It’s a private toilet on public McAllister street — a place for workers on a retrofit project to do their business without interruption. For the artist named “fnnch,” it’s also a place for his new art project: a four-sided structure with three different honey bears, each one a variation on a theme. One has the bear in a “classic” pose, but another has the animal in a chef’s hat, and a third has it in a red knit cap that makes him seem like a longshoreman or an angler.
Anyone who has seen Wes Anderson’s 2004 film The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, which stars Bill Murray as an oceanographer, will recognize the hat.
“I’m a big fan of films from Wes Anderson,” fnnch tells SF Weekly. “If you don’t know what it is, it’s just like a hipster beanie.”
Fnnch has an arrangement with the owner of the retrofit company to adorn its toilets with his work — a deal that fits into fnnch’s philosophy about art: He wants people to encounter it in public places that challenge their perception of “illegal” art. His earlier work was often in places where he didn’t get permission from the owners or from any organization. In the past few years in Duboce Park, where the city had stenciled the pathways with official-looking signage to keep dogs leashed, fnnch added colorful dog art, so that one figure of a dog-walker held a Jeff Koons-like balloon dog, another a Keith Haring-like mutt, another a Snoopy, and so on. It was all in good fun — and all illegal.
Yet the city has let fnnch’s dog figures stay.
“As far as I know, I’m the first and only artist in San Francisco to paint something illegal in a public park and have the city not only let it stay but actually maintain it,” says fnnch, a St. Louis native who is in his 30s and is based in San Francisco but has work around the United States. “That’s what I strive for with my work — that people think, ‘Oh, this is probably commissioned.’ ”
No surprise here. Fnnch is one of many artists to paint on San Francisco’s blue mailboxes.
“I think the post office should have a mural program where every relay box — you apply to paint it, and if you maintain it against graffiti, you get a six-month window and then it’s up for grabs again,” says fnnch. “San Francisco doesn’t have a utility box art program — which is embarrassing, since Sacramento has one and San Jose has one. … With my work, I try to open up new, alternative spaces for public art, to lead people to look at art differently. I also want to test out models for other artists. That’s why I’ve painted on mailboxes, construction sites, and sidewalks. I’ve done three projects on Lyft cars. It’s a lot easier to get permission to paint on a construction site or a Lyft car than it is to get someone to give you an actual wall for a mural, which can be extremely challenging in San Francisco.”
The challenge led him to look at toilet boxes. “At some point,” he says, “I had an idea to put art on a toilet box. The toilet box is just the enclosure around a Porta-Potty that a construction company puts up. Some of them in Pacific Heights look nice. And some of them don’t have anything at all, or have sheets of plywood that are pretty ugly. But you often get them in places that you couldn’t get a mural wall, so they’re right on the street and often in high-traffic areas. And they’re a relatively standard size.
“I painted a mural on a construction site in the Haight back in 2015,” he adds. “I called the number on the site and asked if I could paint — and they said, ‘Yes.’ The company’s owner was excited about the project, and after the site came down, he expressed an interest in doing something else, so I reached out and asked if he had any toilet boxes.”
The toilet on McAllister Street is fnnch’s first commission, and it went up a few weeks ago. People who recognized fnnch’s work — from previous projects or from his Instagram account — have lauded the bears. Fnnch calls the honey bears “a universal symbol of happiness.
“Most people have [honey] as children,” he says. “We deeply desire what’s inside. They’re nostalgic. They’re innocent. They’re positive. So I’ve been able to use them as a tool where people get excited about public art. I don’t have to worry as much about whether there’s an aesthetic match to the community, or whether people will object to the content. It’s more about, ‘Oh, cool — someone’s painting on a toilet box!’ ”