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Renowned SF artist has worked above the chaos of Market Street for three decades

A look inside the studio of Richard Perri, who has been painting in the Odd Fellows building on Market and Seventh Streets for the last 35 years.

A person in a black suit and hat holds up a large boot, gesturing with other hand, amidst colorful artwork and eclectic decor.
Richard Perri has collected many unusual items in his studio of more than 35 years, including an oversized phone and a sign visible from Market Street that reads "The End Is Near." | Source: Estefany Gonzalez/The Standard

Richard Perri likes to roost. 

He’s lived in the same apartment in North Beach since 1977 and painted out of the same second-floor art studio in the Odd Fellows Building in Mid-Market for almost as long. At 80, he’s likely the neighborhood’s longest-standing artist, a staple in his purple-banded hat and matching purple vest, a pin in the shape of a palette on his lapel. 

From the street below, the windows of Perri’s Market Street studio—which include a sign reading “The End Is Near”—signal there’s something unusual lurking on the second floor. The 3,500-square-foot space around him contains more than 1,000 oil paintings, prints and drawings Perri’s made over the years as well as the things he’s collected, like an original hat used in the production of Beach Blanket Babylon and a giant phone in the shape of a pizza. 

Behind Perri’s desk is an eye-fatiguing wall of ephemera: stuffed monkeys, pinup girl calendars, wooden ducks, masks with long, hair-like beards and an anti-narcotics pamphlet autographed by Timothy Leary himself. 

A cluttered shelf with a vintage phone, toys, a DVD box, and various memorabilia.
Richard Perri keeps decades' worth of ephemera scattered across his art studio in the Odd Fellows Building on Seventh Street in San Francisco. | Source: Estefany Gonzalez/The Standard

“He’s eccentric,” said Peter Sellars, who managed the Odd Fellows Building for 24 years before moving into a consultant role. “And he’s becoming more and more eccentric over the years.”

The eight-floor building used to be dominated by the Odd Fellows fraternal organization, which owns the building and whose groups occupied its many rooms. But Sellars and Perri, both Odd Fellows themselves, have collaborated over the years to draw in more artist tenants as the group’s members decrease in numbers.

Perri became the first artist tenant in the building in the 1980s after seeing a “For Rent” sign hanging up for over a year—a length of time he knew would give him some room for negotiation with then-building manager Stanley Panovich.

“He just sat there smoking cigarettes and letting the day go by,” said Perri of Panovich, who was unbothered by the basement full of sewage, dead rodents and rotting food. Perri got the lease he was looking for and moved into what felt like acres of space. His daughter would come to work with him and ride her tricycle in loops around the floor. He’d be in the middle of painting when she’d suddenly appear beside him.

“It was like The Shining,” he said.

‘Seventh Street serenade’

Even though Mid-Market has garnered a reputation as an open-air bazaar for drugs and stolen goods in recent years, Perri said he’s never had a problem walking around the neighborhood.

“People only say nice things, like, ‘You look sharp’ or ‘I like your hat,’” he said. “And I ask, ‘How about the guy in it?’”

Before CVS moved into one of the storefronts in the building, Perri brightened the plywood along Seventh and Market streets with a giant mural of a pill. It was a nod to the coming pharmacy as well as to the reputation of the neighborhood (CVS has since moved out, and other pill-pushers have moved in). Some people came up to him on the sidewalk while he was painting.

An elderly man in large black glasses and a purple hat smiles closely at the camera, with art and a cozy room in the background.
“Are you Banksy?” asked some tourists one day while Perri was painting a mural outside his building. “Shhhhh, don’t say anything,” he responded. | Source: Estefany Gonzalez/The Standard

“Are you Banksy?” they asked. “Shhhhh, don’t say anything,” he responded.

Perri’s black-and-white mural of the former Merrill’s Drugs now graces the sidewalk, a painting he made in 2015 at the location of the former pharmacy on Market Street, which was moved to its present location last year.

When cleaning out the basement of the Odd Fellows Building, Perri came across an old letter from a group of women complaining to Mayor Dianne Feinstein they didn’t feel safe in the neighborhood because of all the drunks on the street. The mayor wrote back that she had passed their request on to the chief of police and that it would be taken care of. That was 42 years ago.

A mural of a vintage car and people with a real person in red mimicking a figure; a stylized painting resembling a face.
A composite image of Richard Perri's artwork shows a mural of Merrill's Drugs on the left and a portrait of George Floyd on the right. | Source: Courtesy Richard Perri

After more than three decades of working nearly daily in the neighborhood, Perri doesn’t see much difference from that time to now—it’s only the drug of choice that’s changed. “The alcoholics were the same group, and they were more communal,” he said. “But now the people change all the time.” 

The words had barely left Perri’s mouth when police sirens began screaming on one side of the building; at the same time, the historic F streetcar line jangled its cheerful bell.

