An ordinary piece of urban plumbing in Oakland, coated in 23-karat gold leaf, is part of 'Gilded Cities.' (Courtesy of Erik Schmitt)

Guerrilla artist gilds street objects in comment on the high cost of Bay Area life

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Remember the good ole days of San Francisco, when fancy toast cost $4 and everyone thought that was whack? (Chew on that next time you're biting into your $18 slice of salmon toast at Tartine Manufactory while also griping about the cost of living here.)

These days, you can make $117,000 a year and still officially be considered poor, and every day there's some bit of "news" to further drive the stake in (like this week's headline naming SF as the city with the highest rent in the whole wide world). And while moving to Portland or Seattle or Austin or L.A. is all anyone seems to ever talk about, most of us seem to content just to drown our sorrows in our aforementioned toast. But not so for Oakland-based graphic designer and artist Erik Schmitt, whose new Bay Area–wide guerrilla art installation aims to start a dialogue about affordability and wealth disparity here.


"I've been living here since the '90s, and it's insane how expensive it has gotten to just live here," says Schmitt, a former designer at Pentagram and co-founder of the graphic design firm Studio 1500, who also recently completed a fellowship at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. "During my residency at YBCA, one of my areas of focus was displacement, specifically as it pertains to socio-economics. And it was there when I got the idea for doing this exhibit. If I can't solve the problem, I might as well shine a spotlight on it."

Shine being the key word there. In Schmitt's latest installation, Gilded Cities—you may have previously seen his housing nutrition labels, plastered on vacant SROs last February to call attention to the city's housing and homeless crises—he's coated everyday municipal eyesores, including sewer plates, water pipes, and manhole covers, in sparkling 23-karat gold.

Schmitt sourced his mediums using street view on Google Maps before he set to work on location. "I started by using a steel brush and cleaning solution to clean the rust and grime of them. After that, I would use a much softer brush to whisk away the debris, clean up any moisture, and then, sheet by sheet, lay the 23-karat leaves underneath a layer of adhesive until every inch of the piece was covered in gold."

For objects that would be subject to a lot of foot traffic, he applied a varnish to keep them looking sparkling for as long as possible. So far, the things are holding up nicely, never mind that the powers that be could strip away their shiny mantles at any moment (those housing nutrition labels were removed by SFMTA within 24 hours).

Coming upon one, each fancified utilitarian object registers as a surprise, possibly a delightful one, and maybe even as an Instagram moment. But each is a commentary on the Bay Area's evolution as an enclave for the uber-privileged, a statement about the high cost of even the basic necessities of life.

Want to check out all the gilded sidewalk ornaments? Studio 1500's interactive developer Nick Bushman has created an accompanying interactive map that will take you to each of the nine installations in Marin County, Berkeley, Oakland, and San Francisco.

(Courtesy of Erik Schmitt)

Located at 2 Julia Street (San Rafael).

// Gilded Cities, gildedcities.org

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