Hong Kong, Tokyo, London, New York—San Francisco. That’s right, with no shortage of world-class light installations, SF holds more than a candle to the globe’s most important art cities in the digital age.
And when light, natural or not, is used as an artistic medium, all kinds of uploadable, no-filter-needed joy ensues.
Even when Karl the Fog comes rolling in, our city by the sea can’t help but be aglow with dozens of delightful light art installations. Some play off the natural light that cuts through the overcast skies come high noon; others take advantage of an absence of light, utilizing LEDs and fluorescent tubings to transform otherwise dark spaces.
Here are 18 luminous artwork that will brighten up your night.
‘The Bay Lights,’ by Leo Villareal (2013)
It’s safe to say there’s never been a light installation in San Francisco that comes close to the scale of The Bay Lights (well, except for Jim Campbell’s Salesforce Tower crown; but more on that in a minute). New York–based artist Leo Villareal brought global attention to the city in 2013 when he installed 25,000 white LED lights on the 1.8-mile-long western span of the Bay Bridge; the lights twinkle in ever-shifting patterns from dusk until dawn. Originally intended for a two-year run, the Bay Lights may now sparkle indefinitely.
‘Day for Night,’ by Jim Campbell (2018)
Located 1,070 feet above the foundation of Salesforce Tower, Jim Campbell’s Day for Night is a crowning moment for the Bay Area art world. Composed of 11,000 LED lights, the installation is the only one of its kind anywhere in the world. It can be seen from a 20 mile radius—all the way to Sonoma County. If you’re an art lover in SF, you’re likely already familiar with Campbell’s work: Take a walk through his Exploded Views at SFMOMA.
‘Islais,’ by artist Cliff Garten (2018)
Located at Bayview Gateway, in the newly open space along Islais Creek, Cliff Garten’s 20-foot-tall, stainless steel Islais models the original coastline before construction veered its course.
Patricia’s Green, Hayes Valley
The Hayes Valley patch known as Patricia’s Green serves as an outdoor gallery of sorts for rotating works. Since 2016, Trillian + Dodi, by HYBYCOZO: Yelena Filipchuk and Serge Beaulieu, have beamed ever-changing colored light through the laser-cut steel panels of their 3D geometric forms. This year, the pair received in company: SF-based artist Charles Gadeken’s Squared is a 50-foot-tall tree “reimagined for a future, treeless world.”
‘Photosynthesis,’ by Illuminate and Obscura Digital (2017)
The ornate Victorian facade of the Conservatory of Flowers (Golden Gate Park) is iconic—it’s also perfectly white. Or at least it is until sundown, when projectors give new life to the landmark as it bursts into light, blanketed with digital scenes of tropical flowers. Photosynthesis is the work of Illuminate (the team who worked with artist Leo Villareal on The Bay Lights) and Obscura Digital, in partnership with the Conservatory and San Francisco Recreation and Parks. The installation originally launched for 2017’s anniversary of the Summer of Love. Since then, it has served not just as a stellar Instagram op but as the backdrop for various nighttime events at the Conservatory, including this summer’s Flower Piano (July 5-16).
‘Hope Will Never Be Silent,’ by Ben Davis, Illuminate (2017)
Designed by Illuminate founder Ben Davis, this ray of light, located at Harvey Milk Plaza above Soul Cycle (Castro), pays tribute to the late LGBT rights icon Harvey Milk and glows as a beacon of resilience.
‘The Seed,’ by Aphidoidea (2017)
Just across from Harvey Milk Plaza, at Jane Warner Plaza, Los Angeles–based Aphidoidea planted six 13-foot-tall, LED dandelion seeds that were intended to symbolize how a single wish, when carried by the wind, can hold enough weight to inspire a movement.
‘Monarch,’ by Cliff Garten (2015)
Located on the greens of Kaiser Mission Bay, Monarch is beguiling no matter the time of day. The gargantuan stainless steel and LED sculpture exists as a metaphor: how individuals, in a community, can come together to be stronger for themselves and each other.
‘Ethereal Bodies,’ by Cliff Garten (2014)
Located at the main entrance of Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital in the Mission, Garten’s nine undulating stainless-steel sculptures stand 14 to 22 feet tall and are lit by multicolored LED lights. They create eye-catching shadow figures during the day.
‘Caruso’s Dream,’ by Brian Goggin and Dorka Keehn (2014)
Caruso’s Dream, located at 55 Ninth Street (SoMa), is composed of 13 illuminated pianos made from materials (including chicken-wire, glass, and pilings) that take cues from the history of the neighborhood itself.
‘Spirogyrate,’ by Eric Staller (2014)
Located at Terminal 3 inside SFO, this glowing work by Eric Staller embedded in the floor was designed to double as both a piece of illuminating art and children’s play area.
‘Bayview Rise,’ by Laura Haddad and Tom Drugan (2014)
Located at Pier 92 in Bayview, Bayview Rise is a grain elevator and silo that has been transformed into a 187-foot-tall illuminated muraI with shifting colors that create a 3D-like effect. All this fancy LED footwork results in the appearance of an ever-moving, ever-changing image—which is meant to symbolize Bayview, a community in transformation.
‘Handsignals,’ by Rebar Art + Design Studios and MoreLab (2014)
Located at McCoppin Hub Plaza, Hand Signals riffs on the typically blinking street light with emblems that speak to the spirit of the Mission.
‘Language of Birds,’ by Brian Goggin and Dorka Keehn (2008)
As you pass under the “flock” of books hanging overhead at Broadway and Columbus Avenue in North Beach, don’t forget to also look down: Words and phrases have been embedded in the ground as if they had fallen from the pages above. This work was created by Brian Goggin and Dorka Keehn, who also launched Caruso’s Dream.
‘Skygarden,’ by James Turrell (2007)
On the western face of the Federal Building in SoMa, James Turrell’s 2007 installation glows green during the day and transforms into a glow-in-the-dark labyrinth come nightfall. Turell’s entire career has primarily focused on blending light and space into jaw-dropping works of art—he’s best known for his Skyspaces, as well as for the ongoing project at Roden Crater, a natural volcanic cinder cone crater located outside Flagstaff.
‘Wind Portal,’ by artist Ned Kahn (2000)
Located at SFO’s International Terminal, between the BART Station and AirTrain, Wind Portal plays off natural light, with its more than 200,000 steel disks refracting the incoming rays and creating a shimmering river around the elevated entrances.
‘Spine,’ by Christopher Sproat (1999)
Located inside the Ellis O’Farrell parking garage (Union Square) and spanning more than 260 feet in total length, Spine is the longest single illuminating art installation in San Francisco.
‘Constellations,’ by Nayland Blake (1996)
Located at the San Francisco Main Library (Civic Center), Nayland Blake‘s Constellations uses fiberoptic lights to create a star-like vertical installation that projects the names of 160 writers onto the front-facing wall.
Source: 7×7 sf 18 Instagram-Worthy Light Art Installations in San Francisco