“It’s the Seventh Street serenade,” he said.

A haven for an artist 

Growing up on New York’s Long Island, Perri was nourished by cowboy movies and television shows like “The Lineup”. He couldn’t wait to head West after finishing high school.

“I always felt I belonged here,” he said. He studied at the San Francisco Art Institute after completing a degree at Arizona State University. He then worked a string of different jobs after hitchhiking up and down the West Coast, moonlighting as a carpenter, charter bus driver, market researcher and bar owner. He earned the nickname “Luckey” along the way and always painted on the side, but it was the birth of his daughter in 1989 that prompted him to pick up the brushes full-time.    

He went on to exhibit at galleries across the Bay Area while filling up his studio with his paintings, drawings and prints, showing off his work at a yearly “Artaganza” at the Odd Fellows Building. In 2022, the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency selected Perri as an official Muni artist, bringing his work to commuters across the Bay Area.

An artist's studio with colorful paintings, eclectic decor, and a portrait of a smiling man on an easel.
Perri has more than 1,000 paintings, drawings and prints in his sprawling studio of more than 35 years. | Source: Estefany Gonzalez/The Standard

Perri might have been the first tenant at 26 Seventh St., but he wouldn’t be the only artist in the Odd Fellows Building for long. Sellars took the place of Panovich, and the buildings’ floors became so clean “you could crawl across them,” Perri said. 

Perri estimates that today the building is 90% artists—a mixture of musicians, writers, painters and dancers (the Alonzo King LINES ballet takes up multiple floors)—and just 10% Odd Fellows. 

“Artists are the easiest tenants to work with,” Sellars said. “Anything that made the art scene better, we did it.” 

The ship of depression 

To enter Perri’s studio, you go through a set of black double doors in what Perri calls “the room of doors” on the second floor. In an attempt to deter thieves when he was out of town in 2023, Perri labeled the doors with a sign warning of toxic materials inside—and that to enter without proper coverage would be to risk illness and death.

That sign is long gone, but the all-black doors remain, with no hint as to what’s behind them. Just inside the studio is an 8-foot-tall painting of Perri’s former psychiatrist, Sterling Bunnell.

“He saved my life,” Perri said.

While the octogenarian artist has always been a fan of therapy (“It keeps my head together,” he said), Bunnell impacted him in a way no other therapist had. The artist first talked to him 20 years ago, when the doctor only charged him $5 despite talking to him for an hour and a half.

Bunnell would liken depression to a ship: It comes; it goes. It can be all different shapes and sizes. “But the most important thing,” Perri said, “is not to get on the ship.”

A person in a purple hat gestures, reflected in a mirror beside a plush monkey. Bright light shines from a window.
Perri points at one of the many stuffed monkeys he keeps scattered across his art studio in the Odd Fellows Building on Seventh Street. | Source: Estefany Gonzalez/The Standard

Creativity has helped Perri stay above water. He cites big names like Edward Hopper and Vincent van Gogh as inspirations—and also local ones, like Anthony Holdsworth, who is often painting en plein air on the streets of the Mission, and Terry St. John, a landscape artist known for his thick brushwork, who died in 2021 (Perri has his obituary hanging above his desk).  

Perri calls his 1996 painting of Red’s Java House his “Mona Lisa,” a painting that inspired a series of works on San Francisco’s java huts, many of which have long since vanished. The paintings have a sparse, Hopper-esque quality, canvases that are imbued with both loneliness and nostalgia.  

While he’s known for his paintings of San Francisco’s often-forgotten places, Perri paints many portraits, too. He’s created the likenesses of a fair number of politicians—Matt Gonzalez, Aaron Peskin and Gavin Newsom among them—and also notable figures like George Floyd for an image that hung on the Market Street side of the building in the wake of his murder in 2020. It ended up being a sort of talisman for the Odd Fellows Building during the chaos that took over the streets at that time. 

“The art served a protective purpose,” Sellars said of the painting. “Artwork can be a tool.”

A person sits amidst a cluttered room full of eclectic items, art supplies, and memorabilia.
Sitting among his piles of art, Perri dreams that someday a wealthy philanthropist will fund a collection for a museum of city-specific artists. | Source: Estefany Gonzalez/The Standard

Sitting among his piles of art, Perri dreams that someday a wealthy philanthropist and art lover—a tech scion, perhaps—will build a collection for a museum of San Francisco-specific artists. The painter—who was friends with Lawrence Ferlinghetti, the poet and founder of City Lights Booksellers and Publishers, and once sold paper sheets of Andy Warhol’s soup cans for $100 a pop—thinks it’s something the city needs. And something he needs as well. 

“I’ve got more ideas than time,” Perri said. 

Julie Zigoris can be reached at