We sat down with San Francisco street artist Hugh Leeman to ask him a few questions about his most recent work, which are being shown currently at ArBbox in Indianapolis, Indiana.   Leeman is best known for painting individuals that surround him in the Tenderloin district of San Francisco, and for trying to bring a attention to their often “down-and-out” plight.  His wheatpastes have been seen the world over, as he takes his messages of social consciousness global.

Can you tell us a little about some of your most recent work and how it’s evolving?
This body of work was a year of experimentation in not just medium but concept as well. I’ve been using blow torches and candles to burn and leave a sooty residue on wood or paper. In a number of these works I’ve used a reductive process to depict my subject. I cover wood blocks entirely in roofing tar – and once dry – use power tools to etch away the lights and tints. This lets the natural blond of the wood show through, and the tar (or soot) left creates shadow and line. On a number of the pieces created with candle soot, the subjects were drawn literally by hand in which I would rub away the light tints with my fingers letting the natural white of the paper show through.  In other works I’ve used chemical reactions on steel to create a rust by adding acids and alkyds. This has been a beautiful addition to my portraiture as I’ve spent an incredible amount of time teaching myself to make things look lifelike. These chemical reactions are something you will never fully control and thus their beauty is created less by the artist and more out of chance and circumstance. In many of these works I’ve begun injecting myself into them. Adding my own thoughts and emotions, as many times I am reacting to an inadvertent circumstance set in motion by using non-traditional media.

What’s been your experience with asking permission to put up street pieces?
Sometimes it is semantics. Telling someone you are an international artist looking to donate a piece to a particular city or place is more digestible then telling someone a graffiti artist is in town looking to peddle his wares on your wall. I’m finding community involvement is the most beautiful and powerful tool here. From making the MLK mural specifically for the MLK district in Atlanta, to a blues musician for a blues club, these were works I had already drawn and therefore producing them on such a large

Click the image gallery above to see all of Hugh Leeman's photos.

scale was quite efficient. Recently in Indianapolis I was given the opportunity to do a large scale mural for a woman’s shelter and they requested an image of a woman holding a child. This was not a drawing I had on hand, but I felt the need to create a piece that would bring attention to this important establishment in the community. I had roughly 48 hours to produce the pencil drawing, and then blow it up to cover a 25 foot wall. This is a great lesson for me, though, in that you need to be able to listen to and work with a community and have a collaboration of sorts. Though I will continue to work as I have in the past by going into a city a saying “hey how about a piece on your wall” and push the ideas I strongly believe in and support, I can now add to my arsenal listening and asking “what are the issues here and what can I do to help”. I feel my art can open minds and draw attention to those that may have been ignored or marginalized, but only if I myself listen.

One such example of getting permission of a pre-made installation was in Indianapolis. I was driving from the Indianapolis Museum of Art on my way to ArtBox gallery on MLK drive. I saw a southern style BBQ restaurant with an Obama painting on it, and on a whim I stopped by and asked the owner if he would be cool with me putting an MLK image on his wall at no cost to him. Sam the owner was incredibly open minded to it and said “Hey that’d be great”. I went to the truck, put up the piece quickly, and now people headed downtown to the Indianapolis Museum of Art can see it daily. Sam liked it too which was a bonus.

Which contemporary artists inspire you?
Some of my favorite works are by David Hammon. His works hold an incredible potential to show the viewer something from a new perspective. Odd Nerdrum is an incredible painter who utilizes models that are seldom aesthetically pleasing but always convey a deep intensity. Olafur Eliasson’s the Weather Project installed in the turbine hall at the Tate Modern is one of the most memorable works I have ever seen it truly changed my day, and the energy in the room. Anselm Kiefer for his use of lead, straw and non archival media in addressing topics of substance with wit and deft sincerity. Often art is little more than something people don’t need on their walls, but JR and Mikhael Subotzky’s photography are above and beyond this pushing art and social awareness. Perhaps most moving is the work of those artist who remain mostly unknown using posters, stencils, and spray cans to speak out against oppressive governments. They’ve done this in South America, during the apartheid in South Africa, and also in Nicaraga in the 70’s when artists graffiti’d political slogans used to help overthrow a U.S. backed dictator.

What’s next for Hugh Leeman?
On November 29th I will be showing new street works as well as pencil drawings in conjunction with a clothing release at Black Scale in San Francisco. A portion of the clothing proceeds will go to benefit my tenderloin based t-shirt project. In January I will be showing new works on paper. These will be taken from my sketch book and show the foundation drawings, which eventually are turned into posters I use to cover walls and billboards. I look to keep pushing the work in a way in which I can see my concepts evolve, adding both substance and shadow to what I do, be it inside or out.

Where can we currently see your work?
You can see my work in Indianapolis at ArtBox gallery, in Atlanta’s MLK Jr. where I recently completed a 20′ foot tall mural, or in San Francisco, where my works are on hand at 941 Geary and White Walls Gallery. Or you may view my works simply just driving down the street, you never know where my images might pop up.

by Michael Cuffe

Visit ArtBox Gallery now to see Hugh’s current show:

Visit Hugh’s artist site:


or his Facebook page: