Interview with Street Artist, Hugh Leeman

22 Jul, 2012

To view more of Hugh Leeman’s work visit his website at:

Dig In Magazine interviews self-taught artist, Hugh Leeman. Hugh Leeman is a street artist based in San Francisco, California. He has painted everywhere from San Francisco and New York to Palestine, Israel, India and Columbia. His involvement with the homeless community in the urban, inner city streets of San Francisco is prominent through his T-Shirt Project in which he paints portraits of the homeless in his community and then, prints their images on t-shirts donating 100% of the profits to them. Leeman has been featured in Juxtapoz Magazine, SFWeekly, San Francisco Chronicle, as well as on CNN. [Interview posted on May 29, 2011]

Dig In Magazine: How did you get into art, is your artistic training formal or informal?

Hugh Leeman: I’ve never been to art school. My training was mostly a happy accident. I began working odd jobs even lying about my age when I was 14 so I could work and save money before I was 16. At 18, I left my hometown and spent the next 3 years living out of a backpack to travel around the world. Living in or passing through the Caribbean, Europe, Alaska, China, Southeast Asia, the Middle East, and North Africa, I found it pretty isolating being is so many places by myself and unable to communicate with others around me. So, I started drawing at cafes and of people on the street. As I was usually staying in poor and run down areas with little money, I found that for all the things I couldn’t afford to do, I could meet the people around me that made these places what they were, often unable to have in depth conversations, I found people often interested in having their picture drawn.

Hugh Leeman Artwork : Tryptych

DIM: What is it that you like about traveling internationally and creating artwork there?

HL: I love being able to travel and make art, both are a privilege that is not possible to many of those in the places I travel to. I’m fortunate that such a medium exists that I can comment on things and feel free to exercise my freedom of speech just about anywhere. Palestine, Israel, Bogota, Colombia, and India are some of these places. All with their own human rights issues unique unto themselves,while sharing a fascinating complexity.

DIM: What is your strategy for breaking into the art industry?

HL: While being in magazines and making money from my art is certainly ego soothing and a part of a somewhat shallow dream, the more I become aware of the art world and its machinery I become more excited to be an artist in my studio or in an alley and meeting the people in my work that exist the world over and less inspired by the industry’s traditions. Art world fame and money seems mostly small scale and like most things, they are fleeting in life’s grand scheme. Outside of art circles the idea of a particularly “famous” artist seems meaningless if not entirely irrelevant. I think the artists who inspire me most are often the ones whose work contains subject matter that is self aware if not heavy and intense. I think creating work that contains this sort of intense awareness while also seeping into parts of our culture beyond the small circles of the art world is something to aspire to break into and be a part of, maybe the best example would be Picasso’s Guernica or Vik Muniz’s work as seen in “Wasteland.”

DIM: What are your goals in terms of your art career?

Hugh Leeman Artwork : Kenny Edition

HL: Success is the simplest answer, but that is quite a gray area and relative. However, as framework to this idea, recently I was inspired. As I was called into a conference room meeting and sitting at a table with 20+ seats, I was told I had been black listed from a major arts organization and could expect to receive no money from them for projects. I think this is the first time I really felt successful. I felt that I’d made a genuine decision that in the face of an organization capable of producing millions of dollars for the arts, I’d stuck to what I believe in. In an art world seemingly full of ass kissing and fake-ness, I’d come to terms that I didn’t want what the establishment would offer, I wanted to speak to the people, not to the money.

DIM: What is upcoming for you/what are your plans for the future?

HL: I am starting on what I see as an ongoing body of work called “Stories and Storytellers”. I will be not just be showing the portraits of the people I meet but telling the stories from their lives. The works will be parallel in concept if not entirely in aesthetic as one is of course portraiture and the other are allegorical works as told by the people I have met and become close to through my t-shirt project.

DIM: How would you describe your art?

HL: My work focuses on the marginalized citizens of societies found the world over. It is my aim to not just shed light on them but to actually make a positive impact on them. However small the drops may be I can add to the ocean I am inspired to have the opportunity to add to it at all. My t-shirt project has given me the opportunity to better get to know those living on the streets as they often come by my studio to pick up shirts and simply hang out. I am often fascinated by their stories and have begun painting their stories onto my canvases. For models, I am using not only the friends I have made who live and work on the streets, but also myself, collectors, and those who might otherwise be far removed from the life style of the inner city streets. This way the viewer can better see themselves in these allegorical works and create their own stories that are based on the lives of those on the streets, presenting the viewer with an opportunity to see themselves in another’s potentially disparate life story.

Hugh Leeman Artwork : Rain May Fall

DIM: What inspired you to get into street art versus the more traditional forms of art?

HL: I think there are personal life events that shake your existence and make you wonder why you’re doing what you do. I think one thing that seems recurring is that I don’t want to die one day thinking I spent my life making pretty pictures that were used to decorate the walls in houses of a very small group of people and speak to a niche demographic. I wanted to speak for those whose voice had been silenced and I want to speak to the world, not just the art world.

DIM: What in life inspires you to create the kind of art that you create?

HL: I want to create work that is not just memorable and noteworthy decades from now, but art that will speak not just on [society], but to society on what the times I lived in were like and what they may in some sense still be in the future. Whether the art is memorable or noteworthy is not entirely up to me, but whether it speaks of change and hope is.

Hugh Leeman Artwork : Roberto

DIM: What do your wheat pastes consist of?

HL: I see my street art as advertisements, not just for my artwork, but for those it focuses on so that it may shed a light on a marginalized part of society, through repetition, using larger than life imagery, and most recently, technology. In addition to collaborating with the Australia based ap developer itouru to create an online tour of the tenderloin, my art, and its not for profit t-shirt project, I have been adding QR or quick response codes to my work. These can be scanned with any smartphone and once scanned open up the site to my not for profit t-shirt project. A project in which I print my street art onto t-shirts and give them to the subjects who’ve posed. They sell a shirt baring their own likeness and keep 100% of the profits. This QR code turns the posters into genuine advertisements where the consumer can directly benefit the marginalized subject whose face is on the poster.

DIM: What magazines or zines has your artwork been featured in?

HL: Though you can read a full list and CV on my site, there are two stories that have really stood out to me. The first was a feature article published in Nuvo magazine in January by Catherine Green. She flew out to SF from the midwest to interview me and experience the people in my t-shirt project first hand. It showed me the art form that is writing and the idea of telling a story. The second that sticks out was talking/interviewing with Jonathan Curiel for SFWeekly. I remember spending the first 30 or so minutes of our conversation essentially interviewing him as I was aware of his work and had read his pieces/interviews on everyone from Condaleezza Rice to the Spiritual Leader of Hezbollah.

Hugh Leeman : T-Shirt Project

DIM: Do you collaborate with other street artists? If so, who?

HL: My aim is not so much that I’m a “street artist,” but that I’m an ad agency, ideally “collaborating” with everyone. As you can see at my site I give my work away for free, you can download any poster you see on the streets for free and print them yourself in any way you see fit. At first, this seemed unlikely to have any interest or real value market penetration, however I’ve had strangers send me images of my work in cities I’ve never been to such as L.A., Boston, Honolulu, and Kathmandu, Nepal. This past winter, I was contacted by legal representatives to Dream Works Studios who were asking my permission to have the work used in the background scene of a forthcoming Meryl Streep movie. As it turns out someone had been putting my posters on the streets in L.A. as downloaded from my site and they happened to end up in a street scene in the movie.

DIM: I understand that you donate some of the proceeds of your work to the homeless in San Francisco, can you tell us a little about this program you have started?

HL: What began as a way of engaging the very people I paint by giving away old clothing on the inner city streets has evolved into my not for profit T-shirt Project. In the beginning old clothing was traded for the opportunity to take someones photo and from this paint or draw their portrait. Inspired by the people’s response, I soon began printing my art on the t-shirts. Over time and after developing rapport with some subjects, I would invite them to my studio to pose. From these shoots I would paint and draw them. Later printing these portraits onto t-shirts and returning the printed shirts to the person who posed. They then sell their own shirt and keep 100% of the profits.

About the author

Cindy Maram

Cindy Maram is Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Dig In Magazine. She is an accredited film journalist for Sundance Film Festival, Tribeca Film Festival, Mill Valley Film Festival, San Francisco International Film Festival and CAAMFest, as well as writer, vlogger, designer, digital, online & social media marketer. She possesses a B.A from UC Davis and a M.A. in Mass Communications + Popular Culture Studies emphasis in Film/Marketing/Writing from Cal State Fullerton.

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