January 06, 2020

When Her Hands Become the City

When I was a teenager, I had a painting by the artist Margaret Kilgallen stabbed into my arm.

Everyone said it wouldn’t hurt, but it hurt continuously. After an hour of dissociative pain I was left with a scar in the shape of an ash leaf. The stem is delicate and unwavering. Margaret must have made the strokes all at once while she was painting, with grace, attuned to curvature.

Margaret was an integral member of San Francisco’s Mission School, a group of visual artists who made and showed work in the 1990s, and for a time her work was everywhere. She had shows at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, the Hammer Museum, The Drawing Center, Deitch Projects, and a number of other galleries. In 2002 her work was selected for the Whitney Biennial.

Besides these commercial exhibitions, Margaret painted hundreds of public murals in San Francisco — many commissioned, or solicited, others painted in the dead of the night and without attribution, just for pleasure. Her signature thick-lipped women, decked out with barrettes and buns, populated the streets closest to her studio in the Mission, finding illicit homes on mailboxes and telephone poles. Pop-folk oak leaves and spruce trees sprouted over abandoned cars. Scowling couples painted in primary colors pulled their children across curbed mattresses, serving as makeshift canvases.

The painting of Margaret’s that my tattoo is based on was made on the ripped back cover of a book — an irreparably old one that Margaret might have picked out of a discard bin at San Francisco Public Library’s book preservation department, where she worked in the ’90s.

In her art, she borrowed the archaic sensibilities on display in illuminated manuscripts, painting baroque borders around the names of local corner stores and translating neon signs advertising BEER or warning CASH ONLY into her own style. I can picture her applying a gothic knowledge of typesetting to bike rides around the Mission, taking stock of the neighborhood’s bakeries, taquerias, and gas stations.

While the tattoo artist was working, she told me that the inked flesh would decay at a much slower rate than the rest of my body. The skin she was dying green would be preserved for hundreds of years, maybe thousands.

A resolute freedom is apparent in Margaret’s approach to making art, an approach that often came into conflict with the city’s legal codes. She learned to work fast and trust her instincts. She learned how to run from the police.

In San Francisco, a Public Works code stipulates that private property owners must abate graffiti within thirty days of its appearance on their buildings. So, people stockpile buckets of paint, more-or-less the color of their building’s exterior, and paint over graffiti as soon as it crops up. I sometimes saw Margaret’s drawings, or one of her many tags (“Matokie Slaughter” and “Meta” among them) positioned elegantly in these uneven frames. She understood the city as a landscape — a singular expanse — and willfully confused boundaries of ownership with paint pens and petty theft.

She surfed. Ocean beach mostly, Pacifica when there was more time in the morning.

I never felt like I understood surfing until I read The Heart, a novel about grief by Maylis de Kerangal, who described it as an act of self-sublimation. The body, its gestures and senses, have to be perfectly in tune with the ocean to not be thrown under water. “Two hundred yards from the shore, the sea is just a wavelike tension, hollowing and bulging, billowing like a bedsheet. [The body] becomes [its] movements, paddling towards the lineup, that zone in the sea where the surfer waits for a wave to rise.”

I think Margaret saw no barriers to making art — it was something she simply knew how to do. Rather than purchasing expensive paints or processed canvases, she looked to literal garbage for her materials. She salvaged discarded wooden boards for canvases and frequented the city’s recycling centers, which mixed together trashed cans of paint, to pick up free amalgamated colors.

Working with these accidental shades — she called them “oops colors” — she made the Mission both the physical basis of her art, as well as its frequent subject, painting shop fronts and street scenes from the neighborhood.

In 2001 — when I was nine — I went to Margaret’s funeral. I remember that it was at the beach, and all the adults were wearing wetsuits. The ashes were carried out on surfboards so her closest friends, her family, and her husband Barry McGee could mix them with the sea. Her mother waited on the sand, holding Margaret’s newborn baby, and we all shared chocolates, squinting to see the buoyant silhouettes of the surfers against the gray water.


Eulogies for San Francisco abound. I’ll avoid that here and just say that I like to walk to 16th and Mission to see the sign Margaret painted in 1997 for The Lab — a nonprofit experimental art and performance space.

I asked the artist Dan Flanagan, a close friend of Margaret’s, if The Lab is the only place in San Francisco where her work is still publicly visible. “I don’t know much about The Lab job but I remember that it was important and she wanted to get it right.”

When I look at Margaret’s art I see something sensual and unafraid, something that radiates sincerity. What she captures in her brushstrokes, in her seamless lines, is a kind of radical simplicity. It’s a way of being there. Friends remember her as always in motion, determined, and perpetually seeking beauty.

“She did paint the sign for The Luggage Store gallery,” Dan told me, “at sidewalk level. Shortly after she died, the graffiti abatement crews sent out by City of SF painted over it.”

A few years after the funeral, I ran into Barry and his daughter at the Día de los Muertos parade in the Mission. They were by an overgrown and decorated altar on Harrison. I gave them each a marigold and we stood around. I tried to feel something. So many of San Francisco’s artists died young. So many of their biographies begin with a body.

“Laurie Lazer of The Luggage Store had taken a picture of it; and I offered to make a replica of the sign, but carved in wood.” Dan’s reconstruction of his friend’s work reminds me of a belief I learned about at the Día de los Muertos parade — that death happens to each of us twice. Once when our physical body leaves the Earth, and a second time when no one remembers us, when no one is around to use their hands to trace our brushstrokes.

I see my childhood in Margaret’s gentle hand: in the colors of recycled paint she rescued from disuse, in the shop signs she memorialized, and in the women’s faces she committed to forgotten walls. An entire world resounds through her murals and installations — as if her way of seeing, her way of finding something true in the mundane, could be stilled, captured, and shared.

When I first got my tattoo, its permanence horrified me — the idea that I was branded. Now I barely notice it, and when I do, I think of it as a part of myself.

Margaret’s first posthumous museum survey, that’s where the beauty is, will follow its curator Courtenay Finn from the Aspen Art Museum to her new position at MOCA Cleveland. I can’t help feeling disappointed that it isn’t scheduled to arrive in the Bay Area. Sometimes I feel like San Francisco is shrinking, like the world in this city is getting smaller. Suffocating.

It’s stupid, but I like to think that Margaret’s leaf, tucked in the place where my arm curves toward my body, keeps her in San Francisco. I’ve always admired that instead of waiting for institutional recognition (which she later got), she painted on exposed walls and trash cans. So instead of waiting for a museum here to pick up the show, I’ll wear something sleeveless and walk around my city, hers too.


This piece has been updated to reflect that the first posthumous survey of Margaret Kilgallen’s work was In the Sweet Bye & Bye at REDCAT in Los Angeles in 2005, not the Aspen Art Museum’s that’s where the beauty is in 2019. We regret the error. —Eds.

Comments (2)

  • At the end of my street, there were some buildings whose address numbers use a font much like one Margaret used in her work. I think of her from time to time when I pass these places, and remember when I had the privilege of working with her at YBCA and installing her work at NLA.

  • What a nice memorial to a fantastic artist. I remember meeting Margaret Kilgallen when I was installing art at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts sometime back in the late 1990’s. She was cool and super talented. So sorry she left too soon. I remember her too!

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