San Francisco

San Francisco Artists Get a Grip on City Hall Handshakes

"The old grip-and-grin." "The vice grip." "The wet noodle."

For a common gesture, the handshake sure covers a vast spectrum of variations.

On a recent Friday inside handshake-centric San Francisco City Hall, artists/sort-of-researchers Alison Pebworth and Hannah Ireland were attempting to get a grip on that whole handshake thing.

The pair, operating under the Unofficial Department of Handshakes, have spent the last several Fridays shaking down city hall visitors to get their take on the age-old gesture — posing questions such as "How did you learn to shake hands? Do you know any secret handshakes? Have you ever shaken a famous person’s hand?"

Joe Rosato Jr./NBC Bay Area
Artist Hannah Ireland takes a photo as Alison Pebworth shakes hands with a man from Russia. (Jan. 23, 2018)

"Dick Van Dyke," a woman responded, recalling an encounter with the actor back in high school, although the quality of Van Dyke’s particular shake having faded with the years. Still Pebworth quickly whisked the woman and her partner over to a large green screen on wheels for a handshake photo.

"The handshake is one of the few acceptable forms of contact between strangers," Pebworth said, eyeing the stream of strangers walking by.

Every Friday through Feb. 2, the pair greet visitors with a handshake before cajoling them to pose in front of their rolling handshake station for a photograph. Some are persuaded to write down a memory or an observation about shaking hands. A visitor from Russia noted that people in his country shake hands more frequently than Americans.

The artists wear matching tan uniforms with patches identifying them as official members of the Unofficial Department of Handshakes.

Joe Rosato Jr./NBC Bay Area
Artists Alison Pebworth and Hannah Ireland photograph two women shaking hands inside San Francisco City Hall. (Jan. 23, 2018)

"What’s a bad handshake?" Barbara Thompson was asked after posing for a photograph. She quickly responded, "When people won’t shake your hand."

John Moya demonstrated a handshake from his Native American heritage. He secured Pebworth’s hand in a classic clasp before sliding his hand forward, gripping her forearm.

"It’s important to have a nice firm handshake I believe," Moya said. "I hate shaking a soft hand. I mean shake a hand."

Pebworth and Ireland didn’t enter the research world through academia, rather through the side door of art. The pair both have art installations in the San Francisco Art Commission’s gallery and SFAC commissioned them to team up on the handshake project, although exactly what will come of the research isn’t quite sorted out yet.

Joe Rosato Jr./NBC Bay Area
A sign on top of the Unofficial Department of Handshakes mobile research unit. (Jan. 23, 2018)

"It’s for fun," Pebworth admitted to one inquisitive visitor.

Ireland said the handshake dates back centuries, with images of men gripping hands showing up in early Greek art.

"There are origin stories of the handshake," Ireland said, "that it’s extending your hand to show that you don’t have a weapon."

Fortunately, city hall was equipped with metal detectors rendering a handshake there as more of a purely symbolic gesture.

Joe Rosato Jr./NBC Bay Area
John Moya demonstrates a traditional Native American handshake for artist Alison Pebworth. (Jan. 23, 2018)

Pebworth noted that in the midst of flu season people were more likely to pursue alternative options to shaking hands such as employing the fist bump or even an elbow tap.

"I suppose it’s not technically a handshake since you aren’t shaking hands," Pebworth said, also observing that city hall is filled with hand sanitizer stations.

In the meantime as the artists lured subjects to their handshake station, weddings were taking place in just about every corner of the building, filling city hall with varying signs of affection.

A newlywed couple wandered over to Pebworth and Ireland, curiously examining the mobile handshake station. Pebworth soon persuaded the pair to gather in front of the set for a photo.

"So you think you have to seal this marriage with a kiss," Pebworth said, "but maybe a handshake."

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