Hugh Leeman

The hawk and the rat: Hugh Leeman's artistic 'social experiments'

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The artist talks about his upcoming exhibit, depictions of the homeless, and art-related capitalism
 
If you’ve walked through the Tenderloin, along Market Street, or around SoMa, there’s a good chance you’ve seen Hugh Leeman’s art. (He'll be showing new work Thu/4 at SOMArts Gallery as part of the "Dial Collect" show.) Leeman is best known for his drawings of the distinct and arresting faces of Sixth and Market’s homeless, which he used to wheatpaste onto billboards and buildings. His iconic work has been characterized as “street art,” but Leeman views his homeless art project through a more enterprising lens.

The power latent in billboards and marketing campaigns – both to make a statement and to expose vulnerabilities held by the viewer – inspired Leeman to plaster his friends’ faces around town. (Leeman met most of the homeless men he's depicted by engaging in street-side conversation, usually with the help of a trusty pack of Camel cigarettes.) He aimed to get as many eyes on his work as possible by giving away free posters of his drawings and by allowing people to download posters off his website for free. He also screen printed his drawings onto t-shirts and gave them away to men and women on the street to sell for a 100% profit.

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