Born in Waco, in 1941, Watkins relocated to San Francisco after a single, brief visit as a teenager, and supported himself by winning billiards and staying with new, easily made friends. Following a string of bad luck that included a crack-cocaine related arrest by an undercover cop dressed as Michael Jackson and a brief stint in prison for possession of a firearm, Watkins consciously shifted his attentions from self-destruction to painting. As told to The New York Times in 2015, in art he’d simply found “something [he] liked to do better.” He credits Tenderloin nonprofits such as the Hospitality House and Wildflowers Institute as the safehouses in which he was able to pursue and hone his craft.
Now, Watkins’ work can be found in several of the Bay Area’s most notable exhibition spaces, including the Asian Art Museum, Luggage Store gallery, and the University of California. Similarly, his paintings can still be seen in Waco, where January 17th is officially “Ira Watkins Day” in honor of one of his most acclaimed murals: A scene of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. delivering his iconic Lincoln Memorial “I Have a Dream” speech that overlooks Waco’s city center. His impressive exhibition history includes over 30 gallery and museum shows, both in solo and group shows.
Revered for a style of painting that draws similarities to 15th century European art in terms of arrangement and tone, Watkins flips the script of traditionally white iconography. By portraying the upper echelon of symbolism and stock characters as African Americans and Tenderloin personalities, Watkins challenges current American social hierarchies and breathes a certain air of dignity and respect into otherwise marginalized groups.