Frida Kahlo was many things to many people: gifted painter, bold revolutionary, tumultuous lover, Mexican icon. To Rio Yañez she was one more: original gangsta.
“She was a badass — dangerous in her artwork, hard-drinking and got around — and that intrigued me,” says the 29-year-old artist and creator of “Ghetto Frida,” a 25-by-10-foot comic-book-style mural outside Galería de la Raza on 24th and Bryant streets in San Francisco’s Mission District.
After all, Kahlo survived a streetcar accident that left her infertile, immobile, and one-legged … and she kept making art.
“That’s some pretty gangster shit,” Yañez says over coffee at Muddy’s on 24th and Valencia.
Which is why, for the billboard mural, Yañez gave Kahlo a chola makeover and outfitted her in throwback ’90s gear: everything from bamboo doorknocker earrings and a 49ers jacket to bootleg Bart Simpson T-shirts and Cross Colors gear. Complementing her famous black brow, Kahlo has homeboy Diego Rivera’s name tattooed in Old English lettering across her neck, and her Communist lover Leon Trotsky’s beneath her armpit.
The “Ghetto Frida” series began in 2006 as a Flickr album. To accompany the images, Yañez wrote mock Q&As that read like parodies of rapper interviews that might appear in XXL or The Source. In the texts, Ghetto Frida starts beef with artists she accuses of appropriating her style and sensibility (like Mexican singer Lila Downs), and demands royalties for use of her image: “I’m the second most used image in Latino art, the first is the Virgen de Guadalupe … You use my image and I gotta get paid, that’s how it’s going down.”
It was in his childhood home at 26th Street and San Jose Avenue that Yañez was introduced at a young age to the work of Robert Crumb and Gilbert Shelton — legends in the underground comics scene. (Sure many of his peers could quote Spiderman or Hulk, but how many could also quote Mr. Natural and Fritz the Cat?)
“My dad was a comic book nerd. He had a huge collection of underground comic books,” Yañez says. “When I went to kindergarten I was ahead of the curve in terms of reading because of my parents’ comic book collection.”
Yañez attended the San Francisco Community Alternative School and then Lowell High School before pursuing photography at City College and Cal Arts in Los Angeles.
His parents have been movers and shakers in the Chicano arts movement since the 1970s. His mother, Yolanda Lopez, is a painter who famously (and controversially) depicted herself as the Virgin of Guadalupe in 1978. Rene Yañez is one of the original founders and former artistic director of Galería de la Raza, and current curator at SOMArts Cultural Center, where Rio also works part time.
As a child, he absorbed his parents’ cultural influences but also buried himself in X-Men and Justice League comics.
“I was caught between two worlds. In some ways I identified as Chicano. I grew up definitely politically conscious and aware of the arts. But at the same time I was a big comic book nerd.” Yanez says. “Those two worlds didn’t often intersect.”
Despite a strong connection to his Mexican heritage, Yañez says he was never drawn to Mexican comics. He found the crime and romance plots formulaic; the aesthetics rigid and pedestrian.
“There were so many surreal and colorful and outlandish things going on in mainstream American comics in the ’90s [that Mexican comics] just held no interest.”
But in developing his own comics series, Mexican icon Frida Kahlo did interest him.
At the time Yañez was conceiving his Ghetto Frida character, New York rapper 50 Cent was one of the biggest names in hip-hop. The fact that 50 Cent was shot nine times and survived assured his street credibility and gangster status. Yañez saw a connection between the two urban legends, and wondered, “If [Frida] were around today, what would public perceptions of her be?”
Yet more than an homage to either Kahlo or American hip-hop, Yañez says “Ghetto Frida” is a tribute to the collective experience of growing up in the Mission in the ’90s — an era he remembers as both vibrantly artistic and exceptionally violent.
“The ’90s were the most dangerous time to live in the Mission. It was the era of Rodney King, it was the era of gangsta rap, and the war between the Norteños and Sureños was at its peak,” Yañez says. “I was robbed at gunpoint. I was robbed at knifepoint. I was robbed at just about any point you could think of.”
The “Ghetto Frida” billboard is composed of six comic-book panels filled with insider references to the Mission’s unique folk histories and offbeat characters during that decade.
In one panel, Kahlo cruises past Magic Donuts — previously called Hunt’s Donuts and home of the “Open 25 Hours” sign — at 20th and Mission after the 49ers won the Super Bowl in 1995.
“During the ’98 power outage,” says Yañez, “that place was the only place that had a generator, and served coffee. My dad and I stood in a line that stretched around the block to get coffee.” (The doughnut shop is a landmark San Francisco writer Erick Lyle describes in his well known book On the Lower Frequencies as a “thoroughly and irreducibly criminal” place that was a “flourescent-lit utopia for lowlifes.”)
In another panel, Kahlo stands in the glow of the brightly lit US Video sign, a hangout for neighborhood kids that Yañez says has managed to stay in business (to this day) thanks to brisk porn rentals. “He was like a Korean uncle to a lot of kids who’d go in there,” Yañez says of the fatherly owner, “Mr. Kim.”
There’s also an image of the “Red Man,” a deceased, well-dressed elderly eccentric who would dye his skin bright red and roam the neighborhood, seriously creeping out the local children.
“To kids in the neighborhood he was the boogie man,” Yañez remembers. “We all kind of lived in fear of him.”
The largest panel places Kahlo in front of the now-shuttered Mission theater, one of several neighborhood movie theaters that were too rundown to renovate and couldn’t compete with the downtown multiplexes.
“In the ’80s and part of the ’90s all those movie theaters were in service and they were at the center of the social scene. When those theaters closed down it kind of killed the social scene for the neighborhood,” Yañez says wistfully. “I put Robocop on the marquee because that’s exactly the kind of movie I would go see on a Saturday afternoon.”
“Ghetto Frida” debuted Aug. 19. Although taggers have already marked the piece, the billboard is expected to remain through Oct. 10.
Raquel De Anda, associate curator at Galería de la Raza, says she commissioned Yañez’s piece because she was attracted to his satire and humor.
“It’s a fun way of bringing in these images of Frida and Diego that have been saturated in our culture — not just in Mexican culture — and put those images back out in the public eye but with his satirical skew.”
She credits Yañez with pushing the idea even further, adding additional layers that offer insights into a neighborhood that Mission District newcomers might not initially recognize.
For people born and raised in the Mission, De Anda says, “they’ll see that and it’ll resonate with them.”