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Arts & Culture

In the 80s, Punk Ruled San Francisco’s Streets. Here’s What It Looked Like

Written by Meaghan MitchellPublished Sep. 30, 2021 • 4:58pm

English

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. 

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“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   

English

Meaghan Mitchell can be reached at [email protected]

Arts & culture story tips can be sent to [email protected].

1 / 10
Self portrait of Jeanne M. Hansen

Self-portrait in mirror on darkroom door, Attitude Gallery, 1838 15th St.1983 | Photo courtesy of Jeanne M. Hansen

2 / 10
Poetry at Cafe Picaro

Anita (Max Wolf) Valerio & Ken Tray, Poetry reading at Cafe Picaro, 3118 16th st., 1983. Ken Tray is Hansen’s husband as of 8 years. They were sweethearts back in the early 80’s. | Photo courtesy of Jeanne M. Hansen

3 / 10
The Temple Beautiful

Hanging out, Temple Beautiful, 1839 Geary Blvd., 1980, he Temple Beautiful was an old Synagogue turned into a punk club in the late 70’s- through early 80’s. | Photo courtesy of Jeanne M. Hansen

4 / 10
Poetry in the Pit

A group of punks including Kurt Lipschutz hanging out in the pit. | Photo courtesy of Jeanne M. Hansen

5 / 10
Urban Rats Mx missile effigie

The Urban Rats doing a demonstration near de Young Museum. | Photo courtesy of Jeanne M. Hansen

6 / 10
The Fidi In the 80’s

A shot of passengers entering the Bart station in the Financial District in 1980. | Photo courtesy of Jeanne M. Hansen

7 / 10
No Lunch For the Queen of England

Sister Boom Boom at President Reagan and the Queen of England’s protest in 1983. | Photo courtesy of Jeanne M. Hansen

8 / 10
A night with The Looters

Mat Callahan of The Looters at the farm with the people. | Photo courtesy of Jeanne M. Hansen

9 / 10
Welcome to Downtown San Francisco

A shot of a billboard in downtown San Francisco in 1980. | Photo courtesy of Jeanne M. Hansen

10 / 10
Burning It All To The Ground

Contraband performing a piece called “Religare” on 16th and Valencia in 1986. | Photo courtesy of Jeanne M. Hansen


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