Wearing suspenders, a plaid forest green button down, newsboy cap and circular framed glasses, “Wild Wes” described his style as reminiscent of a “Gold Rush tycoon meets 1970s cowboy.”
The unique style (and nickname) are part of the character Wild Wes assumes when guiding travellers through the city with the tour company he co-founded: Wild SF Walking Tours.
“We wanted everyone to have a tour identity,” he said. “I think it allows you to perform if you have a character to embrace. In my case, I’ve sort of become Wild Wes …. I didn’t always used to dress like this.”
Wild Wes and the seven other tour guides — Ducky, Guppy, Waldo, Fischer, Ozy, D.W and J. Jo — each take on a unique alter ego when giving tours — a practice that seems only fitting for the group of artists who make up the Wild SF team.
When it comes to art, the group dabbles in just about everything: music, theater, film making, writing and hip hop dancing, with a strong collective passion for activism and social justice.
“Activism is very important to us,” Wes said. “So we wanted to craft a tour company that supports and celebrates the neighborhoods that it explores … We’ve been very diligent about hiring friends of ours who align with our values.”
He said each tour guide focuses on artfully crafting the stories of SF neighborhoods the way they feel locals would want them to be told — focusing not on dates and facts, but on immersing the listener in stories so they can imagine being present in the historical moment.
One of Wes’s go-to stories is about Maya Angelou’s streetcar-driving gig in the early 1940s. As the first female African-American streetcar driver, she practically had to beg for the job, going down to the office every single day until they reluctantly agreed to interview her. But Wes said that upon finally doing so, they hired her on the spot.
Wes also said that Maya’s mother was constantly worried about her, particularly during her early morning shifts. So she took to driving alongside the trolley with a gun in her passenger seat, “just in case.”
“That’s like helicopter parenting,” he said. “Or… streetcar parenting.”
Wes decided to start the walking tour company after he returned from a year abroad in Madrid. His mom gave him Daniel Bacon’s book Walking the Barbary Coast Trail, a historical guide to San Francisco.
“I read it, I fell in love with it, and realized few people were telling these stories of Gold Rush San Francisco,” Wes said.
So he crafted his own three-hour tour of downtown and Chinatown, and gave the very first tour on his birthday in June of 2012.
“It was a very small tour,” Wes said. “There was one man. Just one guy. His name was Daniel, and he didn’t speak very much English … it was a long three hours.
“It was, at times, awkward. But mostly fun. And I realized it’s only up from there … if you can do a tour for one person, you can do a tour for 40 people.”
He said that, in San Francisco’s challenging artist scene, the tours have been a unique way to combine his creativity with an income.
“It’s harder to make it here as an artist,” he said. “This isn’t a city where you can show up and rent a $300 room anymore and focus on your art and work at a bar 3 nights a week — that lifestyle doesn’t exist anymore in San Francisco. To be an artist, you have to kind of find your niche and find a way to make it profitable and true to your lifestyle.
“We have a lot of tourists here, so to tap into that while being able to perform and sing songs on the tours — which I do — and incorporate history and theatrics and performance, that’s all really crucial to me.”
Wes said their tours tend to attract a lot of artists and creative types, so he gets the opportunity to meet a lot of inspiring people and, through sharing his art, connect with guests on a more personal level.
In fact, Wes said he just returned from a trip to Europe where he stayed with friends he met through a tour. Another of the tour guides met a group of Danish theater performers who flew her out to Denmark to help produce a Danish theater festival.
“Everyone has their own creative outlet,” Wes said. “And this (job) fuels that creativity. I’m happy that we’ve created a job that works in tandem with people’s lifestyles. So you’re not sitting behind a desk for your whole day — it’s not draining you. It’s, ideally, feeding your creative side.”