Not even growing up in the neighborhood can prevent a new business from falling onto the third-rail of Mission District development.  That is what Jose Ruffrage and Fernando Quiñonez discovered earlier this summer and it is what has made the particularly nervous about next week’s opening of their new restaurant Alma at 2801 24th St.

“Its upsetting. I’ve been here in the community for a long time – my heart is here, but now I feel like we are the enemy,” said Ruffrage.

Unwittingly, the restaurateurs became embroiled in a mural controversy that has made the walls of their restaurant the focus of persistent tagging – the kind generally reserved for newcomers. “Yuppies don’t float,” is scrawled on one wall, for example.

Their only hope, they said,  is that all will stop now that a deal has been made between the owner of the building, Ali Rismanchi, and the nonprofit Precita Eyes Mural Arts Center. “The mural, that has nothing to do with us,” said Ruffrage. “That’s the landlord, the owner.”

The problem began when Rismanchi decided in June that he wanted to rid the building of a copyrighted mural done by youth from Precita Eyes – one he thought was “too dark.” That mural read “Our Culture is Not for Sale,” and bore images of skulls referencing Dia De Los Muertos, a traditional Mexican celebration.  

Unaware of community protocol and the copyright protections, Rismanchi and his business partner commissioned a new artist to replace the mural with “something more colorful,” a wall of mandalas that exhorted the viewer to “Be a Good Person.”  

Local muralists and community advocates interrupted the artist in the process of painting and in the course of one afternoon, the artist agreed to move the new mural to another wall and to leave the now whitewashed wall for Precita.  That, however, was not enough for local artists.

They had been disrespected and the new mural was quickly tagged.  Weeks of negotiations followed.

In the end, Rismanchi has agreed to pay an undisclosed sum to Precita Eyes to have its youth program paint a similar mural in the same space.

“I think they want to stick with the same message of […] culture. I’m ok with anything, “ said Rismanchi.

The Folsom Street wall space of the soon-to-open Peruvian eatery Alma Cocina has been vandalized with graffiti tags. Photo by Laura Waxmann

Some of the same youth that painted the original mural will be involved in recreating it on the building’s 24th Street side, said Max Martilla, a Precita Eyes muralists. “As soon as we get that check we are going to start designing.”

Xavier Schmidt, another Precita Eyes muralist who will be leading the youth tasked with creating the new mural, said that his group is scheduled to meet with Rismanchi once more next week to finalize the deal. The planned mural, he said, will be spray painted and is expected to be completed some time this month.

Still Ruffrage is concerned.

“I”m worried that it will be a problem when the restaurant opens – they painted over the graffiti [on the Folsom Street wall] last week and now it’s back,” said Ruffrage.

Following the mural controversy, Ruffrage and Quiñonez met with the local leaders from the Calle 24 Cultural District to discuss their intentions of creating an inclusive, community space with their new restaurant.  

“We are part of the 24th street neighborhood now and we don’t want to start on the left foot,” said Quiñonez, adding that despite the inconvenience the dispute has caused him, he was sympathetic to the community’s pushback.

“They said its gentrification. I understand now that they are being protective and that there are certain rules. I would be the same way they are – upset,” he said.