Hussein Dawah, 63, didn’t have to look twice to know that there was a work of art on the wall outside his restaurant on 19th and Valencia.
“This is not graffiti, this is art,” he said of the ICE agent chasing a mouse known as Speedy Gonzales, an American cartoon character much criticized for depicting an offensive stereotype of Mexicans. “Graffiti, I cover right away.”
Dawah believes it is art because it reminds him of previous street art that has made his business fit into the trendiness of the neighborhood, he said on a sunny Friday as he grilled kebabs he carefully wrapped in pita bread for his customers at Ali Baba’s Cave on 799 Valencia Street, a restaurant that he has owned since 1982.
He’s right. The images were done by the Mexican graffiti artist Yescka, who has visited San Francisco over the last three years with the purpose of teaching youth that art is a way to express themselves.
Kate DeCiccio, mural artist and art teacher at the Leadership High School, invited Yescka to participate in the project Painting with Purpose, which teaches teenagers the technique and development of a mural. They also learn how to integrate their experiences by finding powerful images that transmit how they feel.
“You notice the change in the kids. It’s a different environment, they are attracted to it and although at first they might be a bit apathetic, seeing the evolution of the work they have created allows them to develop [creatively]”, said Yescka of the five-day process of creating a mural at the Leadership High-School.
This year, however, his visit to San Francisco had an added twist. He reunited with his childhood friend who lives in the Mission and met Oaxacan artist Calixto Robles.
Meeting with people from his hometown and walking around the Mission inspired him to share his own street art in the Mission and in Oakland. “To me, art belongs in the street because it represents social interests. The people have the highest say, not the galleries,” he said of his guerrilla-art approach.
Yescka believes that a street artist has a responsibility to create images that have strength, a criticism or irony. “I am interested in what is happening today, what happens in the places I visit,” he said. “Latinos are suffering the effects of neoliberal policies — exploitation and discrimination. The massive deportation that forces them to leave family behind, in Arizona that’s in full swing.” His next stop was the border between Arizona and Sonora.
Back on Ali Baba’s Cave, tourists who walk by the stencil of a black and white ICE agent chasing a colored Speedy Gonzales stop. They take their cameras out and snap a photo or two, posing next to the stenciled image. “I was looking for an image that represented Mexicans, but one created by the gringos,” Yescka said of the American cartoon that depicts a brown mouse with a yellow hat and white clothes.
The cartoon was beloved among the Latino population, perhaps not because they identify but because they laugh at how they are falsely perceived in foreign land.
As for Dawah, he liked the art because it prevents the tagging that the city so adamantly requests him to re-paint and it attracts tourists to his restaurant.