The Art That Defined San Francisco in 2019

Which murals, exhibits, and controversies made the city in a tumultuous year?

A lot of people love to see San Francisco for its arts scene: the colorful murals seem to multiply spontaneously, the city’s theater is as historical as it is thriving, and the food is undeniably some of the best in the nation.

But the city’s art isn’t just decoration. Frequently, it’s a statement of reclamation for marginalized communities or an institutional symbol teeming with controversy. San Francisco’s art holds a symbiotic relationship with the city itself. It encapsulates how agonizing, wonderful, and resilient San Francisco can be while reshaping the culture itself. 

After a tumultuous year, here’s the art that defined San Francisco in 2019.

BiP Leaves Street Art

In a move that stunned the San Francisco art community, BiP, a popular anonymous graffiti artist, announced that he was shutting down BiP. “I stayed up all night thinking and I’ve decided I’m just walking away from BiP,” BiP posted on his Instagram. “I just want to be a normal guy in SF and work behind the scenes.”

What prompted such a drastic move? A few days prior, the San Francisco Chronicle published a profile of BiP and his latest mural, a controversial depiction of a frowning baby carrying a gun, a badge, and a bright pink toy camera. The mural was a direct critique of the SFPD and of police brutality. In the article, Chronicle reporter Ryan Kost published the floor number and address of BiP’s temporary studio. While the floor number was taken down within hours of the article’s online publication, BiP claimed “the damage was done,” implying that a “security incident” at his permanent studio the following night was linked to the article. The debacle continued after that, with both the Chronicle and BiP taking different positions on the entire matter. 

While the Chronicle is a powerful newspaper, BiP also has a strong following of his own. He’s invited other big names in the arts to visit his mural (The Last Black Man in San Francisco director Joe Talbot, Museum of the African Diaspora executive director Monetta White, Hamilton star Julius Thomas) and his murals can be found all over the world — France, Russia, Chile, Taiwan, etc…

BiP, a major influence in San Francisco’s street art scene, may be walking away from the spray paint, but he isn’t gone yet. A few weeks following his initial announcement, BiP came back online once again with another surprising post: Pictures of a painted version of the Chronicle’s emailed request to edit his original Instagram post, and a caption declaring BiP’s intent to return to the arts scene, this time as a “cultural tv program” producer in San Francisco. It’s unclear what this entails, but what’s obvious is that BiP intends to keep contributing to the city’s contentious art scene.

Reclaiming Space for Indigenous Artists

In 2018, indigenous activists brought down a racist statue from 1894 celebrating colonialism: A priest and vaquero standing triumphantly above a Native American on the ground. In 2019, Barbara Mumby Huerta, an indigenous artist and a director at the San Francisco Arts Commission, led an initiative that reclaimed space for the Bay Area’s indigenous community. The Continuous Thread, coinciding with the 50th anniversary of the Occupation of Alcatraz, consisted of an art exhibit, a fashion show, and more.

For some, this is the “first time indigenous people have seen themselves on the side of buses, in posters, in a gallery setting,” Mumby Huerta says. Portraits of indigenous leaders, artists, and community members were all over the city, courtesy of photographers Hulleah J. Tsinhnahjinnie, Britt Bradley, and Jean Melesaine. 

“It’s an example of how government can take being the perpetrator of oppression, and they can acknowledge that and work with the community to address it and then shift it in a way that’s positive,” Mumby Huerta says. “That to me is the intent. So it really is revolutionizing the way governments work with communities addressing systematic oppression in a creative way.”

SOMA Pilipinas Is Changing the South of Market

A Manilatown used to exist in San Francisco. It occupied five blocks of Kearny Street near Chinatown. But the Filipino enclave was wiped out when riot police evicted low-income Filipino tenants from the International Hotel. The building itself was demolished for a parking garage (which was never built).

About four decades later, the SOMA Pilipinas Cultural District is poised to change the South of Market as we know it. The ongoing initiative is trying to continue the legacy of Filipinos in SoMa through cultural events, a hopeful Filipino-owned business incubator, and aesthetic changes to the streets themselves.

“Even though we’ve been in the South of Market for over a hundred years, there’s not a lot of visibility,” Raquel R. Redondiez, director of SOMA Pilipinas, says. In 2019, efforts to increase that visibility include a SOMCAN mural of Filipino neighborhood heroes on the Bayanihan Community Center’s facade. Heroes — from an Olympic athlete to various community activists — were painted in bright purple, red, and blue. SOMA Pilipinas also re-launched the 1975 Liwanag Art Anthology, and plan on creating another issue for 2020. 

SOMA Pilipinas is also hoping to gain a foothold in San Francisco by helping Filipino-owned businesses thrive. Republika SF, which just hit its $40,000 fundraising goal this year, is going to play a big part in that. Republika plans to transform a SFMTA-owned parking garage on Mission Street into a promising Filipino-owned business incubator and retail space.

