For the second time in less than two weeks, a tagger has scrawled over a mural of ten stenciled sea turtles on the wall of a Pacific Gas & Electric substation at the corner of 19th and San Carlos streets – the mural was first defaced with the words “Latino Art Only.”
Six of the turtles were slashed with paint by the vandal, identified only by the moniker “HC.”
Artist Fnnch, who created the mural, is white, not Latino, but suspects the graffiti has less to do with race than with class. Moreover, there are other murals in the Mission by non-Latino artists and some of the most renowned murals done by Latino artists have also been tagged over the years.
“I suspect its anti-gentrification sentiment, not racially oriented,” he said. “Does the writer even know I’m not Latino?”
Others agreed the vandalism has more to do with a citywide struggle over displacement. But one artist added that some resentment could stem from an earlier incident in which Fnnch, popular for his signature golden honey bears spraypainted onto mailboxes, painted over someone else’s work three years ago.
Hailing from the Midwest, the 29-year-old has lived in the Mission for a majority of the five years he’s spent in the city. Aiming to make a living as an artist, Fnnch, whose murals are often colorful stencil depictions of animals and insects, said he currently works in consulting and graphic design.
Hoping to learn about the tagger’s motivation, Fnnch put out a call “for an introduction” with the vandal on Instagram. The vandal never contacted him, and Fnnch eventually took down his post after spending an “entire morning buffing out the paint” on his mural.
The incident was not the first time the mural was targeted, and as of Monday, the mural had been tagged again.
“Maybe the people who [did this] have a deep yearning to express themselves,” he said. “I thought that if I knew what [the vandal] wanted, like if it was done to get a voice out, then maybe I could help with that.”
A Mission-based graffiti writer who gave his name as “Hotboxmuni” said no one was likely to step forward.
“The whole thing about graffiti is that it’s anonymous. No one is gonna [say] ‘that’s my tag, let’s talk about it,” he said. “Those are Mission kids who tagged up his stuff. They probably know more about him than he does about them,” he added.
According to Hotboxmuni, these subtle nuances of local culture are lost with newcomers claiming space in the neighborhood.
Megan Wilson, a street artist and director of the Clarion Alley Mural Project, which curates the mural-laden Mission alleyway, said that it is “unfortunate anytime people’s work gets defaced,” and and agreed that that the vandalism is a result of growing “animosity and anger” felt in San Francisco.
“[One] of the most revealing experiences is to take a walk down Valencia Street and how heavily one can feel the energy of privilege and entitlement of the new residents,” said Wilson. “While if you take a walk down Mission you can feel the anxiety and despair of the longtime residents who are being forced out through evictions, many of whom are Latino.”
The Crime of Art
Hotboxmuni said he doesn’t know who is behind the vandalism, but that problems started when Fnnch painted over another artist’s mural at Lucky and 25th streets.
“He went over some real artists murals thinking it’s ok,” said Hotboxmuni. “I don’t think he cares about reaching out to the community here and even if he did, I don’t think that he could. He’s totally clueless.”
Fnnch acknowledged that he “made some mistakes” when he first started painting in the neighborhood.
Responding to the graffiti writer’s accusations, Fnnch said he did not intend to destroy the mural or encroach on the graffiti community’s hierarchy, but that it was on private property and that the owner of the wall gave him permission to paint over it.
“They got territorial and defensive,” he said of the others, though adding that he now is aware of a protocol of asking for permission from a curator in alleys where murals live.
Unlike many of his tagging counterparts, Fnnch said he paints by the rules – he exclusively hits public spaces, unless he gets permission to paint on private property.
Fnnch said it took him almost a year of persistent requests to secure the 19th Street wall that now showcases his turtles from PG&E, who commissioned him.
“I don’t think that punishing artists for [the effects of gentrification] is the answer,” said Fnnch. “I’m not paid to maintain that wall.”
But that sentiment is not shared by everyone in the Mission’s graffiti community, and some say that businesses should do more to support local artists.
“[PG&E] is just trying to put up art for art’s sake and graffiti abatement,” said Hotboxmuni. “[The Mission] is famous for graffiti writers bridging the gap between the streets and the galleries, but people [like Fnnch] think they can skip all those steps.”
“He’s not adding to the culture, just trying to get his slice and make some money,” he added. “Graffiti isn’t supposed to be logical and apologetic. Police are killing people and folks are losing their homes. Honey bears are irrelevant [when] there’s a class war out here.”
PG&E spokesperson Nicole Liebelt said that the company is “always open to working with local artists to provide a safe place of expression and as a way to beautify the local neighborhoods,” and that Fnnch was commissioned because he approached them.
Educator and Precita Eyes muralist Nancy Pili Hernandez explained that graffiti tags come with the territory, and that it is up to the artists to maintain their walls – commissioned or not.
But the tag, she said, is a legitimate depiction of the turmoil felt in a community that has been uprooted.
“[Many] muralists that are born and raised here [in the Mission] speak to the community,” said Hernandez. “In times where there is no conflict, no one writes [stuff] like that.”