San Francisco artist Amos Gregory spent six years aboard a U.S. Navy fast-attack submarine. He knows a little bit about national defense. And now he’s going on the offensive.

Gregory made national headlines in early 2018 when, he says, U.S. Customs and Border Protection informed him he had 48 hours to remove a mural he and a group of deported veterans painted on a border wall near Tijuana — or they’d do it for him. Well, 48 hours have come and gone — 48 days have come and gone — and Gregory’s mural is still on the wall.

In fact, he helped a group of deported vets touch it up on Memorial Day. On Aug. 4, he’ll return to the border for more work on the art installation.

The border wall, located a few feet within U.S. territory, is composed of towering diamond-shaped rods. As such, an enterprising artist can create a mural that, when viewed from different angles, presents different images. When Gregory’s five-year-old mural is viewed at a 45-degree angle from one side, it appears to be a huge upside-down flag with upside-down St. Peter’s crosses replacing the stars. Viewed from another angle, one can read the names of dozens of deported veterans, which they signed onto the wall with their own hands.  

A purported complaint about the “disrespectful” nature of an upside-down flag was the impetus for this drawn-out period of uncertainty.

Gregory laughs at the notion that an upside-down Old Glory is disrespectful, but it’s a “we laugh so as not to cry” sort of laugh. “You chuckle, but you hold your head down, because this is coming from your own government. These guys are idiots! We were in the military! You have access to all the information: It takes five minutes to make a phone call to get the expert to explain to you what this thing means,” he says.

For those who don’t have such time or access, Gregory notes that an upside-down flag is a sign of distress, as in “send help, we’re under attack.” This is an obvious allusion to make for a group of military veterans who’ve found themselves deported from the country for crimes such as DUIs or marijuana convictions.

Artist Amos Gregory claims those badmouthing his mural are “idiots” who are disrespecting him and other veterans. Photo by Joe Eskenazi.

As for the upside-down crosses, St. Peter purportedly chose to die in such a manner because he didn’t feel worthy to go out in the same fashion as his savior; as such, Gregory continues, it’s a sign of humility and respect for the men and woman who have died attempted to cross this border. (This is not a sign, he emphasizes, of devil-worship — and this something he’s had to educate more than one Christian leader about over the years).

Messages regarding the status of the mural left for Rodney Scott, the chief patrol agent for the San Diego sector, have not yet been returned. At Gregory’s insistence, the office of Rep. Nancy Pelosi on July 19 initiated an inquiry. Alex Lazar, an aide in her San Francisco office, declined to go into details regarding this move, which he said should be completed within 30 business days.

While Border Patrol claims Gregory and the deported veterans failed to ask permission before painting a section of the fence, Gregory claims he’ll file suit if anyone lays a finger on the mural. “We have implied consent,” he claims. While he alleges that he and fellow artists were subjected to low-level harassment during the Obama years — helicopters buzzing them and things like that — he says the Donald Trump administration has taken things to another level. Gregory suspects the pressure to remove the mural stems from Trump’s visit to this section of the wall in March.

Gregory is a native of Toledo, Ohio who arrived in San Francisco for a tech job around 20 years ago after finishing his military stint and graduating college. He eventually became a full-time artist; in 2009 he began leaving his home onHampshire Street and biking to the Tenderloin in the wee hours to photograph homeless veterans. In 2011, he led an effort to paint veteran-themed murals in gritty Shannon Alley, which he hopes to officially rechristen “Veterans Alley.” Publicity and social media postings about that project led to him connecting with deported veterans, and painting the mural that’s currently in jeopardy.

Whether or not the mural is still up in August when Gregory travels to the border, he’s hoping to add two large words to space near it in the area known as Friendship Park. Viewed from one side, it’ll read “Justicia.” And, from the other, “repatriate.”