Correction: Due to incorrect information provided to the reporter, SF Appeal misreported the location of the Crime Wave Show. The show was held at 450 Beale Street, according to a police report.

Mark Pauline‘s Survival Research Labs fought for years with the San Francisco Fire Department to keep its place as a fringe artistic institution in the city.

Last fall, after producing 50 explosive shows over the course of nearly three decades, the Godfather of industrial fire art lost that fight and moved to Petaluma — a city Pauline says won’t crack down on him for doing his trade, which consists of building everything from jet-powered rockets to flame tornadoes and stabbing machines, then featuring them at shows across the globe.

Most local industrial fire artists draw the distinction between the relatively benign work they do and what SRL, the periodically law-crossing, original industrial fire art organization has done under the leadership of its swashbuckling director since 1978.

And while industrial fire art is exploding in San Francisco, there may no longer be a place here for SRL, which seems alienated from the city at nearly every level.

SRL’s south Mission neighborhood has changed, with lofts replacing industrial spaces and Ferraris replacing work trucks on the street out front. The fire department was threatening a lawsuit against Pauline for driving his forklift with no permit, unless he left the city, he said (Although Pauline says he has documents proving this, the SFFD could not corroborate the claim). And since his rusty soot-covered work den in the Mission, a nook that used to go largely unnoticed by firefighters, is now considered hot real estate, the landlord doubled his rent … twice.

All these recent developments were enough to bring Pauline to a fast boil.

San Francisco is “not a place for marginal characters anymore,” Pauline said. “Basically, in the city of San Francisco, you can’t do what I do anymore. The city has changed and the makeup of the city reflects that and the kind of things that can be allowed to happen in the city reflects that.”

Although Pauline said the fire department has had it out for him since the mid-90s, the department claims it’s played neutral all along. Few top-ranking veterans at the department even recognize his or his company’s name.

“They don’t care who you are, if you are coming in with some big production company, saying this is how they let us do it somewhere else, they don’t care,” spokeswoman Mindy Talmadge said. “You are going to do it by the books.

“In my personal opinion… his reaction to everything, it’s kind of the artistic mentality: everybody’s against me. Things change and we have to fight or change with it and he’s fought it and he’s kind of lost the battle,” she added.

The Chronicle’s Editor-At-Large Phil Bronstein described Pauline as “one of the most explosively creative people you’ll ever meet.” He called SRL leaving “a tragedy,” and a clear sign that art is leaking out through the city’s borders.

Pauline could have made do with less. He could have moved his lab into a less expensive space. He also could have applied for grants, which he refuses to do because he feels that being beholden to another institution could undermine his creative autonomy.

“I think it’s quite possible that SRL could continue doing what it’s been doing in San Francisco,” said Ian Baker, a fire artist for Interpretive Arson in Oakland, who last year considered moving his outfit into the SF. “But you don’t want to spend that money on rent. You want to spend the money on hydraulic actuators.”

At the heart of Pauline’s art is a renegade attitude. Decades ago, he defaced billboards with non-political artistic messages, Bronstein recalled. He’s perhaps best known in the city for a Nov. 1995 show tabbed Crime Wave, which he held in Union Square without seeking permits. The show represented Pauline’s retaliation against the fire department for attempts by the department to unjustly restrict future shows in San Francisco, he claimed.

“We did every possible violation we could think of… to make the fire department mad,” he said.

No one was injured but Pauline was charged and convicted with intent to injure the public with explosives and intent to injure the public with arson, but the judge spared him from jail time.


In contrast to Pauline, the new wave of fire artists go out of their way to follow the law and to cultivate positive rapports with the fire department. The Flaming Lotus Girls, for example, test explosive devices in the desert and always get a permit for public exhibitions in Oakland and the city, said a leading member, Caroline “Mills” Miller.

Two years ago, when Ian Baker, of Interpretive Arson, started burning propane as a performance tool at the annual street-level Burning Man Decompression party on Mariposa Street, the fire marshal told him to shut it off – even though Baker had obtained a permit, he said.

