Street Artist Chip Thomas Makes Peace With Angry Vets

The upside-down American flag in his mural "Only the Creator Will Relocate Us" caused a stir.

In June, when Chip Thomas began wheat-pasting Only the Creator Will Relocate Us on an Oakland wall, he started with the upper-right-hand side, where the giant photo shows a baby being lofted into the air. The child exhibits pure joy, and passersby lauded Thomas for his work. But then came the left-hand side, which has an upside-down American flag flying in the wind. A police officer stopped his car to call out its orientation as disrespectful. A fireman in a fire truck also stopped to speak. And then a military veteran walked by and confronted Thomas as the artist wheat-pasted that part on the wall.

The vet was a supporter of Donald Trump.

“By the time I finished the level where the flag is fully upside down, it was toward the end of the day,” Thomas says, “and he came and accosted me and the guy who was on the lift assisting me, and wanted to know ‘why the fucking flag was upside down,’ and that he fought for the flag and doesn’t appreciate it being disrespected in that way. Because we were up on the lift working, we really couldn’t engage him in a conversation, although my assistant tried to.”

But Thomas has done his share of service, too. An African-American medical doctor who was born in North Carolina, he’s worked at a Navajo Nation clinic in Arizona for 30 years while doing street art under the name Jetsonorama. Two days after the initial confrontation, the vet came back, and this time, Thomas was standing on the sidewalk wheat-pasting the lower part.

“He walked up and said, ‘You might recognize me from a couple of days ago. I just wanted to talk with you about the piece,’ ” Thomas tells SF Weekly by phone from Arizona. “We talked, and he apologized for being so aggressive two days before. He told me about the eight years he spent as a soldier in the U.S. Marines, and his experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan, and how he suffers from PTSD, and has anger-management issues and can’t sleep, and how he has definite triggers. Seeing the flag upside down was one of the triggers. But he has since come to see, through his experience in the military, how he really wasted eight years of his life fighting for an ideal that was an illusion. He was frustrated that he couldn’t get those eight years of his life back. He ended up crying.”

And Thomas and the vet ended up hugging. “I thanked him,” Thomas says, “for coming back.”

The 1984 photo that Thomas put up, taken by civil rights photojournalist Dan Budnik — who’s also a friend — shows a Navajo land-rights protest against a government relocation that forced thousands of Arizona Navajo to abandon their ancestral lands. The relocation resulted from a mining contract with an energy company widely regarded as unfairly negotiated and punitive to the tribe, whose mineral-rich territory is larger than West Virginia. A Southwestern curator working with Oakland’s Museum of Capitalism invited Thomas to be part of a pop-up exhibit about land use in a capitalist economy, and the museum picked the wall that now has Only the Creator Will Relocate Us.  

“The land is rich in natural resources, including coal, oil, natural gas, uranium, and water in aquifers, and the Navajo people should be the richest people in the United States,” Thomas says. “But because the reservation is really a case study in colonialism, the contracts for those resources were written in such a way that, at one point in the 1990s, the tribe was receiving less than 10 percent of the total profits coming from those natural resources — and 20 percent of my patients now don’t have water or electricity.”

While taggers have covered over much of the lower portion of Only the Creator Will Relocate Us, the work still draws looks from pedestrians in the area, which is just a few blocks from the Oakland Museum of California. The Navajo land-right protests, which have continued, are narrated in the 1985 film, Broken Rainbow, which won the Academy Award for Best Documentary. Only the Creator Will Relocate Us tells the same story at a glance. And even that glance is enough to stir heated conversations about American expansion, patriotism, Native American rights, and what it means to be a citizen of the United States.

Thomas puts up street photography on the Navajo Nation, which serves a different purpose that complements his medical practice. Those photos tend to show families posing with pride or working the land, he says.

“The imagery that I choose to put up in the community is a reflection back to the people of the beauty they’ve shared with me over the past 30 years,” Thomas says. “I’m attempting to create a line of wellness within the community that impacts them emotionally. My work in the clinic is an attempt to create an environment of wellness within the individual or within the family.”

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