Tour buses regularly pull up to Hank Cancel’s apartment so people can take photos of his windows. At least one popular guide book — for German-speaking guidebook to San Francisco and California — directs readers to Cancel’s building. And why not? Nowhere else in San Francisco are there street-facing windows that feature a parade of dolls, many of them naked, who are so actively and outrageously celebrating LGBTQ lives.
One window on 19th Street is devoted to nudity, kink, and the Folsom Street Fair, with a white male doll and a Black male doll — each naked and in possession of a large, hanging penis — co-holding a sign that says, “Nudity is not a crime.” The other 19th Street window is devoted to the greater LGBTQ community, including straight people who support LGBTQ causes and LGBTQ community members who support such other causes as Black Lives Matter.
And then there’s the third window, the one that faces Castro Street and has two men dancing, a doll that resembles a Sister of Perpetual Indulgence, a Michelangelo’s David statue in pants, and a sign that says, “It’s Castro, Bitch!” Leather men. Nattily dressed figures. Flags and signs of all stripes. It’s all there in Cancel’s windows, which he first dressed up nine years ago, when he moved into the first-floor apartment. His street art is a kind of public activism.
“This neighborhood has a huge history of activism,” Cancel tells SF Weekly, sitting in his living room on a recent afternoon. “All the rights that gay people currently enjoy — they had to be fought for, and they were fought for right here in this very neighborhood. This is an homage to that time period. It’s an act of visibility for us. And the fights still go on, like with trans rights. Now it’s the next group’s turn to claim their rights. And there’s a lot of intersectionality in the queer movement. So I’m showing more of that now. There’s more family in the window. There are Army veterans for the impeachment of Trump. There’s a lot to celebrate, and there are fights still to be had.”
Cancel’s windows also have a functional element. By placing dolls in extended rows on the window’s edge inside his apartment, he’s created a de facto lower curtain, which “gives me a little privacy” and prevents people from peering inside his abode. People still try — at least, with cameras that they put on selfie sticks. Cancel says he doesn’t capitalize on all the attention. He hasn’t created a website for the dolls. People don’t know his title for the windows, The Eureka Valley of the Dolls. When Cancel sees a bus of tourists taking photos, or notices other passers-by who are photographing his collection, Cancel doesn’t rush out to greet them. A destination like Macy’s Union Square windows encourages people to linger and drop in. Not Cancel’s windows — perhaps for obvious reasons.
“I always have people in my window. Normally, there are groups of 10, 15, and 20. And it’s non-stop,” Cancel says. “People are so curious to see what it looks like on the inside. I haven’t commercialized these dolls at all. People say, ‘Why don’t you do postcards of them?’ And ‘Why don’t you do this and that.’ I could, but that would be a commodification of it, when, in essence, this is just a gift to the community. It’s street art. It’s an art piece that you don’t have to pay for. It’s art for art’s sake.”
Cancel’s entire apartment is otherwise filled with art, each wall crowded with paintings, sculpture, and other hangings. His refrigerator door is festooned with magnets of all kinds. His living room has a bookcase filled with photos, sculptures, and more dolls. Cancel, who is covered in tattoos, is a regular Burning Man attendee. His street-facing windows, in other words, are an accurate reflection of his outside and inside life. Visitors to the Castro celebrate Cancel’s windows with photos, but he’s good friends with many residents in the district, who appreciate his artistic bent year-round. Cancel, a Brooklyn native who wears clothing rooted in different cultures, jokes that his drag name is “Miss Appropriation.”
“A lot of people think I’ve been here for 40 years,” says Cancel, 50, a San Francisco resident for 24 years, who first lived in the Castro before moving to another district and then moving back to the Castro in 2009. “In my old residence, I had a big bathroom with a lot of shelves. There’s where the collection started and grew. When you went into the bathroom, you got treated to a big show. And when I got this apartment, I didn’t have the same kind of bathroom — but I had windows, and I thought, ‘It’d be kind of interesting to use the window as my vessel.’ ”