They are both from Chicago — one famous, one not — and both men have big, bushy beards in the Mission District street art that honors their lives. It’s a coincidence that Robin Williams and Mike Grochowiak are memorialized just two blocks apart. But timing is everything, they say.
Bay Area photographer Michael Jang put up the giant Williams image more than a month ago on a wooden construction wall, and it has since gone through several metamorphoses as people have attached objects, added color to sections, and — most recently — stenciled a girl releasing a red balloon into the air. The wall, and Williams, will soon come down when a trendy ice-cream store opens in the space that abuts Dog Eared Books.
R.I.P. Mike G.
Grochowiak’s visage, on the outside of a storefront on Mission by 23rd Street, has been there for more than two years. Artist Jake Merten, a Chicago native who has been friends with Grochowiak’s son, Eddie, since childhood, considered Mike Grochowiak “a kind of father figure.” The dad always loved San Francisco, and Merten, then living in Los Angeles, drove up with him in 2013.
“During the trip, he found out he had pancreatic cancer and would be dying very soon,” Merten says in a phone interview.
After Grochowiak died in December 2013 at age 66, Merten drove back up to San Francisco and found what he thought was the perfect spot for the visual memorial, getting permission from the store to spray-paint Grochowiak’s face.
“I talked to the owner,” Merten says, “and told him my story, and he thought it was a blessing from God, and wanted to be a part of it.”
That summer, Grochowiak’s family from Chicago and two cousins from Minnesota flew to San Francisco just to see the artwork and to thank the owner personally.
“They all cried together,” Merten says.
The store has since closed and is now for rent. Passers-by have attached multiple stickers to the front window. The area is rapidly gentrifying. Soon, a commercial renter may clean up the outside, and Mike Grochowiak’s face may disappear. Even at the time it went up, some neighbors didn’t like the image and advocated for its removal.
“As an artist who works with spray paint in the graffiti world, I generally don’t expect my work to last very long, particularly in a city where I don’t even live or I’m not from,” Merten says. “So I feel very blessed it has been up as long as it has.”