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  • Writer's pictureVeronica Irwin

Celebrating pre-tech SF through Muni transfer tickets

‘Ticket to Ride’ exhibit presents public transit as art and equalizer


SF Examiner

Muni transfer tickets have been a medium for Optimist Williams’ artwork since he was a kid.

“Remember those, like, clear Trapper Keeper notebooks? I used to just cover mine with Muni transfers,” he says. He would decorate the mixtapes he gave to girls in high school with them, or hold on to ones with his friends’ birthdays printed across the top to give as gifts.

Muni transfer tickets also quickly became Williams’ way of tracking his changing feelings about San Francisco. In his elementary school years, he started scribbling a few words about his day at the top of each ticket. Now 39, Williams calls those tickets “memory locators” — a kind of diary tracking his thoughts and passions over time.

Today, the medium remains his message. Williams still makes art with Muni transfer tickets, considering public transit the best place to hear The City’s heartbeat. But he sees that heartbeat slowing, and the San Francisco he grew up with slipping through the tracks.

“When they discontinued the transfers, I was kinda heartbroken,” he says. Phased out in 2017, the tickets have been replaced with reusable, plastic Clipper cards. “For me, it was just a metaphor for San Francisco becoming completely about tech. These tech companies came and really just ruined a vibe that took 100 years to build.”

Williams has condensed his view of The City into “Ticket to Ride,” an exhibit on view through Oct. 10 at a gallery inside RVCA’s Haight-Ashbury store. It’s made up of artistic renderings of Muni tickets, most of which are several feet tall.

Most fascinating is the centerpiece: a collection of 56 giant-sized Muni transfer tickets, each inscribed with the name of a famed San Franciscan who changed The City. Some are to be expected: The governor’s name is scribbled atop a ticket with his birthday, Oct. 10, for example. Next to his ticket is one with erotic dancer Carol Doda, and below hers, O.J. Simpson. Elsewhere are famous skaters, beatniks and even cult leaders.

It’s a list that frames San Francisco not only as a political hub or a hippie homeland, but also as a place marked by class struggle, taboo-breaking and cultural and political movements that spun out to transform the world.

A retail skate shop may seem an unusual venue for an art opening, but with a little backstory, it makes sense. Though RVCA started in founder Pat Tenore’s Costa Mesa garage, the Haight location was the company’s first retail shop and flagship store when it opened in 2007. About a third of the floor plan is dedicated to an echoey, four-walled gallery at the back of the store. Gallery and store manager Dylan Moon said the location doesn’t even exist to make a profit — it’s a “branding location,” he says. It’s in San Francisco because The City’s historic skate culture and counter-cultural arts scene helped inspire the clothing line.

“The art here — it’s always going to be this crazy, abstract art that says something about California,” Moon says. He says he helped Williams decide on names for the tickets in the show, the two scraping their encyclopedic knowledge of city life to find the perfect fit for each date and color. The exhibit “references The City of our memories,” he says.

The exhibit’s sponsors tell a similar story. Sunset Connect, the first cannabis manufacturer to become part of The City’s Social Equity Program supporting entrepreneurs affected by the War on Drugs, not only sponsored the show, it’s been using Muni transfer tickets as well on pre-rolled joint packs.

Other sponsors include anti-“corporate marketing” canned water company Liquid Death, skater-centric seltzer brand Tolago and arts nonprofit Value Culture.

Williams is a “super cool local artist” who’s “connected to some of my very close legacy market friends,”says Sunset Connect founder Ali Jamalian. In other words, the two ran in the same circles before cannabis was legal, and The City circulated some of the best illegal weed in the world — another part of San Francisco history that’s often forgotten.

Williams, called “Tim” by friends, wants locals to remember The City pre-tech when, he says, politicians had as much power to shape culture as skaters and the stoners, and when public transit tickets symbolized more than just a ticket to ride.

“Muni used to be the ultimate equalizer. Everyone took the bus: businessmen, homeless people, skateboarders, artists, when I was a kid,” says Tim. “After all, Muni means comMUNIty.”

SF Examiner:

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