Baker put up no protest. Instead, he wants to teach a class to fire fighters on how to enforce fire code, and to explain how his machines work. And he sees his relationship with the fire department improving.

“I feel like the San Francisco fire marshal’s office is really coming around in this regard,” he said.

Miller, who operates at the Box Shop in Bayview/Hunter’s Point, said she also hopes to build stronger ties to law enforcement and the police department.

“To be honest, we don’t really have that much communication with the city,” she said. “It’s probably to the detriment of both groups.”

Image: Flaming Lotus Girls, Summoning The Fire

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  • Catherine

    Having been in the event industry and having lived in San Francisco on and off for the past 19 years, what is at the bottom of this situation with the fire department is money. A fire permit for an event can cost up to $350.00 just to have votive candles up to code.

    It’s almost as if the city has become a money-making entity instead of a community. Take the DPT for instance, I had a vision of Photoshopping The Boot on all the cars on my block one day after seeing three cars with the boot and realizing the relentless Wagnerian little bugs swarming the city in the morning handing out tickets without conscience. This is big business. Where’s the money going? Not into the arts, that’s for sure.

    As for the fringe, there is definitely room for the fringe in this city, it’s just that the fringe is contained to the homeless, the crackheads, the junkies and the beggars. The art scene here is marginal, at best. There are a few visionaries who move things along–(Million Fishes Gallery, Melting Point Studios, Artaud), but the main galleries are more interested in pop art than art that has real substance, say Vercacci Uzis and skateboard art.

    This city is ripe with creativity. You don’t need a permit to express it. Just do it and take the consequences. Having lived in Sonoma County, although Petaluma is somewhat of an open community, it can get very provincial.

    Thing is, San Francisco can get provincial too.

  • El Gato

    I agree with Catherine,”You don’t need a permit to express it. Just do it and take the consequences”. S.F. has a long tradition of this form of expression esp. for those of modest means.
    My feeling is that current permit process puts a heavy damper on artistic
    expression esp. spontaneous expression.
    So just do it and let common sense be your guide.

  • violet blue

    I worked with, and for SRL, and Mark for 12 years. I talked to the cops and the SFFD on Mark’s behalf enough times in my life. done with that.

    the video is fine until about 7:00 when they say that the fire department raised the rent — that is absolutely untrue. the fire department was not the landlord of 1462 san bruno ave.

    in reference: his wife (Woosley’s daughter, his ‘political connections that will protect him in Petaluma’) wanted to live close to mommy in petaluma. end of story.

    the fire department likely didn’t return calls because it’s bullshit, and they were not the property owners, duh. but what makes me sicker is hearing Mark talk about how you can’t do this kind of art anymore, when it’s been happening all around us for years (in the streets, illegally, SF Bay Area) and he’s just so out of the scene he has no clue about the movements at spaces like NIMBY and even DDI because he simply retreated from the world. he got old, and that part of the video makes me angry and just sad. what he says about the SF art scene is so out of touch with what’s happening here.

    Mark’s statements really do a disservice to the badass, lawbreaking and truly incredible underground arts scene we have here. even my visit to the Street Art of SF book event was like OMG — these guys (and a few girls) break the law every fucking night because their passion drives them to make art in SF. they HAVE to — like SRL used to a long time ago.

    and they didn’t get up and go oh, the city hates us or whine about the deck being stacked against them and how they’re the only ones taking risks with their art. they stood up (at great risk, showing their faces in the bookstore with phonecams recording and liveblogging) and said, we love this city, we make it have a flavor. we create dialogue that gatecrashes art galleries. they have no fear. and they love SF.

    like a bad breakup where you dis your ex, the real actually-doing-something and loving/living their art transgressive artists here in San Francisco don’t have to invent reasons to hate the culture that made them who they are in order to change their lives.

    one quote from the Street Art SF night was “I hate that the one thing I know how to do and the one thing I love is against the law.”