At the height of the Occupy movement in 2011, when crowds across the United States were protesting economic inequality, two young artists staked out an alley in San Francisco's Polk area and created something of a rebuttal. Spencer Keeton Cunningham and his friend Jaque Fragua thought the protests were ignoring a historic calamity that has ongoing repercussions: the displacement of Native Americans. Cunningham's and Fragua's collaboration employs humor — albeit dark humor — to drive home their point. Their Native American figure holds a beer can in one hand, while his other hand is missing and drips blood into the paper-bagged alcohol container. The word "Occupied" anchors the artwork's lower half.
"We thought it was funny calling that movement 'occupy,' and at that time it was such an overused word," says Cunningham. "So it was kind of poking fun at their Occupy movement, and in the mural it was more about the land already being occupied for hundreds of years."
Cunningham, a Colville tribe member who's based in San Francisco, did the Native American figure while Fragua, a Native American who's based in Arizona, did the "Occupied" lettering and other background elements. The work, completed in October 2011 with the help of the organization WallSpaceSF, has held up nicely in the intervening years, while Cunningham and Fragua have gone on to do much other work. Cunningham's latest San Francisco street piece, at 350 Jones St., is a large triptych with scores of quirky black-and-white figures — everything from a tooth to a lit cigarette to a ready-to-ride skateboard. Cunningham's Native American figure at 106 Austin St. has a skateboard tucked under his right arm. Cunningham just returned from a trip to Cuba, where he donated skateboards to needy children, and he created public art in an environment that was markedly different from the environment in San Francisco.
"It was kind of sketchy painting there," he says, "considering the only other murals around were political ones that read patrio o muerte ["patriotism or death"] or that defend socialism, as well as various other propaganda paintings."
In Cuba, then, propaganda art and protest art compete for the same space. In San Francisco, Cunningham's and Fragua's art occupies a place by itself on Austin Street, highly visible to anyone on Polk who happens to look that way.