A few months ago, artist Spencer Keeton Cunningham moved back to the Bay Area after being away much of the past five years. What he saw shocked him: more gentrification, more homelessness, and greater disparities between rich and poor. Because of that very gentrification, Cunningham had to race to San Jose to save a wildly colorful mural he’d created with fellow Native American artist Jaque Fragua, which a bulldozer was set to tear down.
At the last minute, Cunningham used a crowbar and other implements to pull down the work’s panels before a bulldozer wrecked Empire Seven Studios, the art gallery it fronted. Replacing the space, Cunningham says, was a condo project meant for relatively wealthy residents.
“I didn’t have any tools, so I just started peeling it off with a crowbar. And I had a hatchet, and was hacking the nails off,” Cunningham says of the mural, created in opposition to the mining of sacred Native American land in Arizona called Oak Flat. “The construction workers loaned me a big crowbar, and just hacked every panel off. As I was taking it off, the building was being demolished.”
While those panels now sit in Cunningham’s San Francisco backyard, he has also made two new murals — each in San Francisco — that comprise Cunningham’s public lament about the state of the world. One fronts the outside wall of Heron Arts’ gallery space, in the alleyway called Berwick Place, and its central motif is death and displacement. A laptop spells out “Gentrification,” its screen taken up entirely by a house that’s on fire. The laptop is on fire, too, and it’s above a Native American family who’ve been x’d out. Standing in front of a tombstone, they all have “x” on their bodies. As Cunningham was putting up the mural, the property next door was undergoing bulldozing, too — also to put up pricey condos.
“I talked to some of the construction workers about that, and showed them elements of the mural — including the laptop with the house on fire inside of it,” says Cunningham, who lived in San Francisco for 12 years before leaving to do mural work and activism, including at Standing Rock Reservation, where he fought the Dakota Access Pipeline. “Gentrification is a new form of colonization in a certain way. It’s tech gentrification [in San Francisco]. And to me, it’s an unrecognizable San Francisco.”
Cunningham’s other new mural, a three-panel work near the intersection of Jones and Ellis streets in the Tenderloin, includes images of tears, a Native American, a teepee, burning logs, handcuffs, a skateboard, a knife, arrows, and the like. It acts as a kind of storyboarded stop sign, and it’s a new iteration of a similar Cunningham mural in the same spot.
“These symbols are a mixture of indigenous issues with Tenderloin issues,” he says.