The Artist You’ve Never Heard of Who’s Re-Awakening San Francisco
Meet the man using art as a catalyst for neighborhood resurrection and technology as an inspiration for art — all in the city that keeps crying it’s dead.
You can’t miss him. He’s a foot above the rest, with sandy blonde hair, paint speckled jeans, and a calmness to his demeanor only acquired through years of intense focus. A closer inspection reveals deep, piercing eyes, blue with specks of green and brown, that can see through to the heart of anything they’re directed at. For those lucky enough to be in San Francisco, that’s us. Shawn Bullen is taking the insides of our city and putting them up on the walls — a living, breathing force of opposition to the idea that art died here.
You’ve met him. On 24th street. At the Boom Boom Room. The Chicago native has become ours for now — re-awakening our communities as Creative Director of Imprint.City and bridging the divide between art and technology with his newest series. Not to be taken for granted, he’s had to leave pieces of himself all across the continent to get here. From almost joining the marines, to being arrested for vandalism, to even being homeless — his unrelenting passion has sheltered him along the rollercoaster ride that brought him to us.
It started with a stack of paper.
When Shawn was a child, his father was getting his PhD at the University of Chicago and would bring home large stacks of discarded paper for him and his sister to draw on. The mindset that paper was a canvas perpetuated throughout his life, no matter what those in charge intended it to be for. Homework became illustrations, journal entries were works of art — all filling up the binder he carried as the hallmark of his identity.
We almost lost him in high school. With no real concept of what his drawing could become, his focus turned to photography — even winning a place in the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago. This passion led him to sign on to be a professional photographer for the marines at the end of his junior year of high school. Thankfully for us — he soon met a graffiti artist named Chris Gary, with whom he developed IDC Art House, and kicked off the chain of events that shaped him into the talented muralist we have today.
The struggle was real.
By his own decree — the early days were terrible. Used to being acknowledged for his talent, being bad at graffiti inspired him to put in the work to be good. This brought his focus from photography back to drawing, and he eventually found his niche creating characters which he used to climb up the street art ladder.
One piece, on the roof of a produce market, brought him both jail time and his first real gig. After being caught on camera, he convinced the judge to let him clean his work himself instead of paying for it to be cleaned. While working the owner joked that he could’ve at least done something nice with the delivery truck — this became one of his first commissions, and he worked on it all summer.
On probation from his recent arrest, Shawn realized he couldn’t let anything like that happen again and re-aligned his focus. He decided to take photography classes at Columbia College Chicago, but he slipped into a drawing class last minute. That teacher inspired him, whipped him into shape, and he again became focused on drawing. As he got better, he began getting into photo-realism and gained confidence that he could make it as a fine artist.
With a fresh, new, intense focus he went to Halifax, Canada to study at NSCAD and spent his days grueling to perfect his craft. While there, he approached a local elementary school to teach a volunteer class, eventually enacting a mural that would cover a 60 ft wall. He also worked with the Halifax Government Mural Program and began doing professional mural work.
Stick to the mission.
That summer Shawn headed back to Chicago, with no way to know the winds of change headed his way. He had worked to land a huge mural job in the city which, to him, was a ticket to being taken seriously in the space. He nailed it and the work was scheduled to begin on August 6th with a crew of 12 other artists, including his best friend Chris.
On the night of the 6th, the crew began work on the mural. Chris never showed up, but without his phone and knowing his friend’s tendency to lose track of time, Shawn didn’t think much of it. The next morning, still without phone, he went to see his girlfriend who was visiting and found her sobbing over the reality of what had happened — Chris was gone. He had passed the night before in a tragic boating accident.
The world slowed. He was more than a friend. Chris was an inspiration, the source of his beginning, and the soul Shawn had dreamed about his career with. He recalled a recent time they’d spent on the train tracks — Chris had told him how proud he was of him, and that he wanted him to be a leader in the crew.
While the crew grieved in different ways, Shawn knew the only way he could make sense of everything was to stick to the mission — art.
He returned to Halifax for his sophomore year of school, but his focus was on teaching and doing work while he was there — often turning in commissions for homework assignments. He dropped out at the end of the year, fed up with the mentality held by his professors that his art couldn’t make money.
That summer Shawn began a long, winding journey that would take him up and down both coasts and test his ability to survive — all while leaving a trail of art in his wake. It started in New York, where the IDC crew met up to create a memorial mural for Chris. From there, he crashed in a myriad of cities, using his art to generate enough money to get him from place to place.
The end goal? Getting to Miami for Art Basel.
He finally arrived, with a wall and a friend to paint it with. The one thing he didn’t have? A ladder. In finding one, he stumbled into several opportunities to get publicity in the scene, but time was running out and his mural wasn’t done.
Unable to leave the incomplete work, and with Art Basel over, he struggled to find the equipment he needed to finish and get out of Miami. His crash pad was gone, he was out of money, and he was starving. At the time, the Occupy movement was taking place, and he joined the camp just to have a place to sleep.
He eventually finished the mural and began focusing his time on a commissioned drawing to get enough money to leave. As he finished — he received news that his grandmother in Vancouver had fallen and used his payment to buy a ticket there.
He stayed for a little while, working at a paint store and becoming acquainted with the local art scene, but when a friend called to ask him to volunteer at an art camp for an orphanage in Mexico — he was off again. He made his way down the coast hitchhiking and taking buses, even gracing our city, always leaving in art in his wake.
“We’re only here for a very short time, and we can live and die without making an imprint. I’d rather die poor and know I did something that was worth doing.”
Shawn’s work in San Francisco has always focused on bringing hope and life into the areas he touches. He’s to credit for the work adorning Mother Brown’s, and he worked with APRI to teach kids to paint portraits.
Now he’s taking it to the next level with Imprint.City, co-founded with Tyra Fennell and Andrew Casteel.
The mission? Curate an urban arts festival, bringing together local and international artists to re-awaken the walls of San Francisco.
For Shawn, it’s about more than just getting art up on the walls though - all the artists that come will teach. Because that’s what it really boils down to - kids. The idea that a kid can walk down the streets of their neighborhood and be surrounded by art. That they have the opportunity to become the next great artist, starting by being surrounded by the greats. That they understand that creativity has value. That they have the chance to contribute to something huge — to shake the feeling of being an invisible identity floating around in a large city.
Mural at Boost.vc, from early stage to finished product.
An imposition to the beauty of the world, a failed consideration of how we as humans interact in our city — to Shawn, his work solves the problem of poor architecture. Looking at art, if only a second, can bring happiness into the most hopeless of situations, and he’s multiplying that effect all over the city.
Recently though, his artistic interest has been captured by the ideal of the problem solvers proliferating the valley. With his newest series, he wants to focus his energy on a subject he’s passionate about — the goals, processes, and dreams of innovative, dedicated, and creative entrepreneurs.
With existing work at Boost.vc and an upcoming exhibit at Google, Shawn is seamlessly merging the two cultures of the city currently portrayed as being at odd’s with each other.
Art’s not dead. It’s a catalyst for reconciliation and resurrection.
If you think Shawn, or this piece, is awesome — we’d really ❤ for you to hit the recommend button.
If you’re interested in keeping up with Shawn, follow him on Instagram: @shawnbullen1.
This is the first piece in a series on the stories of undiscovered artists, if you want to tag along for the rest follow the collection here.