The beloved sea lions on a large Bartlett Avenue wall were defaced with red paint in February, raising question of who decides when street art comes and goes.

The sea lions that loom over Bartlett may be a unique and impressive work of street art. They may reign over an otherwise blighted street.

But that doesn’t mean the sea lions, by the Belgian street artist ROA, deserve to stay, and that’s just the way it is. Or is it?

The street artists who were ready to cover them over late last month insisted on the impermanence of street art. “All artwork on the street from day one is temporary,” said one, part of a trio from the Wallspace collective who defaced the sea lions’ enormous wall in late February. “It’s never permanent.”

But others in the arts community questioned that logic. Yes, street art is temporary, they agreed, but there are other things to consider.

Street artist Cuba, who has worked in the Mission District since the 1970s, thought covering up a mural so large and unique would be like “throwing a bucket of paint” over a famous piece of art. And some neighbors want to see the playful animals stay.

“Every time I walk past, they surprise me and they make me smile and make my heart rate go down,” said Amy Fairweather, who has lived on the block for two years. “There’s something so sweet and serene about them.”

The sea lions on Feb. 25. The Wallspace collective had its ladder and tank ready.

Victor Marquez, the real estate attorney for Gus Murad, the building’s owner, said he gave permission for ROA to paint the creatures last year, and that “it was always understood that building would be demolished.” So in that sense the sea lions began life knowing it would be short.

However,  Marquez said it would be “tactful” and “respectful” for other artists to ask permission from him to paint over the sea lions, and he didn’t give that permission in this case. No matter, he said, the building will come down sometime next year.

The assault on the sea lions began on Saturday, Feb. 25, when a Mission Loc@l reporter walking by noticed a Wallspace trio — Chris, Geso and Nemel — by the mural, on Bartlett near 22nd Street.

At that point the sea lions were clean save for some old tags on the bottom, but the artists had put up a large ladder in front of them, and atop the ladder sat a large tank of red paint. One artist explained that they were there to cover up the sea lions and finish a mural on the opposite side. The reporter objected. The artist shrugged. The sea lions had already been tagged, he said, and they had to go.

Within the hour, the sea lions had been sprayed with red paint. The trio was still there, and they repeated that yes, the sea lions would have to be covered, but told a second reporter that the animals would disappear not on Saturday, but within the next month.

In a phone interview, one of the artists, who wished to remain nameless in this article, changed the trio’s story about what their intentions were on Saturday. They were there, he said, to cover up the tagging elsewhere around the abandoned parking lot, a job they do often. Habib Mosayar, manager of the Great Value where the artist stores his equipment, confirmed that, and said the artists do “a good job” maintaining the art around the parking lot.

Nevertheless, the artist added that the Mission should not get attached to the sea lions because they will eventually be covered up.

“[The animals] are alive, they die, they decompose, they change and a new animal goes up,” said one artist in a telephone interview in which he also said he knows ROA personally. “That’s usually how this works.”

Not true, say arts organizations like Precita Eyes, Street SmARTS and others.  Generally, they agreed, street etiquette demands that you get permission from an artist before covering his or her work. City laws require that you get permission from the building’s owner. It’s clear now that Wallspace had not received that permission.

The collective also told Mission Loc@l in an email that it’s normal for new art to go up after the previous works have “run their course.”

But, as many have pointed out, the sea lions have only been up for 10 months and have not run their course.

“Why go over a beautiful mural … when there are other spots to paint that need livening up?” wondered Mission artist Eric Norberg. “What gives people the right to make decisions as to what type of art should be gone over?”

Sirron Norris, who called the sea lions “a class act,” said that because ROA is foreign, he inherently has less attachment to the city. “I would have to assume a local artist would get priority over that wall,” Norris said.

Cuba agreed that other artists would simply take advantage of ROA’s absence.

“If it’s going to get left like that, you bet [someone’s] going tag it,” Cuba said. “I’m sure [ROA] expects it to not last forever.”

However, Cindy De Losa from Precita Eyes strongly rejected the notion that certain artists’ work should just be presumed to be neglected.

“It doesn’t make a difference if you’re from New York or L.A., you’re sharing your art with the world,” she said.

Indeed, the street artist Swoon wheatpasted a mural on Hampshire that lasted for more than three years. When it was vandalized, Precita Eyes worked with Swoon, and the New York-based street artist sent another to replace it.

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  1. I’m firmly in the pro-sea lion camp. That wall and the walls around it have been under constant attack by far less talented artists since I’ve lived here. Now that something beautiful has been painted, it suddenly has a rapid expiration date? As Drew said, can’t you find another one of the many ugly walls in the Mission to cover-up?

    Let the sea lions stay until the wall comes down. I hope the red paint hasn’t been a mortal wound that marks the beginning of the end by taggers.


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  2. I don’t get it. Why doesn’t Wallspace find some other wall that needs art? The sea lions are awesome and shouldn’t be removed for no reason.

    Wallspace should be ashamed of themselves.

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  3. Its sad that these types of artist are coming into the neighborhood. Many of our murals are being tagged and defaced and its not the gangs. The sense of respect for history,culture and art is disappearing.

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