The man who Jorit Agoch painted last year on an Olive Street wall looks like Jonathan Goldsmith’s “Most Interesting Man in the World” character who touted Dos Equis beer. But Agoch’s figure doesn’t hobnob and socialize in the upper stratas. He is a homeless man who’s struggling to get his basic needs met — the sort of figure who Agoch, an Italian artist, met on his San Francisco visit and who changed his view of a city he had always associated with values of caring and community.
Last year was the Summer of Love’s 50th anniversary, but in the mural’s title, 50th Summer of Homeless, Agoch x’d out “Love” with “Homeless.” The area around Olive and Polk streets is notable for its homeless population, but like other San Francisco neighborhoods, it has been gentrifying for years — and Agoch witnessed people living on sidewalks while moneyed pedestrians traipse past every few minutes.
“The poverty I saw in San Francisco shocked me, not so much because of the material poverty, [which] I encountered in other parts of the world, but because of spiritual poverty due to the lack of sense of community and morals,” Agoch says in an email interview with SF Weekly.
Agoch spray-painted the work with Leticia Mandragora, an Italian-Spanish artist who did the blue-faced woman. The red streaks on the man’s cheeks are related to the sub-Saharan ritual of face-marking. Agoch has spent a lot of time in sub-Saharan Africa, where he studied painting and where he funded a maternity ward with proceeds from an art sale. So Agoch’s paintings are more than political statements. They represent academic subjects, like those of Thomas Hobbes, the 17th-century English philosopher whose idea of a “social contract” — of a social safety net for people in need — still resonate today.
“The homeless live in contradiction of this, our modern Hobbesian world,” Agoch says. “In the United States, there are four empty houses for every homeless person. Every person in this world should have the possibility of being able to give their best, not for themselves but for society. … I am for a free public education for public housing and public health. Moreover, I am against the idea that happiness lies in overpowering others or in the autistic accumulation of capital as an end in itself. Happiness is contributing to the progress of society because, as Aristotle said, man is a social animal.”
The Summer of Love’s anniversary saw hundreds of thousands of people flock to San Francisco to celebrate through music, art, and other ways. Agoch has painted the famous on walls, including the rapper Nas in his native Queens. The rapper, who was raised in humble conditions before achieving widespread commercial and financial success, signed that work by the public housing he was raised in, and said of it: “I hope my community always looks at this mural and thinks, ‘He’s one of us.’ Because I always will be. We have to be our own heroes. Every one of us has the ability to be that.”
That’s exactly what Agoch believes.
“What I mean by ‘American dream,’ ” he says, “is the dream of true progress based on the assumption that a child of homeless can become a scientist with the same possibilities like the son of a rich broker.”