Sm{art}: Margaret Kilgallen


At an early age, Margaret Kilgallen was impressed by examples of works by
Southwest and Mexican artists. She employed these artists’ use of
warm colors in her own painting. Her many works in gouache and acrylic
on found paper reflect an interest in
typographic styles and symbology.

Jobs as a librarian and bookbinder in the early and mid 1990s contributed to her
encyclopedic knowledge of signs drawn from American folk tradition,
printmaking, and letterpress. Kilgallen’s aesthetic and methods were a direct correlation with her love of “things that show
the evidence of the human hand.” Painting directly on the wall,
Kilgallen created room-size murals that recalled a time when personal
craft and handmade signs were the norm.

a background in doing printmaking and letterpress, I think that I
became very interested in images that were flat and graphic. And my
painting still today is very flat…American craft is like that too –
the painting is very flat. And also the painting that you see on the
storefronts, handmade signs, tend to be very flat. That’s probably my
biggest influence…” ~MK








Kilgallen was also a graffiti artist under the tag names “Meta” and
“Matokie Slaughter.” The latter name, a homage to folk musician Matokie
Slaughter, was specifically used for freight train graffiti – a hobo
tradition that strongly influenced her work. Kilgallen was an
accomplished banjo player and became an avid surfer after moving to
California to obtain her MFA at Stanford University. 


“If you’re doing something in the city, then
hopefully you’re speaking to somebody who has an open mind who is
walking by. And you’re also speaking to a community of other people who
do similar types of work. I like to think that the outdoor community is
broad and able and open for anybody to see.”  ~MK

Have you walked down the streets of the Mission district in San Francisco and stumbled across this mural?


Or browse various street corners and peered inside shop windows to come across this in downtown SF?


Margaret was a key member of the Mission School art movement. This movement is generally considered to have emerged in the early 1990s around a core group of artists closely aligned with the larger lowbrow art movement. It is considered to be a regional expression of that movement, named after the Mission District in San Francisco. Artists of the Mission School take their inspiration from the urban, bohemian, DIY “street” culture of the district and are strongly influenced by mural and graffiti art, comic and cartoon art, and folk art forms such assign painting and hobo art.  

“On any day in the Mission in San Francisco, you can see a hand-painted sign that is kind of funky, and maybe that person, if they had money, would prefer to have had a neon sign. But I don’t prefer that. I think it’s beautiful, what they did and that they did it themselves. That’s what I find beautiful.” ~MK

For a more in-depth idea of the Mission District in the early 1990s, please read the article San Francisco’s Real Mission by John Krich.




Strong, independent women walking, surfing, fighting, and biking feature prominently in Margaret’s work.  

“I believe there need to be women visual in our every day landscape, working hard and doing their own thing, whether you like it or not, whether it’s acceptable or not…I especially hope to inspire young women because often I feel like so much emphasis is put on how beautiful you are, and how thin you are, and not a lot of emphasis is put on what you can do and how smart you are. I’d like to change that, change the emphasis of what’s important when looking at a woman.” ~MK









Margaret Kilgallen was taken away much too soon, passing away in 2001, at age 33, from complications of breast cancer. She is survived by her daughter Asha, as well as her husband and
collaborator Barry McGee. 

Her work has been shown at Deitch Projects and the Drawing Room in New York, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts and the Luggage Store in San Francisco, the Forum for Contemporary Art in St. Louis, and the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston. Kilgallen’s work was recently presented at the UCLA/Armand Hammer Museum. In 2002, her work was chosen for the Whitney Biennial, one of the most prestiguous exhibitions of contemporary art by lesser or unknown artists in the world. In 2005, the REDCAT gallery did a survey of her artwork called In the Sweet Bye and Bye.

Her work was also an important part of the 2004–2006 touring exhibit, Beautiful Losers: Contemporary Art and Street Culture. These artists include Barry
McGee, Chris Johanson, Josh Lazcano, Alicia McCarthy, Clare Rojas,
Thomas Campbell, Dan Flanagan, Symantha Gates, Nell Gould, and filmmaker
Bill Daniel.

A documentary about this collective was released in 2008. 

If interested, please check out PBS – Art:21 series. You can stream episodes online.

HIGHLY recommended viewing for any contemporary…well…any art lover, really. They do a wonderful feature on Margaret Kilgallen.

by Belin Liu
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6 Comments Have Been Posted


what an inspirational story


amazing documentary. a must-see!

i'm sure you've seen the

i'm sure you've seen the beautiful losers documentary (they pay rightful homage to margaret & include that quote, as well) and that is one of my favorite moments in it.

oh, duh. sorry i missed the

oh, duh. sorry i missed the entire post, there - too busy looking at the preview.

Thank you for another great

Thank you for another great article. Where else could anyone get that kind of information in such a perfect way of writing? I have a presentation next week, and I am on the look for such information.
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