Phil Jaber, owner of Philz Coffee, clearly felt some ambivalence about the mural painted on the side of his shop. In it, a figure pushes a shopping cart past a seemingly unconscious airborne nude. Some motifs clearly reference the dot-com crash of 2001, the year that the mural was painted (the shopping cart is filled with computer monitors). Other motifs are more cryptic (the American bald eagle flying overhead).
Which is why, when Jaber recently did some repairs, he moved a Heineken billboard on top of it. The mural went from enigmatic commentary to two truncated sets of feet (below the billboard) and three-fourths of a naked person (above). Jaber said he’d listen to what the neighborhood had to say on the subject.
Most of the commenters on this site voted the billboard down and the mural up. “Is the choice between a weird mural and a repetitive beer commercial?” one wrote. “Even though I like drinking beer, the mural would win.”
Mission mural artist Sirron Norris referred to the trouble that arose when a business owner hired him to paint over a mural at 22nd and Bartlett without first contacting the original artist. “I feel this clearly goes against the sensibilities of the Mission residents. He should learn from my mistake. People should remember the story of that mural, not remember to buy beer. “
But another comment called the entire legality of the billboard into question. “The City department acts to remove tagger/traditional graffiti, but does nothing about the illegal beer advertisement, movie posters, etc. that pollute the visual space of the Mission,” it read.
Is the billboard allowed to be there at all? In 2002, Proposition G, an ordinance banning all new general advertising signs, passed with 79 percent of the vote. According to Jonathan Purvis of the San Francisco Planning Department, every legal billboard in the city should display the name of the company that owns it, a permit number and the billboard’s authorized dimensions.
The billboard covering the mural doesn’t have an identification number. Neither does the one directly across the street, at La Parilla. Or the one at 24th and Bryant. Or the one at 24th and Alabama. On them beer bottles glisten, Lady Gaga glowers and the entire cast of “Jersey Shore” glares out from the depths of a hot tub. Different ads, but all managed by the same company — one Contest Promotions LLC, based in Culver City. A Contest Promotions employee who asked not to be named said that the company operates 45 billboards in the city.
In November of last year, Contest Promotions filed suit against San Francisco on the grounds that the Planning Department has issued more than two dozen citations against it. The company argues that because the billboards direct passersby to go inside the businesses on which they are placed and fill out forms to enter a contest, they are a legitimate, business-boosting part of the store and thus fall outside Proposition G’s purview.
“Unless the City is enjoined and restrained from engaging in such conduct,” the suit states, “Plaintiff will be irreparably injured and will be deprived of constitutional rights guaranteed under the federal and state constitutions, and will suffer substantial loss of rents, profits, and good will.” The company is also suing the city for its own legal fees, on the grounds that “if Plaintiff is successful in this action, a significant benefit will be conferred on the general public.”
Is placing advertising on the walls of local businesses a significant benefit? Phil Jaber reports that he never received any money for the billboard; he did it as a favor for a friend at the company. “I don’t do things for money,” he says. “I do them for community.”
None of the other shopkeepers we spoke to would disclose how much they receive for hosting the billboards, but a successful lawsuit filed by Contest Promotions in 2008 against a shopkeeper in Los Angeles refers to a $525 deposit and monthly payments of $175.
An article published in the Examiner last year claimed that unlicensed advertising such as signs posted on vacant storefronts is sold at a fraction of the cost of a licensed billboard. It also cited Planning Department figures that 43% of the billboards the department had surveyed to date (more than half of the 1,532 found in the city) were not licensed. And there are other signs that the 2002 moratorium on new signs in the city has not been entirely successful.
The local objection to the Heineken sign outside of Philz, however, has. “I’m taking it out,” Jaber says. “The contract is over in a couple of weeks. I haven’t talked to the guy yet, but I’m going to call him and say, ‘Your mother carried you for nine months, but I want that sign out in two weeks.’”
“You all complain so fast,” Jaber adds, seeming somewhat mystified. “There is advertising all over the world. That’s how your country is run. Your highways. Your buildings. All over the Mission.”