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How the ‘shiesty’ ski mask became the San Francisco accessory of choice

A person in a black mask and clothes stands on a sidewalk with graffiti and passing pedestrians near a storefront.
A man wearing a shiesty mask, also known as a ski mask, stands next to a homeless tent encampment at the corner of Mission and Seventh streets. | Source: Jeremy Chen/The Standard

Some think wearing one can keep you from getting arrested; others say it's the fastest way to get on a cop's radar. Security guards have been known to rock them proudly, but some store owners will kick out anyone with one on.

It’s called the shiesty mask, and depending on who you ask, it’s either an ephemeral street fashion trend or a symbol of urban lawlessness. But these days in San Francisco, it’s everywhere.

Ski masks, or shiesties, became all the rage in Bay Area streetwear during the pandemic, as Covid made face coverings a normal—even required—accessory. Unlike three-hole ski masks, shiesty masks have a wide opening over both eyes and usually no mouth hole. 

The term is a reference to Memphis rapper Pooh Shiesty, who popularized the casual wearing of this type of ski mask as he rose to fame in 2019. He's currently in prison on conspiracy and gun charges.

Rapper Pooh Shiesty, wears a “shiesty mask”, also known as a ski mask, while performing onstage during 2021 Shiesty Season Spring Fest at Central Station on April 11, 2021 in Atlanta, Georgia.
Rapper Pooh Shiesty, wears a “shiesty mask” while performing onstage during 2021 Shiesty Season Spring Fest at Central Station in Atlanta on April 11, 2021. | Source: Paras Griffin/Getty Images

Even as Covid safety measures have receded, the shiesty has endured among those who like the way it looks, enjoy the protection from the elements—or have other reasons for wanting to cover their faces.

“In San Francisco, it’s more so for the law enforcement,” said one shiesty-masked man in the Tenderloin, who would only give his name as Champ. “You don’t want them to notice you and get familiar with your face because they’ll harass you.”

“I’m in my zone, when I put on that mask,” said the 24-year-old content creator, who goes by @bayareaskiman on TikTok, where he wears a shiesty in calisthenics videos. “Nobody knows who I am, but I’m just there working out. It gives me that juice for some reason.”

“It ain’t the older cats wearing it. It’s the 25-and-under crowd that rock with the shiesties,” said Reggie, a 37-year-old Tenderloin resident who declined to give his last name, while buying cigarettes and vodka at the Starlight Market. “It went from 10 years ago, if you had $10, you could get a $5 white tee. Now these kids might use that money for a mask instead of a shirt.”

Del Seymour, executive director of the San Francisco nonprofit Code Tenderloin, credits the pandemic for normalizing an accessory that previously would have drawn unwanted scrutiny, defeating its purpose of conveying anonymity.

“It was one of those things where if someone was masked up, they were probably going to be stopped by the police,” he said. “Once Covid hit, they couldn’t stop it anymore.”

Not that they aren’t trying. As organized retail theft, car break-ins and other street crimes have drawn increasing public attention, politicians in some cities have zeroed in on the role of masks as an accessory to the crime.

In December 2023, Philadelphia’s City Council passed legislation that banned wearing ski masks on public transportation, in schools, day cares, parks and city-owned buildings. Atlanta also flirted with the idea of a similar ban, but the ordinance was ultimately tabled after community leaders said it would increase racial profiling. Last year, New York Mayor Eric Adams advised shopkeepers to bar customers who refused to lower their masks, lest they try to rob the place.

In San Francisco, city officials haven’t made an issue of it. The Mayor’s Office, police department and Supervisors Dean Preston and Matt Dorsey, who represent the areas where shiesty masks are most often seen, did not respond to requests for comment by publication time.

The Tenderloin Community Benefit District said its network of surveillance cameras has recorded an uptick in the use of masks by both young people and adults. But the prevalence of the masks makes it more difficult to get quality footage to submit to law enforcement as evidence and means operators have to follow mask-wearing suspects from camera to camera. 

A number of shiesty masks on display inside of a Tenderloin neighborhood store. In recent years, the fashion has taken off and become a trendy accessory.
A number of shiesty masks are on display inside of a Tenderloin neighborhood store. In recent years, the fashion has taken off and become a trendy accessory. | Source: Joel Umanzor/The Standard

Yet the response to the shiesty phenomenon by those who deal with crime as part of their jobs has been far from one-sided.

