Walking around San Francisco’s Mission District, you may notice a peculiar sight. If you aren’t in awe of the grandeur of the regal city, the incredible Mission architecture or even the mild Northern California weather, you may cast your eyes downward, to the pavement beneath your feet. If you do, you’ll see “She Loves the Moon.”
Stenciled onto the sidewalks of the Mission over the summer, “She Loves the Moon” tells the story of a lonely man and a lonely woman who meet by chance and must decide if they will risk falling in love. Whether or not they do depends largely on you, and how you choose to follow the story. There’s a problem, however: The lonely woman is already in love – with the moon.
The stencils, all 43 of them, are scattered throughout San Francisco’s Mission District, and each one has an arrow pointing the way to the next part of the story. At several points, readers are given a choice of direction, and which path they choose will impact how the story will unfold. There are four possible endings: one happy, one sad and two “dead ends,” the results of choosing a bad path.
One of the creators of “She Loves the Moon,” who calls himself Stranger One (his partner is Stranger Two) said the story is “not phenomenal. It’s not a great American literary work. The story is based on similarly odd resonant experiences [of the creators].” He says he wanted to describe how people can become conflicted, unable or unwilling to move forward with their lives. “The moon is a metaphor,” he says. “The moon is sort of intangible. I can’t have a real relationship with the moon,” but it’s strangely alluring and its very intangibility makes it, in some ways, the perfect companion. The moon may never love you, but it will never leave you, and that is what makes it so hard to let go and risk real hurt with someone new.
Stranger One describes himself as a writer, his partner, Stranger Two, as a well known member of the artistic community. The Escapist spoke with the Strangers, who took great pains to remain anonymous, in the fall. The email address provided was a mysterious, generic account, and they called us, refusing to provide a number where we could call them. When we attempted a return call, the person answering the phone sounded confused, as if their phone had been used without permission. It was like we’d stumbled on some vast conspiracy, and the Strangers, like characters from a spy novel, were using signals and tells to pass us information that wasn’t entirely safe to hear.
And there’s a reason for that: Their art is illegal. San Francisco (like most other cities) has strict laws prohibiting defacement of public property, no matter how artistic the result. In fact, many of the stencils have been erased or covered over by well-meaning public workers since their installation. An attempt to follow the story in July ultimately ended in failure, since large portions had already been erased. The Strangers weren’t surprised, although it does upset them that the work is being destroyed.
“We’d never done graffiti before,” said Stranger One. He says he and Stranger Two have both worked on numerous projects, but got together one day and asked themselves what would happen if they tried something “interactive.”
“We went out for bagels and saw a stencil of a bear,” he says, and that’s when it clicked. “Let’s say you have a children’s book. The text is on the bottom and the city is the backdrop.” A perfect representation, he said, of what it might be like painting words on the sidewalk. The city then becomes the backdrop for the story they’ve created.
Once they’d decided what story they wanted to tell, the Strangers then had to decide how to tell it, or more precisely, where. “We’d walk around the area – look at a Google map, pick intersections and kind of bring it down into a screenplay, like a storyboard,” he said. “It takes six months to do one of these.”
He said that although they tried to avoid detection while installing the stencils, they also tried to avoid looking out of place. In a busy city like San Francisco, that can be harder than it seems. Especially when you’re carrying a bag full of stencils and spray paint.
“I really would rather not talk about the time [we made the stencils],” he said, “but we were not wearing black masks. We weren’t conspicuous. Not night bandits of graffiti.”
In spite of the hard work planning and installing the stencils, and the constant threat of prosecution, the Strangers said they’re glad they went to the effort. “It was such a neat idea; no one had done it before,” Stranger One said. “This is something we had to give to people.”
And the people apparently appreciate it.
“A woman drove by and saw us putting one down,” he said. “We were [re-doing a stencil] – she pulled down the window of her car and said ‘I love you, I love you, I love you.'”
New York Magazine calls the stencils “an intriguing mash-up of short story, video game, and street art,” but the mysterious creators of “She Loves the Moon” never intended it to be a game.
“We were shocked when we saw that. I’m sure people like Jane McGonigal took an interest in it,” said Stranger One, referring to the renowned game designer and philosopher whose work on the alternate reality game “I Love Bees” earned her worldwide recognition in the game industry, “but we sure never intended that. We thought of it as more of an experiment than a game. There was no winning. We looked at it much more as a story.”
The Strangers have attempted to maintain the stencils, but recently declared an end to the project, vowing to leave it to fate to preserve it – or not. They say they may try something new, something much, much bigger, but any plans underway for such a project can’t safely be discussed. In other words, they could tell me, but they might have to kill me.
Adventurers who successfully make their way through the story’s tricks and turns, headed toward the “happy” ending, where the two strangers of the story resolve their personal issues and open themselves to love, will find themselves at the top of a hill, overlooking the city. One imagines this part of the experience is best enjoyed at night, when the vista of the cityscape before you seems bright and full of promise – the perfect illustration for the happy ending of a love story.
“It’s harder to get to the happy ending because it’s more of a walking experience,” said Stranger One, but, as with all happy endings, the hard work pays off.
Russ Pitts is an Associate Editor for The Escapist. His blog can be found at www.falsegravity.com.