San Francisco is a cornucopia of iconic public art pieces, from glowing light art installations to the beautiful murals of Balmy Alley. But have you seen these lesser-known works around the city? Take a look at our list of hidden gems including sculptures, statues, paintings, murals, staircases, and more. Don’t forget to scroll to the bottom for a handy map!
Sculptures and Statues
1. Yoda Fountain
Jedi Master Yoda found home atop a fountain outside of the Letterman Digital Arts Center in 2005. Since then he has graced this galaxy with his presence to the delight of Star Wars fans everywhere. Don’t forget to throw some coins in the fountain so that the Force may be with you.
Location: 1 Letterman Drive
2. Wave Organ
The Wave Organ, created by artists Peter Richards and George Gonzalez in 1986, is an acoustic sculpture activated by the waves of the San Francisco Bay. Its haunting music comes from 25 different organ pipes placed at different levels around the sculpture, changing with the rise and fall of the tides. Make sure you go at high tide to experience the Wave Organ at its best. Learn more about it here.
Location: 83 Marina Green Drive
3. Venus Statue
Lawrence Argent created this interpretation of the Venus de Milo in 2017 as a commission for the Piazza Angelo in the courtyard of Trinity Palace. At a whopping 92 feet, It’s San Francisco’s tallest sculpture. Piazza Angelo also features 18 other art elements, many of gods and goddesses encased in marble.
Location: 33 8th St, San Francisco
4. Chinese Foo Dogs
These Chinese guardian lions (Chinese: 石獅 or shíshī), are known in English as foo dogs or lion dogs. In 1952, the San Francisco Arts Commission placed 2 foo dogs at Dragon Gate, marking the entrance to Chinatown. They are thought to provide protection from harmful spirits or beings.
Location: Dragon’s Gate, Bush St x Grant Ave
5. Drawn Stone
At first glance, it might look like a simple break in the stone. The result of a California earthquake, perhaps. But in fact, this curious crack in the ground at the de Young Museum is actually a meticulously planned, symbolic art piece by legendary English artist Andy Goldsworthy. The work was inspired by California’s “tectonic topography;” in other words, earthquake fault lines. Goldsworthy, who often works with natural materials, enjoys blurring the lines between what is natural and what is man-made. Learn more about it here.
Location: de Young Museum courtyard, Golden Gate Park, 50 Hagiwara Tea Garden Drive
6. Chamber of Secrets door
Any loyal Harry Potter fan will recognize this characteristic Chamber of Secrets door right near Lombard Street. This 8-foot tall door was created by sculptor Steve Penetti and is free to visit! Pinetti designed this sculptural masterpiece in just a week and a half, using a large piece of sheet metal as the base and pipes for the serpents’ bodies. The door features 7 silver serpents complete with detailed welded scales and red jeweled eyes, on a metallic golden backdrop.
While you’re at it, be sure to check out the enormous welded dragon on the other side of the garage, and the gorilla waving a flag from the roof. You cannot enter through the door as this is a private residence, but you can pass by to check it out. Learn more here.
Location: 2645 Leavenworth Street
7. John McLaren statue
At 1,017 acres, Golden Gate Park is one of the largest public parks in the world – and it wouldn’t be here today without John McLaren, who served as the park’s superintendent for 53 years. He designed the park to have a natural look, and strongly disliked statues, which he usually hid behind strategically placed trees and shrubbery.
On McLaren’s 65th birthday, a friend presented him with a life-sized statue of himself, perhaps as a snide joke. Highly displeased, he hid it away under blankets in the park’s stables. The statue wasn’t discovered until after his death in 1943, at which point it was placed in the John McLaren Memorial Rhododendron Dell. Learn more about it here!
Location: John McLaren Memorial Rhododendron Dell, Golden Gate Park
Murals and Paintings
8. The Box Shop
The Box Shop is an artists’ collective, founded by Charles Gadeken over 20 years ago. In addition to a huge warehouse that holds equipment for creating every type of art piece, the Box Shop also features 20 large shipping containers which serve as individual art studios for rent. As for the murals themselves, the goal is to cover every surface of the site with vibrant art pieces, all of which are commissioned by local artists. Learn more about the Box Shop here.
Location: Box Shop Frontage, 10 Hunters Point Blvd
Juan Manuel Carmona (@manuel165) and Simon Malvaez (@simonmalvaez) talented local artists belonging to the Queer and Latinx communities of SF, painted this colorful mural depicting both local and international Queer heroes, or “Queeroes,” with special focus on their connections to the Latinx community. It includes depictions of queer icons including Chavela Vargas, Frida Kahlo, Harvey Milk, Honey Mahogany, and more. Get a who’s who of all the featured Queeroes here.
The SF LGBT Center is a local nonprofit organization providing economic services, youth services, community programs and more to the LGBTQIA+ community of San Francisco. They plan to continue the tradition of creating a new mural or installation on this part of their building each year, with a spotlight on “LGBTQ+ and BIPOC perspectives, art and artists representing our diverse communities.” They will open applications for the next mural in early 2022.
Location: 1800 Market Street
10. Street Hearts
You don’t want to miss these captivating street hearts by full-time contemporary artist Kate Tova. The unapologetically bright colors, rhinestones, and glitter provide a funky, feminine touch in places where you might not expect it.
