Free Love and Enterprise

Peace and wow will get you an image to sell to tourists, but not fed

Last weekend, a literate friend looked at the sidewalk seven paces south of my doorstep and exclaimed, "That's the Tristero's horn."

She was looking at a blue silk-screened image, about the size of two fists, depicting a bugle with a plug in it.

"That's the muted bugle. It was the symbol of a secret mail service from Thomas Pynchon's The Crying of Lot 49," she explained.

Pynchon imagined this as the icon of an ancient, secret counterculture called the Tristero, whose symbol the heroine finds again and again in a San Francisco bar, in chalk on a San Francisco street, on a Chinese herbalist's window, on the back of a bus seat. A central conceit of the novel is to never allow the heroine, nor the reader, to ascertain whether this underground counterculture is genuine or not.

Though I have no idea who painted my doorstep symbol, nor the others that are proliferating in the neighborhoods near Haight and Ashbury streets, the artist truly seems to be onto something: The question of whether or not San Francisco's tapestry of underground countercultures is genuine or counterfeit has been popping up all over the city lately, a phenomenon that's intensified during the past couple of weeks.

The threat of bogusness has always hung over S.F.'s famed countercultures.

Though San Francisco enjoys a tourist reputation as the birthplace of the Beats, the hippies, and other anti-establishment movements, the city's true legacy lies in the seamless way we've reconfigured, commercialized, sanitized, drained, and refilled these once-subversive social currents with meaning, so they might better service aboveground marketing and political aims. In this city, it's the hucksters, not the revolutionaries, who've best profited from San Francisco's reputation for a fertile underground.

It's fitting, therefore, that the sidewalks of this city's most famous counterculture neighborhood have become mysteriously festooned with a symbol representing a possible fiction within a work of fiction, about a possibly phony underground movement, whose outward symbols appear all over San Francisco.

Last week, a hep-acting city supervisor continued a months-long rampage in which he's been putting an official City and County of San Francisco imprimatur on every rebellious social movement he can lay his hands upon -- thus, by definition, neutralizing their authenticity.

In another instance, Sony Corp. has been decorating the Mission District with tchotchke-selling images designed to look like underground graffiti. Presumably genuine underground graffitists have counterattacked, defacing the images with artful verbal imagery. The contragraffiti, however, has made the Sony product notorious, serving the corporation's marketing ends. Who's authentic now?

Finally, earlier this year a filmmaker released a documentary chronicling the strenuous efforts of portions of one famed S.F. counterculture movement, the Diggers, to remain genuine in the face of commercialization, co-optation, and corruption.

Whether or not they succeeded, well, that's for the reader to decide.

Last week, Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi, who represents the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood, placed a final tombstone over the once-subversive status enjoyed by urban skateboarders by issuing a government proclamation praising skaters' favorite independent magazine on its 25th anniversary.

"Whereas, in the 1980s, when skateboarding was ignored, shunned and criminalized, and skateboarders' alternative dress and behavior caused them to be ostracized, Thrasher Magazine provided skateboarding youth with alternative role models and a sense of community," said the proclamation, which, by applying an official City Hall seal to a renegade movement, officially put a stake in skating's status as a form of rebellion.

Mirkarimi's been on a City Hall counterculture-co-optation bender as of late. A few months ago, he feted some Black Panthers with an art show in his office featuring Panther work.

"It was intense stuff -- 'Die pigs' and all that, and there were Panthers there who had never been in City Hall," says Mirkarimi, who's given official city acknowledgment to William S. Burroughs, and is looking for an excuse to officially honor the anarchist bookstore Bound Together on Haight Street.

"They've got to have an anniversary or something coming up," Mirkarimi says.

Which begs the question: What exactly is anarchy when it's formally congratulated as a matter of civil proclamation?

In another sign that the end of the world of cultural rebellion is nigh, imps playing paddle ball with electronic devices, drawn to look as if they had been applied by an outlaw graffitist, have been appearing on the sides of bodegas, apartment buildings, and the like throughout the Mission during the past month or so. They're part of an ad campaign for a Sony portable game, music, and movie-playing device.

Residents infuriated by this bogus outlaw imagery have responded with real graffiti, crossing the images out with red spray paint and defacing them with terms such as "Fony" and "I'll ride a Brompton bicycle, or I'll teabag a mime, before I'll give Sony Corp. another dime," in reference to a type of dorky foldable bicycle and a type of oral stimulation.

"The commodification of the practice, the craft, of graffiti, with Sony being the epitome of a huge corporation, that they would hire people to deface property in the Mission, I just think that's outrageous," says Andy Oglesby, a Mission commercial artist who wrote letters to the mayor and to Supervisor Tom Ammiano suggesting the city sue Sony. So far he's gotten no meaningful response, he says.

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