Inside the Gladstone Market near the corner of Polk and Eddy streets, Abdullah Mo said that the store decided in the last few years not to carry ski masks. But he doesn’t ban people from wearing them inside.

“I don’t see it as an issue,” Mo said as he rang up a customer’s groceries. “Damn near everyone who comes to this store are returning customers, so we know them. Even by their eyes.”

‘It helps me be incognito’

One asset protection worker at Macy’s in Union Square, who was not authorized to speak to the press, said he often wears a shiesty himself when he’s working so he doesn’t get recognized by shoplifters.

“I was outside of work with a Tinder date, and this homeless guy started tripping off of me,” he said. The shiesty masks are “a help for us in security—especially those of us who are hands-on.”

Shiesty masks also help him while he's working at Macy’s, he added.

“I’ll go to whatever floor someone we think is shoplifting is at, and I’ll have my ski mask, beanie and backpack on and start leaning in, trying to blend in with the shoplifters,” he said. “It helps me be incognito.”

He said that Macy’s does not ban shoppers from wearing shiesty masks when they are in the store—though that policy is different from that of other places he has worked. Macy’s confirmed it does not have a policy on ski masks.

“When I worked at Westfield in 2022, we were told to go up to people wearing the shiestys and have them bring their masks down below their chin, where we could see their whole face,” he said.

A man donning a 'shiesty' mask rides his bike near the corner of Ellis and Polk.
A man wearing a shiesty mask rides his bike near the corner of Ellis and Polk streets in the Tenderloin. The masks are a commonly seen accessory in the neighborhood. | Source: Joel Umanzor/The Standard

The employee estimated that 80% of the time when a person comes into the store with a shiesty on, they attempt to steal something. 

At San Francisco’s Stonestown Galleria mall, two security guards working for different retailers said stores’ policies on masking differ. One of the guards, who works for Target, said guards at the Stonestown location don’t have the authority to tell customers to remove their masks. Asked about its official policy on masks, Target did not respond by publication time.

A guard who said he worked directly for Stonestown told The Standard that it is the mall’s policy to ask shoppers wearing the shiesty masks to either remove the mask entirely or pull it down to show their faces. Mall representatives didn’t respond by publication time to a request for comment on its official mask policy.

“We have a little card we show them if they don’t believe us because a lot of times they think we are making it up,” the guard said. “For the most part, people are pretty cool when we show them and comply.”

In the Tenderloin, which may have the highest rate of shiesty-wearing per capita of any neighborhood in San Francisco, many retailers are taking a more laissez-faire stance.

Seymour, who some consider the unofficial mayor of the Tenderloin, said the smaller businesses that line its streets don’t have to worry about retail theft or smash-and-grab robberies in the same way as big-box or mall stores. 

“We have people outside of the small stores that would look out for each one of those places,” he said. “There is no retail merchant that I know of in the Tenderloin that would be intimidated by a mask.”

A sweaty signature

The TikTok creator known as @bayareaskiman started wearing the shiesty mask while working out at the gym during the pandemic to comply with indoor mask restrictions—but also to make a fashion statement. Other gymgoers took notice and gave him the nickname “Ski Man.”

“Wearing a regular mask made me think, ‘Why should I only wear that?’” the 24-year-old said. “For me, I always try and keep a unique style for me to stand out.”

Stand out—but not be recognized. Ski Man said he prefers to inspire his followers anonymously. 

While it may seem like an uncomfortable look for the gym, he said wearing the masks actually helps him keep up the intensity of his workouts and control his breathing.

“I always try to have that ‘Mamba mentality,’” he said, referencing the late basketball legend Kobe Bryant, famous for his so-called blackout gym sessions.  

Ski Man is in the process of starting a fitness company called Bar Villains, which describes itself as “a community of individuals dedicated to unleashing our inner beasts through bodyweight training and the unwavering belief that we can achieve anything we put our minds to.” 

The brand’s logo features an illustration of him doing a pull-up—while wearing a shiesty, of course.