A red Dodge Ram truck pulls up to the curb on Hampshire Street at the corner of 24th, and Chicken John and three other guys jump out. Their eyes quickly scan the coffee-with-extra-cream-colored brick wall of Tony’s Market. And then, on Wednesday, Jan. 4, they get down to business.
From the back of the truck they unload a folding table, buckets, paint rollers, brushes, latex gloves and the most anticipated item of all: a black cardboard box containing two large rolled-up prints by Caledonia Dance Curry, the Brooklyn street artist known as Swoon.
Chicken John, a good friend of Swoon’s who has collaborated with her in the past, has agreed to wheatpaste the contents of the box the artist has sent; agreed to do so in the very spot where she had wheatpasted a piece more than three years ago. That piece had survived the elements and the taggers; it had captured hearts in the Mission with its intricate beauty. Then, more than four months ago, it disappeared.
“I was walking down the street a few weeks ago, and when I noticed the blank wall it was like a hole in the heart of the neighborhood,” says Annice Jacoby, editor of “Street Art San Francisco: Mission Muralismo” and a fan of Swoon’s work.
The piece on Hampshire at 24th Street portrayed a girl’s face with a fan of headdress that looked as if it had been wrought in fine white lace. It was a portrait memorializing Silvia Elena, a teenage victim of the femicides in Juarez, Mexico, that are believed to have claimed the lives of at least a thousand women since 1993.
In her lectures, Jacoby used the artwork as a significant example of the fusion of aesthetic and social engagement. She’s here today to make sure that the piece gets restored.
The crew gently unrolls the tracing-paper-thin piece onto the table, to the amusement of the few who have gathered for the event.
Jacoby’s taken aback. The piece unveiled before her is completely different.
“I don’t know about this piece,” Jacoby says, intrigued by its bold black lines and what appear to be two faces. “We’re gonna all find out about this piece. I’m very curious about what the motif of this one is.”
“Cool,” says a man walking by as he eyes it.
“I’m so happy to see you doing this,” says another.
One of Chicken John’s helpers makes an art store run to get the glue they’ll need. In the meantime, Chicken John looks down at his phone and reads a message from Swoon that contains directions on how to place the piece on the wall.
“She wants the faces pointing away from each other,” he announces. He hopes Swoon (or Callie, as he calls her), will call at any moment to explain.
Excitement builds as the onlookers envision what the new piece will look like. The wall is bare save for a small xeroxed close-up view of the vanished piece, lovingly taped up in tribute.
The materials are ready. The wheatpasters are ready. The owner of Tony’s Market, along with the building’s landlord, have not only agreed to this, they’ve pushed for it.
“It’s a very sweet cycle,” Jacoby says. “Very rarely is something restored in such a community process.”
Chicken John’s phone rings. Swoon’s fans look at one another and smile.
“Hi Callie,” he says casually.
Ears strain to hear the conversation; to simply hear her voice, her excitement, what this gift to the Mission is all about.
“Yup, we got the materials,” Chicken John says, taking a few steps down the sidewalk to talk.
An ugly wall is about to be transformed. But not today.
“We’ve aborted,” Chicken John says when he returns.
“What?” the crowd asks in disbelief.
“She doesn’t like it,” he says.
“What happened?” they ask.
“There have been two errors,” he says. The first is that she thought the wall was white. “She never would have given us this piece if she knew the wall was this color.”
The second is that the print was manufactured wrong. “This should have been printed in reverse,” he says, pointing to the piece.
The small crowd is shocked.
“Jaco, we’re gonna pack this up,” he says to one of the wheatpasters.
Jaco hops to and begins loading everything back into the truck.
“She said give her two weeks,” Chicken John says. “She’s gonna send me another piece.”
“What about this one?” somebody asks.
“She told me to just keep it,” he replies. “‘The right thing will come at some point in time.’”
Jacoby and the others are disappointed, but they want Swoon to be happy. And now they have something else to look forward to: the next piece that will arrive in the mail.
“I think it’s gonna be fine,” Jacoby says of the restoration-that-wasn’t. “I’m getting more excited.”
* * * * * *
Nothing Left to Swoon About: The Story of the Disappearance and Why Swoon Sent a Replacement
Ariana Terrence stopped dead in her tracks when she saw it that morning in late August: the sidewalk blocked off with jarring yellow caution tape, the red drips splashed across the side of the brick building. Her mind raced. Why would anyone do this?
But there they were: thick red spray-painted letters on the side of Tony’s Market at 24th and Hampshire: “V-O-T-E.”
They dripped down from the top of the first floor, 67 rows of bricks high, dripping right over one of the Mission’s most beloved murals — a three-year-old, lace-like wheatpasted portrait memorializing Silvia Elena, a teenage victim of the femicides in Juarez, Mexico.
“I was dumbstruck. Shocked,” Terrence said. By the time she came across it on her way to work at Precita Eyes Mural Arts Center, half of Swoon’s piece had been power-washed away by two men removing the graffiti.
In a neighborhood rife with graffiti, the building had seen its share of scribbled tags and subsequent paint jobs. But up until that day, Terrence said, Swoon’s piece had been left alone because people recognized how special it was.
