A shark patrols a Mission Bay stormdrain in one of Jenifer Wofford's 'SF Bay Guardians' murals.

A shark patrols a Mission Bay stormdrain in one of Jenifer Wofford's 'SF Bay Guardians' murals. (© Ethan Kaplan)

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If you live in San Francisco, chances are you dutifully sort your trash into three bins, pat yourself on the back and call it a day, knowing Recology takes care of the rest. But outside the comfort of your home, are you just as careful with your litter?

The San Francisco Public Utilities Commission (SFPUC) and the San Francisco Arts Commission (SFAC) want to bring that sense of personal responsibility to the streets through a visual art project that merges environmental awareness with artistic intervention.

The pilot phase of the city’s Storm Drain Mural Project features six murals by local artist Jenifer Wofford depicting Bay-dwelling animal species. On the sidewalks next to storm drain grates around San Francisco’s Mission Bay neighborhood, the creatures look up at passersby with pleading, doleful eyes.

Seagulls in Jenifer Wofford's 'SF Bay Guardians.'
Seagulls in Jenifer Wofford’s ‘SF Bay Guardians.’ (© Ethan Kaplan)

Titled SF Bay Guardians in an homage to the city’s late, great alt weekly, the murals include crabs, seagulls, rockfish, a sea lion, a striped shark and — perhaps most adorably — a pair of baby bat rays. “It’s a little bit of a guilt trip,” Wofford says of the animals’ baleful looks. “But I was trying to create more of an emotional connection between the animal and the human, to reinforce the idea that there’s some responsibility here.”

Rockfish in Jenifer Wofford's 'SF Bay Guardians.'
Rockfish in Jenifer Wofford’s ‘SF Bay Guardians.’ (© Ethan Kaplan)

Around the animals are life-sized illustrations of the type of trash the guardians seek to protect the Bay against: condiment packages, MUNI passes, soda cups, plastic rings, cigarette butts and the scratched CD you might recklessly throw out your car window. “I spent an awful lot of time researching what kinds of things typically end up in the drains,” Wofford says.

In one particularly inspired (yet coincidental) mural positioning, the baby bat rays guard against the infringement of a notorious red Starbucks holiday edition cup. This sidewalk installation is just half a block down from Mission Bay’s own outpost of the ubiquitous coffee shop.

Baby bat rays versus a Starbucks cup in Jenifer Wofford's 'SF Bay Guardians.'
Baby bat rays versus a Starbucks cup in Jenifer Wofford’s ‘SF Bay Guardians.’ (© Ethan Kaplan)

Cute and environmentally friendly

This is the first project of its kind in San Francisco. Cities like Dayton, Ohio and Columbia, Mo. maintain storm drain art programs, but their painted murals are made with traditional — and potentially toxic — materials. The SFAC worked hard to locate a mural material that would adhere to the sidewalk, show off the colorful details of Wofford’s designs and not leach toxins into the Bay.

Mission Bay provides an ideal location for the pilot program, which the SFPUC hopes to eventually expand into additional neighborhoods. “We chose Mission Bay because of the development, because of the ballpark, because of the foot traffic,” says Karri Ving, SFPUC’s pollution prevention manager. “It seemed like a good classroom to be able to educate the Mission Bay community.”

A stronger message

While the standard blue and white “no dumping” signs label the curbs next to each Mission Bay storm drain, the SFPUC wants to convey a stronger message to the growing community. Most of San Francisco operates on a combined storm sewer system that directs both stormwater and sewage to treatment plants. But in some areas of the city — like the Outer Sunset, Lake Merced and Mission Bay — untreated stormwater flows directly into the Pacific, Lake Merced and San Francisco Bay, respectively.

These crabs are just a few steps away from the stormwater outlet into the San Francisco Bay.
These crabs are just a few steps away from the stormwater outlet into the San Francisco Bay. (© Ethan Kaplan)

This means any pollution that makes its way through the storm drain grates in Mission Bay — home to a brand new UCSF campus, biotech companies and thousands of condo units — ends up in the Bay. That outlet can be seen just north of the Bayview Boat Club, only a few feet away from one of Wofford’s cautionary murals.

Insistent yet lighthearted

Wofford’s anthropomorphized animals make an insistent, yet lighthearted point. “Sending out an environmental message has the potential to be a little pedantic and heavy handed,” says SFAC senior project manager Jennifer Lovvorn of Wofford’s murals. “She effectively uses humor to disarm viewers so that the message can be received.”

Lovvorn hopes mural sightings will entice pedestrians to engage in a scavenger hunt for all six designs, snap photos of their findings and popularize the project on social media.

About a year from now, artist Michael Bartalos’ designs, a series of brightly colored geometric animals that wrap over sidewalks, curbs and streets, will replace Wofford’s Guardians — an additional menagerie to remind passersby of the power and responsibility they hold over their fellow Bay Area denizens.

Cute Animal Murals Guard Against Pollution in SF’s Mission Bay 21 June,2016Sarah Hotchkiss


Sarah Hotchkiss

Sarah Hotchkiss is KQED Arts’ Visual Arts Editor and a San Francisco-based artist. She watches a lot of science fiction, which she reviews in a semi-regular publication called Sci-Fi Sundays. Follow her at @sahotchkiss.