Any mention of tech buses in San Francisco should come with a trigger warning, because pretty much every discussion surrounding the massive, much-maligned vehicles comes fully equipped with deep contention. Now, the winners of an unofficial competition to rebrand the behemoths—which are often partially bright white and completely unmarked—has sparked a new debate over art, ownership, and community. Buckle up.

Lydia Chavez of Mission Local launched the contest last fall, as a means to start a conversation amongst folks who had seen their neighborhoods become hubs for the people movers. "The lack of any identifying markers made [the buses] oddly anonymous while their size made them impossible to hide," Chavez wrote in a post. "The white frames of many reminded me of unpainted canvases. As long as the buses are around, it seemed like a good idea to make them and their passengers less separate from the community. I also thought the contest might encourage some of the companies that run the shuttles to hire local artists to do the work."

Let it Leak by Ulrika Andersson


Googling by Mike O'Connell

The criteria was to make the buses "beautiful," and entries ran the gamut from playful piss-takes to less playful piss-takes to various visions of the way we live now. The winner features a clever bit of trompe l'oeil, disguising the side panels with a Google street-view image of street art-clad Clarion Alley.


As KQED points out, this particular choice is… complicated. Both the surveillance tech and the original paintings have been co-opted to adorn what has become a full-throttle symbol of gentrification, and some people—particularly those with close ties to Clarion Alley and its representation of an increasingly disenfranchised community—are not pleased.

Public Comfort by Stephanie Syjuco


Raft of the Medusa Bus (Gericault a-go-go) by Stephanie Syjuco

Depending on your perspective, it's a "a very sophisticated political message," "copyright infringement," or that the "re-appropriation of art is inevitable and wonderful."


Cattle Car Tech Bus by David Lawrence

Lyft by Mike Esplin

This idea, and all the other entries, were initially intended to be pure concepts; the winner of the competition was rewarded with $500. However, Genentech apparently reached out to Mission Local once the call for submissions was announced—and the company said it would select one to actually use (for more on the complications there and a local artist's back and forth with Mission Local, SFist pointed towards this heated exchange).


But the loud and passionate response is yet another reminder that tensions are high, San Francisco is in major flux, and passionate people on either side of the street will make their voices heard. [KQED; SFist; Megan Wilson]