“It was an unspoken rule,” she said. “You just didn’t do it.”
As Precita Eyes’ communications director, Terrence would often encourage visitors to go see the piece that had become one of the artist’s iconic images. “We have a murals map,” she said, “and we would write in pencil on the map, make sure you see Swoon’s piece at Hampshire and 24th.”
Many people would return to thank her for pointing it out. “It was something so beautiful, so important to all of us,” she said.
When she saw the mural washing away before her eyes, someone came to mind who she knew would be more devastated than the rest: Kassa Mehari, owner of Tony’s Market. He had met Swoon just before the piece appeared on the side of his store, talked to her about it, and had developed great pride in it. It became something that people came to see, and customers would ask him again and again about the story behind it.
Terrence found him in front of the store, staring at the wall.
“He looked up at me. It was so sad,” she said.
Mehari had tried on many occasions to get someone to split the cost of a protective layer for the piece. “I asked many people,” he said. “But nobody could help me.”
He said that the building’s owner, Bart Murphy, was also upset and unhappy about his options after he received a citation from the city ordering him to remove the graffiti from his building within 30 days. “I was between a rock and a hard spot,” Murphy said.
Swoon hadn’t asked his permission to put the piece up, but like Mehari, he had become attached to it. “It was grand,” he said.
Mehari and Murphy both expressed interest in having Swoon come back to put up another piece. “Try everything you can,” Mehari begged Terrence when she told him she would try to get in touch with Swoon.
Mehari said he loved the piece because it made the community aware of what was going on at the borders. “The mural tells the truth. A reality,” he said. It told the story of Silvia Elena “looking for a better life and ending up in bad hands.”
“It tells a lot, the way how we face this world,” he said. It became a piece about speaking out. It’s art, he said, that changed the community for good.
Jorge Escobar, 18, who lives across from Tony’s Market at Bethel Apartments on Hampshire Street, agreed. He had admired the mural each morning as he left his apartment to take his girlfriend’s daughter to school. “A lot of critics say our neighborhood is good or bad, but things like that make our neighborhood nicer,” he said. “It’s good when people come and make our neighborhood presentable … do stuff for the community.”
For Precita Eyes muralist Patricia Rose, the piece became more and more compelling over time. When it first appeared she knew very little about it, and very little about the artist. But after doing research with co-worker and fellow Swoon fan Cindy DeLosa, she was able to piece together a strong narrative.
“We got to know the artist through one of her pieces,” Rose said. “It was sort of like a treasure hunt to me. I would take a step, learn a little bit, take another step, learn a little bit more.”
Swoon has become famous for putting arresting images in places they shouldn’t be. Part of the thrill for her of doing public art is having people stumble upon her pieces, engage with them and watch them decay.
Rose was most impressed by Swoon’s huge support system, and admired her intense collaboration with other artists. She suspects that collaborators helped Swoon scope out the spot at 24th and Hampshire in 2008, and helped her install the piece under the cover of night. People are willing to help her because they believe in her, Rose said.
A book on Swoon and her work, entitled “Swoon,” includes an essay by Jeff Stark, a friend of the artist. He describes working with Swoon on the project “Miss Rockaway Armada”: “Why did we all get on board? Wild eyes and conspiracy. That mischievous smile. The way she gets so excited that she can’t sit still.”
Rose especially loved the paper cutout parts of the piece that surrounded the portrait of the young girl like a halo, and which she knows took very special hand control to create. “She had just taken it into the stratosphere as far as complexity and beauty and originality,” Rose said.
But Rose knew all along that the piece would inevitably leave them. “All graffiti gets removed or altered over time,” she said. “I was quite willing to see that process.”
As a public artist herself, she knows that the process can be more exciting for the artist than the finished product. “Being out in the street and making the mural is the real thrill for me,” she said. “So much so that even when it’s done, I’m almost bereft.” She guesses that Swoon may feel the same way.
Rose said that the piece “had already given us so much that I didn’t truly experience it as a loss.”
Terrence and others, however, couldn’t let it go. They tried for months to get in touch with Swoon to tell her how much her piece meant to the Mission. They knew her work was taking off all over the world, but secretly hoped that she would want to come back and put up another piece.
But finally, when Annice Jacoby ran into Mehari’s store a couple of weeks ago and said, “Oh my God, you took away my mural,” things happened quickly.
Mehari told her that people had been coming in nonstop, asking where their mural had gone. “It turns out, the mural belonged to tons of people,” Jacoby said, and the editor started working her connections.
A phone call to her friend Lesley Freeman led to a phone call to Chicken John, which led to a phone call to Swoon.
Chicken John, after all, had a lot to do with the original piece at Hampshire and 24th. Swoon created it at his place, when she was in San Francisco in 2008. He remembers her “tiny little elf hands making a million little cuts,” and watching the progress of the piece. “I’d peek in, look around,” he said. “She’d work all night and sleep all day.”
The series of phone calls led to a promise.
When Chicken John asked Swoon to restore the piece, “she immediately said yes,” Jacoby said. “We were immediately excited.”
And soon, at Hampshire and 24th, there will be something new to swoon about.