Arts & Theater

A squatter turned a secret Sacramento spot into a trip into his mind – invitation only

Visitors take in No One’s work during an August show in downtown Sacramento.
Visitors take in No One’s work during an August show in downtown Sacramento.

The directions to this art show, in almost any context, are bizarre. When local artist No One contacts you about his floor-to-ceiling art gallery, put up on the sly in downtown Sacramento, this is what you get:

“Turn down the alley and walk about a hundred paces. In the center of the alley there is a brick building, surrounded by fantastical creatures. On the second floor of that building, there is a door with a staircase leading up to it. At 10pm, climb the staircase; the door will be open, and you may enter. When you enter, you will find No One, an artist no one knows but everyone needs to. No photos. No cell phones. No photography allowed.”

The directions set a tone, and No One doesn’t disappoint.

Clocking in at nearly 60 years of age, his paintings don’t adorn the Crocker and you won’t find his moniker on a Wide Open Walls placard. Yet on August 17, No One’s quirky directions led to a fantastical art display that’s now only available on an on-call basis.

Over the course of nearly two months, and only using materials that were found or donated through private connections, No One fabricated a guerilla-style gallery in the same building where the unhoused artist has been squatting for over a year. He represents a harsh reality within the city. Homelessness has increased about 19 percent in the past two years, according to the most recent Sacramento County Point-in-Time homeless count, with more people slipping from the “temporarily” unhoused to “chronically” unhoused range.

Finding a place to safely rest your head isn’t easy. Which is all the more reason the gallery was whispered about in private circles, and vaguely referred to online, but never with mention of the address. The entire display is shrouded in a much-needed veil of mystery.

“If too many people showed up or if people gave the info out to folks who couldn’t be trusted with it, I might have been out on my ass before it even began!” No One laughed, talking about the exhibit days before the grand opening.

While the spot is mysterious, it has the sights and sounds that make it feel like you’re in on something special.

Visitors can hear the gentle flutter of bats wings hits their ears as they fly overhead. The surrounding buildings are painted top to bottom – bugs that look like they belong in another world, a nearly 30-foot tall mama orangutan and her baby that hangs from the rooftops, flowers that appear to extend up to the heavens and gateways that lead to the stars all surround you. After taking it all in, your eyes finally settle on what you are looking for. A wrought iron staircase leading to a black door. Perched at the highest stair, a man awaits you. As you climb, he smiles and greets you.

“Welcome! Please, no photos, no video, and no social media once you walk through the threshold. This is what it’s like to be No One. “

The door opens and your eyes immediately begin processing the explosion of colors. Each step delves you deeper into the kaleidoscope of shapes and lines, neon hued, from ceiling to floor.

There is no consistency in the style. One minute the visuals are angry, chaotic, splattered as if thrown in a fit of range. The next minute the brushstrokes are fluid, flowing, as if representing the tears that flowed at the same time as the paint. The juxtaposition of light and dark, anger and sadness, and a multitude of emotions evokes a deep-seeded response as you realize you are walking through the artistic version of someone’s internal dialogue.

This isn’t just a gallery. This is a full-on experience.

“One of the fun things about cities is finding underground spaces, unique little nooks that are hiding in plain sight,” said Maya Wallace, of the Sacramento Metropolitan Arts Commission. “I walk through that alley and past that storefront regularly and had no idea of the treasure trove inside.”

The building, located along a thoroughfare ironically close to the Housing and Redevelopment office, has been left vacant since early 2018. Most notably known to house Moler Barber College, and with a smattering of less-than-permanent businesses cycling through after it’s 2016 closing, No One moved in after the last tenant moved out. Having been unhoused for a large portion of his adult life, and often having to go without basic services, including those related to his mental health, No One learned how to adapt to less-than-ideal circumstances early on. His warm smile, and usually chipper disposition allows him to easily build connections in whatever neighborhood he chose to reside.

Those connections introduced No One to Norm Ayles, a local Wide Open Walls artist and tattoo shop owner in the adjacent building, who was at the August sneak peek of the show.

“I’ve been watching this thing bloom over the last month and the more I’ve been here, the more I noticed that you’re basically walking into this dude’s mind, and into his actual living space, at the same time,” Ayles said. “When you open the doors, suddenly you’re inside this dudes head, which is why I think it’s so important for people to see. To see what it’s like to live a day in the life of someone isn’t something we normally get to do, and like, that’s what this entire space is. It slaps you with the reality of what it feels like to be in this dude’s shoes.”

A space long laid out for commercial usage, there are no functional windows that can be opened in the building and the lack of circulation causes the humidity to rest upon your skin. Visitors shift uncomfortably, attempting to adjust their bodies’ rising temperatures, sweat forming on the brow. A frame-less mattress covered in threadbare blankets is the only thing in the empty room besides the heavy paint fumes.

As you stand there in the cavalcade of colors, moods and heat, your heart rate increases as your eyes dart around the room looking for the closest exit. In that moment of panic, all you want is to escape, and that’s when it hits you; the murals are full of faces. Staring at you. Judging you. And that’s when it truly hits.

No One wants you to feel in a constant state of unease, to have to sit with the uncomfortable reality that no matter how many inches of wall you fill, the emptiness pervades. It’s unclear whether the faces are those of a real family, long ago friends, or perceived demons. While No One has been fairly open about the space, he doesn’t want to talk much about his personal life. He doesn’t speak of family or children. He doesn’t open up about his past. Instead, he chooses to only focus on the reality of the present.

“People think it can’t happen to them. Until it does, ya know? They think it only happens to crazy folks or criminals or punk-ass kids. They assume that’s what we are,” he rails, his voice ebbing and flowing from elevated anger to sullen sadness, “until it happens to them. That’s when they open their eyes.”

As a squatter, No One’s existence in the building could well be short-lived. However, visits can be facilitated by private showings before his work disappears from the city’s landscape.

Contact to learn more about the coordinates of the space and to schedule a viewing.