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A Playground in the Haight
by Jialin Luh on Dec 31, 2004
What do Alice in Wonderland, The Beatles, and an urban fashion/art outfit have in common? Try a walrus. That's right, if you're keen to your surroundings you may have caught the easily recognizable walrus silhouette slapped on many a wall and street sign. According to an unnamed source, the significance of the walrus is its representation of not a single individual, but a faceless collective of people, which embodies Upper Playground's operation.
Though the walrus-accented flagship storefront has greeted passersby on Fillmore in the Lower Haight for the last five years, the idea of Upper Playground took flight in the mid 90s when three grade school friends decided they wanted their clothing to represent aspects of the lifestyle they lived and loved. That style encompassed old school hip hop, skateboarding, graffiti, cult movies, urban landscapes and pop culture in general. T-shirts were designed with these facets in mind and it quickly became evident that there were sectors that favored credible and accessible images from life over splashy brands.
Over the years, Upper Playground has developed a loyal and passionate following. Partial credit to its explosive growth must be given to aggressive stickering and postering campaigns throughout the Bay Area, which piqued interest in "The Walrus". Artists began approaching the Upper Playgrounders in hopes of getting involved in the movement. With a growing demand for opportunities to join, the Signature Artist Series was created to spotlight artists who were often forgotten in the hype over DJs and skaters.
Artists who made ends meet by designing skateboard graphics, album covers and brand logos now had a new creative outlet; the "Signature Artist Series" allowed an artist to create an article of clothing with original artwork as the graphic and the artist's name or graff "tag" as the sole branding. This awarded artists name recognition, as their designs were clearly affiliated with their name on wearable pieces of art.
The popularity of the Signature Artist Series led to the opening of the FIFTY24SF gallery, located next to the Upper Playground headquarters and store. Meant to be a space for displaying and selling art that might never be considered for conventional art galleries, the gallery has featured the work of hundreds of local and international graffiti and fine artists including Seen, Zephyr, Kent Williams, Ron English, Shepard Fairey, Dalek and Giant. FIFTY24SF is more than the name Upper Playground's gallery, it is a division of Upper Playground focusing solely on art in the form of books, movies, collectible toys and signature clothing. Masterminds of FIFTY24SF intended it to be a means of mingling new, not-yet-recognized talent with long time established artists to fuel growth and keep the flow of new faces to the catalog and art shows in constant forward movement. Many relatively unknown artists approach Upper Playground and those who make the cut are brought together with artists who've already established a name and customer base. In this way, unknowns and knowns are juxtaposed to bring the focus back to art itself.
With a strong support system and fan base in the States, FIFTY24SF began curating shows in Japan, bringing over artists from the states as well as featuring international artists. These shows inspired the development of limited edition T-Shirts, wood burned box sets, signed prints, signature hand-painted shoes, art books and other limited edition items. Upper Playground stocks many of these items; "drool-worthy" things that come to mind are hand-painted slip-on Vans and beautiful limited edition silkscreen prints in many colors and sizes. Following the success of FIFTY24SF, Upper Playground has been able to spin off three other lines completely dedicated to individual artists Ricky Powell, Bigfoot and Sam Flores.
At the Upper Playground store you will find the staples of every street soldier's wardrobe: hoodies with screen prints of the Muni or the ever-popular "Fillmore" emblazoned across the chest. Also found in the store are eye-popping men's and women's t-shirts with designs ranging from simple silhouettes to layered graphic design- and skate-influenced prints. For media collectors, there are art books and DVD documentaries of musicians and artists. FIFTY24SF typically opens a new show every month preceded by a gallery opening the prior Thursday. Contact the gallery and add yourself to the mailing list to get the lowdown.
The name "Upper Playground" originally referred to elementary schools where the playgrounds were divided into "upper" and "lower" based on grade level, with "upper" being the spot to be. Since then, it has come to signify a higher consciousness and community focused on art. Upper Playground is indeed a must-hit spot for urban art and lifestyle "heads" looking for the real.
by Jialin Luh on Dec 31, 2004
image courtesy of Upper Playground
image from www.upperplayground.com