A mural created in 2015 by Mission District youth under the guidance of Precita Eyes Mural Arts Center, on a wall at 24th and Folsom streets, became the center of a neighborhood spat on Friday afternoon when artists from the East Bay attempted to replace it without seeking permission from the local arts organization.

“This is gentrification happening on 24th and Folsom right now,” said Nancy Pili Hernández, a Precita Eyes muralist, educator and activist.

The original mural was commissioned and copyright-protected by Precita Eyes, a 40-year-old local arts organization located two blocks from the mural in dispute, at 2981 24th St.

“Multiple layers of paint that have been put there by young people from this neighborhood expressing themselves about this neighborhood,” said Pili Hernández as she stood next to the now-whitewashed wall. “That’s hours and hours of our teacher work, our youth work, and also the upkeep of this space.”

“And this person right now came out with white buff paint and painted over the whole thing because she says she has the authority,” she added.

The original mural consisted of two parts  – one side was created by the Mission youth and read “Our culture is not for sale,” while the other showed skeletons, skulls, and other references to Día de Los Muertos.

But one of the owners of the building at 3030 24th St. said that he was not of a fan of the mural, which he considered too “dark.”  As a result, he enlisted two young artists from the East Bay to replace the mural with a set of colorful mandalas and the words “Be a good person.”

Ali Rismanchi shows the new mural’s proposed design. Photo by Laura Waxmann

“The colors were all black and dark… I want something bright. My partner feels the same way,” said Ali Rismanchi, who along with Mission-based dentist Dr. Juan Luque purchased the building two years ago.

Rismanchi and Luque recently leased out the building’s ground floor space, formerly home to a restaurant called Quéreme, to the owner of 24th Street’s Puerto Vallarta, Juan Rosas Lopez. Lopez will soon be reopening the space as a Peruvian restaurant, Alma. The restaurant space is currently undergoing renovations, and the mural, said Rismanchi, needed a makeover as well.

“Were thinking to replace the mural with something more brighter in colors. With a nicer message. I think the mural was outdated and as owners we just wanted to give a change to the building,” he said. “I didn’t know about the process of removing them.”

If Rismanchi didn’t know about the Mission’s mural culture and the implications of painting over existing murals beforehand, he was brought up to speed quickly on Friday. The artists painted over the building Friday morning, and by Friday afternoon, a group of youth, muralists and community activists gathered in protest on the sidewalk in front of his building.

The group met with the new artists and building owners to negotiate a resolution on the sidewalk. But first, the protesters offered a quick lesson on Mission history and murals.

“You guys have to realize that you are in the Latino Cultural District and these murals are precious – and there is a process for them to be removed,” said Erick Arguello, president of the the Calle 24 Latino Cultural District. “There’s supposed to be a 90-day notice to the artist.”

Pili Hernández said that Precita Eyes has long fought for copyrights for murals.

“The [mural] culture is that if somebody paints something and you want to go over it, you have to consult with them and possibly give them a shout out, at least tell them ahead of time so they can take a picture,” said Pili Hernández. “This wall needs to be in negotiation with the owners and with Precita Eyes and we need to develop some sort of value for young people’s artwork in this community.”

Photo by Anya Montiel

The Mission has the highest concentration of murals per square foot in San Francisco, said Pili Hernández. Friday morning, she was alerted to two artists who are unaffiliated with Precita Eyes were painting over the youths’ mural.

The artists, a woman and a man, did not give their names, but said they were given permission to paint over the existing mural by Rismanchi.

“When we came here earlier I saw that they were about to buff and I approached her [the artist] and said … don’t paint this wall,” Pili Hernández said.

In reference to the mural depicting the Día de los Muertos theme, Pili Hernández said she reluctantly condoned its replacement.  “I said go ahead and paint this side of the wall because we haven’t taken care of that side, it had graffiti on it. But, don’t touch [the youths’] mural.”

The female artist tasked with replacing the existing mural, who asked not to be named, said that she felt there “is a lot of miscommunication.”

She said that after Pili Hernández and other Precita Eyes muralists informed her of the mural’s significance in the local community, she sought permission with the organization’s director, Susan Cervantes.

“I went into Precita Eyes and left a note asking if I could paint on the other side,” she said, adding that her request was later approved by Cervantes. “She told me to keep painting, so I kept painting.”

But the activists and Precita Eyes muralists said that permission was never granted.

“She twisted Susan’s words,” said a muralist with the organization. “She was never given permission.”

Aside from copyright issues, the community members attempted to inform Rismanchi and the artists that they had overstepped community processes and that their attempt to “beautify” the existing mural was tone deaf given community-driven efforts to preserve the neighborhood’s existing Latino culture and traditions.

“There’s a difference between how we see the murals and you see the murals,” Arguello told Rismanchi. “You see it as something that’s dark and ugly and we see it as a message to empower the community, to empower you and it’s also a placeholder for our community because we are being displaced.”

In an attempt to appease the community, Rismanchi offered up another, much smaller wall space on his building on Folsom Street.

“We have another wall on 20th that we are currently interviewing mural artists – I’m more than happy to donate the other wall to you guys and whoever you choose…we can take a look at [that artists] portfolio,” said Rismanchi.

But Arguello and the Precita Eyes muralists did not accept that compromise.

“Nothing in offense to you, but …it always seems that the community get the bone thrown at us,” said Arguello, adding that though the property belonged to Rismanchi, the 24th Street mural had been on the building when it was purchased, and belonged to the community. “So we want the front center.”

Rismanchi eventually agreed to work with Precita eyes to design a new mural involving the local community on the building’s 24th Street wall space, and that the artists whom he had tasked with painting the mandalas could resume the project on the Folsom Street side of the building.  

“We have 90 kids this summer in our program every day, and definitely have enough young people to [redo] this mural,” said Pili Hernández. “We just have to get the money together for some paint.”