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We Are Beautiful Murals: Tuzuri Watu and Lenora LeVon in the Bayview - August 8, 2018 - SF Weekly
SF Weekly

We Are Beautiful Murals: Tuzuri Watu and Lenora LeVon in the Bayview

Bryana Fleming Lenora LeVon.

Tuzuri Watu, 4900 Third St. (near Palou Avenue)

Lenora LeVon, 4901 Third St. (near Palou Avenue)

The street art near the intersection of Palou Avenue and Third Street is a microcosm of the Bayview district’s past and present. Near the southwest corner is Brooke Fancher’s Tuzuri Watu, an epic mural Fancher created 30 years ago with the support of the area’s residents, but which was recently tagged with graffiti in spots and covered up with swaths of blue paint. Near the southeast corner are Bryana Fleming’s two works of Lenora LeVon, a Bayview fashion designer who was a neighborhood fixture for years and whose clothing made the pages of Ebony magazine in the 1980s, around the same time that Fancher’s mural went up.

The figures in Tuzuri Watu and Lenora LeVon are African-American, which befits a district that, for generations, has been a home for San Francisco’s Black community. But while many residents want to restore Tuzuri Watu, which means “We are beautiful people” in Swahili, the building’s owner is apparently debating how — or if — to do that. The original colors of Tuzuri Watu  have faded, and the blue paint used to fix the graffiti problem — which covered up parts of the mural — has outraged many people. Restoration costs may be an issue, according to the Bayview Underground blog, which reported on the issue in January and said the restoration might take close to $30,000.

Tuzuri Watu. Photo by Jonathan Curiel

SF Weekly was unsuccessful in reaching the building’s owner, but in a statement from Fancher provided to SF Weekly by Susan Cervantes — a friend of Fancher who’s the head of Precita Eyes Muralists — Fancher says that she’d be “honored” to have Tuzuri Watu restored. The mural features a cross-section of celebrated figures, including dance pioneer Alvin Ailey and his artistic director, Judith Jamison, along with scenes that capture the humanity of the community, including a teacher and students, graduates in mortarboards, and a father holding his young son. Fancher says the three months she spent on Tuzuri Watu — painting it, meeting community members, reworking the mural — “enriched” her life.

Fleming echoes that sentiment, telling SF Weekly that the neighborhood welcomed her two paintings of Lenora LeVon, which went up around six years ago. The building formerly housed LeVon’s dress and hat shop. Her son now owns the property, according to Fleming, who was commissioned by him to do the works, one of which is sepia-toned and shows LeVon in a dress she sold in her shop. 

Lenora LeVon. Photo by Jonathan Curiel

“It was a tribute to his mom,” Fleming says. “That used to be her hat shop way back then. The work honors the past and her — and since the building belongs to the family, what better way than to paint some murals.” 

Fleming’s commission, done through the Department of Public Works and the San Francisco Arts Commission, was also a way to put murals on walls that were being tagged with graffiti.

“When I was painting the murals,” Fleming says, “people said, ‘Thank you,’ and, ‘This makes such a difference,’ and ‘What a beautiful way to change our neighborhood.’ ”

The murals have, indeed, helped prevent tagging — but vandalism is still an occasional problem, which Tuzuri Watu’s current state of existence shows.