San Francisco artist chronicles life on Muni

Growing up in New York, the subway served as training grounds for people watching for artist George McCalman. When he moved to San Francisco, Muni naturally became his first inspiration of observing life in the city. In today’s podcast episode, George shares why he founds Muni riders so fascinating, and how this resulted in his Observed column in the San Francisco Chronicle.

Listen to his story:

George sent us the drawing of the stylish grandmother he spotted on the bus, and you can see many more of his drawings on and off the bus by following him on Instagram @mccalmanco.

Sketching life on Muni seems to be a favorite past time of many riders and submissions (including this fun time-lapsed video of a portrait on Muni). Perhaps the same fashionable lady was the Muni fashion muse from rider Meli? One can only hope.

Muni Diaries is made of your stories, whether it’s in drawing, prose, or poetry form. Submit your own tale on the bus by emailing us at, or tag us on Twitter, Instagram, or Facebook @munidiaries.

Transcript of this podcast episode:

I moved to Brooklyn in 1980 with my mother. We moved up to the island of Granada in the West Indies and I was overwhelmed with the sights and the senses and the aesthetics of New York City. I remember going into the subway, and looking around and realizing that I could settle my eyes on the people who were sitting around me.

I realize that people came from all different backgrounds and all different places. They look differently, but they were all people. And I started really to honing in and focusing on the minutiae of body language and people’s expressions and how they were sitting and how they were either staring or talking or moving next to each other. It was like a sardine can. Everyone was just crunched up together and I was fascinated by that.

Even at a young age (I was 8 when I moved to New York), I was really riveted by the subway. And as I got older I realize that it was the equalizer in New York City. There were people who were extremely poor and there were people who were extremely wealthy, and when you got onto the New York subway system, all of your clothes just wilted and you were sweating on top of each other and I, even as a teenager, remember remembering that. And loving it.

So when I moved out to San Francisco 20 years ago, I was disappointed to realize that there wasn’t this sprawling, big public transit system. We have BART, and we have Muni, and neither of them really seemed comparable to New York’s subway system. But I was really captured by Muni. I loved the quaintness of it; I love how specifically it went around the city; I loved the Muni trains and buses. I really got to know San Francisco by getting lost in different neighborhoods and walking around and recognizing how different the neighborhoods were depending on which bus you were on.

A couple of years ago after running my own design studio for six years, I took a sabbatical. I fired all my clients and I started my professional career over again. And in the middle of that career suicide, I started traveling on Muni and drawing the people that I saw. I took the sabbatical to re-ignite my own interest and my creative craft, so I was drawing and painting and just getting to know myself, the kind of artist I was emerging. I recognized early on that sitting on Muni watching people was a great way to study people’s faces, clothes, anatomy, and their emotions. And [Muni] just became this really natural place to go and see how people commune with each other.

It also allowed me to get to know the city again.

So I started drawing people, sometimes I’d take reference on my phone and draw them later, and sometimes I would start sketching them; I’d have to make sure I was far enough away so that people would not try to kick my ass as I drew them.

One of the things I am always looking for is big personality sitting in a single seat. How that manifest itself is usually some sort of side eye, some sort of disapproving glance, someone eavesdropping on a conversation and rolling their eyes. That always attracts my attention. A piece that I recently did was a watercolor painting of a black woman, most likely a grandmother because she reminded me of mine, sitting and listening to two young people (or youths as I call them) talk in their parlance. You could tell that she wanted to whoop their asses. And she was just not having any of the conversation and she just kept staring daggers into them as if to say, “If I was your grandmother I would bend the both of you over my knee.” I was obsessed with her. I ended up doing a painting of her and trying to just capture her…you just did not want to mess with her because you knew she meant business. I look for things like that.

I really love when people blend into their backgrounds in terms of their clothing and what they are wearing, the colors they’re wearing. I am always looking for people who are well-dressed because it’s hard to find in the city, and what well-dressed means to me is not some sort of urban aesthetic, it’s really people who just believe in personal expression, and I don’t think that style means fashion. In fact I know it does not…I am always looking for someone who has cared enough to wear something other than black or gray, and even if they are, they made a conscious decision. I’m always looking for how people express themselves with their clothing, with their makeup, with their hair. Those are some of the other facets that I am staring at when I’m on Muni.

I’ve been doing this for about three years now and I have a section in the Chronicle that runs every month in the Style section called Observed. I go to a lot of cultural events where I have plenty of people to study, to illustrate, and I look for all of those same things. But I have to tell you: I still draw people on Muni. It’s still one of my favorite things to do.

In a lot of ways it is the most unfiltered form of humanity because whether you are on the bus or the train, everyone’s just a little bit beaten down: people are either on their way to work or they’re on their way home, or they’re in transit and you can tell that no one’s ever happy to be on Muni. They’re not really exuding fantastic energy: it’s not like anyone is really thrilled to be there. But there is just something about the honesty of people just sitting and being that I really love. I feel that it is humans at their most pure. And it’s a way to take a look at the people around you.

One of the things I noticed in San Francisco as opposed to, say, the East Bay, is that people in San Francisco don’t really talk to each other. There is a lot of tribalism in the city and people are really happy to talk to people they already know. But the idea of just walking out of your house to say good morning to someone instead of being on your phone is something you don’t see too much of. And people are engaging their phones. I draw a lot of people on their phones. And I think that really says a lot about humans. How people hold their phones is also fascinating: you see the crane in their neck and you see the slouching and you noticed a lot of those kinds of details.

I really love that public transit in general equalizes human beings. There are so many things in our daily lives that remind us of our differences, that remind you the things like classism, misogyny, racism, gender discrimination. Those things are real and they exist in alarming detail and volume. It’s something that we are having more discussion about because of technology than ever before. I like being reminded of the ways we are not different. Not because I am a utopian, but because I believe that we are also just people. When I am reading the news and I’m reminded of all the things that are different amongst us, it is really nice to sit on the 22 and be reminded of the “thrillmore” that is humanity on the 22 bus.

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