Tova, whose work usually sells for a few thousand dollars apiece, wanted to create a gallery experience on the street for the people of San Francisco. After seeing so many boarded-up businesses in the city due to the pandemic, she began painting “Street Hearts” on the wooden boards to bring a bit of brightness during otherwise dark times.
Learn more about Tova’s work and find an interactive map of her street hearts here!
11. Amanda Gorman mural
The San Francisco Zen Center, a Buddhist temple with several locations in San Francisco, commissioned Hayden to create this incredible mural on the side of their Page Street building. It features Gorman reciting in her Inauguration Day attire and surrounded by dozens of butterflies. Learn all about it here.
Location: Laguna x Page Streets
12. Fanny Lee Chaney mural
This vibrant mural was painted by artist Shepard Fairey. It is based on a 1964 photo of Fanny Lee Chaney, whose son James and two of his friends died at the hands of the KKK for registering African Americans to vote. The heinous crime is known as the Mississippi Burning case, and it resulted in Chaney became an outspoken civil rights activist even despite continued hate crimes against her and her family.
Location: Alabama and 20th Streets
13. Rock, Paper, Scissors
This colorful mural is incredibly eye catching for anyone walking past. It was painted by Lauren Ys, Tatiana Suarez, and Cara To as surreal celebration of femininity in an out-of-this-world environment. All three of the women artists are known for honoring their own cultures and backgrounds through their art.
Location: Market and South Van Ness
14. I Did A No. 2 On The Street
These parking posts are tucked away on a street in the Mission District, painted to look like Ticonderoga, Staedtler, and other classic brands of pencils. The designs carefully recreate the classic look of their real-life counterparts, complete with gold and silver leaf for the metal and meticulously painted logos.
The pencils are quite realistic, and the texture on the top of the parking posts even contributes to that realistic soft eraser look. Whether the pencil has a wooden, rough, glossy, or metallic texture, local artist Anthony R. Brown painstakingly recreates it to be as realistic as possible.
15. Todd Young’s front gate art
Todd A. Young is a local artist with a talent for seeing beauty in the mundane. Where others might see a wrought-iron gate, he sees a canvas. And he’s been decorating his front gate every month since 2014, uploading photos of his creations to @thegateguysf on Instagram.
Young creates constantly-changing murals on his front gate with pieces of plastic table cloths, which he pushes through the back of the gate with a popsicle stick. His creations range from portraits of neighborhood dogs to historical figures. Learn all about it here.
Location: 200 block of Page Street, blue house with a large bougainvillea bush.
16. 16th Ave Tiled Steps
The Golden Gate Heights neighborhood is home to this beautiful community collaboration created by artists Aileen Barr and Colette Crutcher. The 163 steps are covered in handmade tiles sponsored by neighbors.
Location: Moraga Street x 15th/16th Ave
17. Hidden Garden Steps
This beautiful community project was finished in 2013. Admire flower and insect designs on 148 steps across 9 different sections. Each section has its own design, but they blend together to create a cohesive flow.
Location: 1520 16th Ave
18. Avalon Greenspace Steps
A group of creative neighbors began renovating this abandoned hillside in 2008. Once a graffiti spot where people threw old furniture, it’s now a beautiful space for drought tolerant native plants.
Location: 745 Avalon Ave
19. Musical stairs
Artist Remo Saraceni created this interactive musical exhibit on Pier 39. Take a stroll up or down the stairs and listen to jazzy piano tunes!
Location: Pier 39, The Embarcadero
Light Art Installations
20. White Light
Salesforce Transit Center is already a memorable destination because of the beautiful Salesforce Park, but you can check out this noteworthy installation by artist Jenny Holzer on your ride up the escalators. A 182-foot-long LED screen flashes quotes from over 40 writers including Maya Angelou, Harvey Milk, and more. You can see this indoor installation during the day as well.
Location: Grand Hall of Salesforce Transit Center, 425 Mission St
21. Love Over Rules
Hank Willis Thomas created this flashy masterpiece featuring giant six-foot letters that blink in different sequences, spurring different interpretations of the message as “LOVE OVER RULES” or “LOVE OVERRULES.” Find it high up on the Salma Family Building in Yerba Buena. Best viewed at night, but you can see it lit up during the day too.
Location: 165 Jessie St
22. Point Cloud
This dynamic installation is by Leo Villareal, the same artist responsible for the Bay Bridge lights. 858 steel rods covered in 28,288 LED lights are suspended from the ceiling of this pedestrian bridge. The colors change 30 times per second into various hues, creating a glimmering, immersive experience. Best viewed at nighttime.
Location: Pedestrian Bridge over Howard St at Moscone Center
23. The Ladder
The Ladder (Sun or Moon) by Ivan Navarro is a newly permanent fixture on Market Street that reminds us to look for conceptual beauty all around us. The glowing white ladder climbs all the way up the side of 1066 Market. It’s best viewed at nighttime.
Location: 1066 Market Street
This glowing installation by Joseph Kosuth on the side of the Bill Graham Auditorium depicts the “Word Family Tree” (WFT) or etymology of the words “civic” and “auditorium.” Best viewed after dusk.
Location: Bill Graham Auditorium, 99 Grove St
25. The Seed
Art and design collective Aphidoidea created The Seed for Jane Warner Plaza in the Castro in 2017. It features 6 LED dandelions that are 13 feet tall, representing the power of a single wish to inspire a movement.
Location: Jane Warner Plaza
Featured image: @rafaelalbuquerque81 via Instagram