs like the Weird Lady’s three lidless eyes and brainy hairdo. “I felt like I was falling into the trap of self-branding or logo art, which was never my intention.”
While the pieces currently on display at Moth Belly will be familiar to those who have followed Vochatzer’s work as Calamity Fair, the artist has been producing far more paintings and illustrations recently.
He says he is intent on making Moth Belly a space that actively engages with the Tenderloin community he’s called home for 18 years. In his mind, the gallery is not only a space to feature the work of fellow artists, but also a platform to help them grow creatively, collaborate, and actively share their talents. Having worked in “weird, dungeon-y little rooms and basements” throughout his career, he’s excited to have a “proper facility with a lot of space” that he and his fellow artists don’t have to evacuate for 48 hours after spray painting or working with resin.
“I've always used the analogy of artists are kind of like reptiles,” Vochatzer says. “If you keep them in a bigger terrarium, they're going to grow. ... The more space, the more you can do, the more you can grow. So that's kind of the hope and the agenda.”
Vochatzer and Seibert plan to showcase “transgressive and emerging artists” who might not otherwise be featured in traditional galleries, as well as local and traveling artists from their circle of friends and creatives. They also intend to host art workshops, pop-ups and events where the entire art and Tenderloin community is welcome.
“We want to be a doors-open gallery,” Vochatzer says. “We don't want to be the type of gallery to turn people away. If somebody from the street wants to just walk in and look at art, we don't want to discourage anybody from coming in and participating.”
“I want the vibe to definitely be accessible,” adds Seibert, who has lived in the Tenderloin for almost 12 years. "I don't want people to feel out of place, feel like they don't belong here when they come in, just because it’s an art gallery.”
Vochatzer and Seibert plan to put that vision into action by making all their workshops and events donation-based, so they don’t have to turn anyone away for lack of resources. They also plan to make the artwork they feature approachable by pricing it in a range of cost levels—from a few dollars to a few thousand, depending on the scale of the work.
For them, accessibility also extends to small acts of kindness, like giving change to a homeless woman who wanders into the gallery, as Vochatzer does on opening night of “Unmanifest,” or simply unlocking their bathroom door for someone in need.
Their gallery, which is fiscally sponsored by the nonprofit Intersection for the Arts, is also built to give the artists whose work is featured at Moth Belly a higher percentage of earnings. Vochatzer would not disclose an exact number, but Seibert says their fee structure is designed to give a larger share of profits to artists and help them price their artwork fairly. The typical art gallery takes about a 50% cut of sales.
Ultimately, Vochatzer hopes that Moth Belly can be a torchbearer for San Francisco creative spaces that have been lost to gentrification, the pandemic or a combination of both. “The exodus of small and creative businesses in San Francisco—that was already bad because of the gentrification. ...The pandemic seemed to be the coup de grâce for a lot of things,” he says. “People were really thirsty for places like this. A lot of them have disappeared or are on their way out.”
Christina Campodonico can be reached at email@example.com