These anti-displacement efforts haven’t gone unrecognized. SOMA Pilipinas and Undiscovered SF, a nonprofit intending to boost economic activity for the cultural district through night markets and other ventures, recently won the Revitalization Award from the 2019 American Institute of Architects San Francisco chapter. 

There’s a lot more in the works for SOMA Pilipinas, and it’s clear that they’ll be redefining the neighborhood as we know it for the sake of San Francisco itself.

“To save the soul of the city, we really need to do more to protect the historical and thriving communities of the city,” Recondiez says. “We’ve lost half of our population in SoMa, but we’re still here. And we’re not going anywhere.”

The Mural Controversy of George Washington High

Earlier this summer, a controversy over a mural at George Washington High School came to a breaking point, collapsing into a citywide debate that grew with national attention.

The mural, a 13-panel fresco entitled Life of George Washington, depicts black slaves shucking corn and a dead Native American lying face down.

Initially, the San Francisco school board unanimously voted to paint it down. While black and indigenous leaders celebrated the decision, a group of censorship activists fought to overturn it, arguing that painting over the mural would be like “whitewashing” history, and that the mural was an educational opportunity to understand George Washington’s role as a slave-owner.

But counterarguments pointed out that the mural was left mostly uncontextualized, acting as more of a conduit for internalizing negative stereotypes about black and indigenous people rather than a learning opportunity. Students said the mural was “hurtful and harmful.”

The school board undid its vote, and the future of the mural remains uncertain.

The Last Black Man in San Francisco

The Last Black Man in San Francisco took San Francisco’s housing crisis and hostility towards its diminishing black population and projected it on the big screen. The movie was created by two childhood best friends: Joe Talbot directed and based the film on a true story by Jimmie Fails (who also acts in the movie as himself).

“You don’t get to hate it unless you love it,” Fails says about San Francisco. So much of that ethos comes across in the visual language of the film, which floats between dreamy montages of Fails skating through the hills of the city and the dramatically-lit conflicts that sear through the film.

But while the movie received generally positive criticism, its reception was also revealing of the lack of diversity in national arts journalism. Justin Phillips, a food writer for the Chronicle, encapsulated the phenomenon in his column

“Few feelings in my life have ever been as discomforting as being the only black man in a movie theater filled with white people watching ‘The Last Black Man in San Francisco,’ and then hating the film,” Phillips wrote, arguing for more diverse perspectives in the field. “Especially when the white people around me clearly had the opposite opinion.”

Greta Thunberg Sees You

And she knows you’re not composting.

The teenage climate activist was recently awarded Time magazine’s 2019 Person of the Year. But in San Francisco, Thunberg has already been getting the star treatment. Street artist Nino Cobre (real name: Andrés Petreselli), in collaboration with environmental nonprofit One Atmosphere, painted a portrait of Thunberg right next to Union Square. At 60 feet tall, the mural looms over passersby, reminding them of our impending climate change doom — if we don’t act in time (which is right now).

The mural wasn’t without its critics. Some pointed out that many of the same San Franciscans excited by the mural have inhibited housing development that would help mitigate the climate crisis Thunberg is spreading awareness of. Others raised concerns about the potential environmental impacts of the spray paint, which One Atmosphere quickly dismissed, saying that most of the paints were hand-rolled exterior acrylics, and the spray paint that was used had minimal carbon footprint. 

But at the very least, it seemed like the city government liked it. The Board of Supervisors issued a proclamation on Dec. 10, signed by Supervisor Aaron Peskin, commending the mural.

“San Francisco has long been at the forefront of the environmental movement, so we were not surprised when the mural of Greta was welcomed here,” Paul Scott, the executive director of One Atmosphere, wrote in an emailed statement. “We were struck and grateful, though, by the amount of attention the mural received in press across the United States and throughout the world.”

Amilcar’s Mural

On Feb. 26, 2015, 21 year-old Guatemalan immigrant Amilcar Perez Lopez was killed by plainclothes officers of the San Francisco Police Department. Perez Lopez was shot six times, but the officers involved — Craig Tiffe and Eric Reboli — were not charged for the murder.

The tragedy and subsequent controversy surrounding conflicting evidence and eyewitness reports sparked fervent protests in the Mission, both for Perez Lopez and against America’s long history of police brutality against black and Latinx people. 

Perez Lopez’s memory has survived in the form of Alto al Fuego en La Misón, the largest mural to be painted in the Latino Cultural Corridor in over a decade. It blooms with roses, calla lilies, and magnolias, and is vivid with purples, pinks, and blues.

“This mural not only remembers the tragedy and trauma of these police killings, but also the hope and resilience of the community that refuses to forget them,” Father Richard Smith, a Mission based vicar who held a vigil for Perez Lopez, said in a press statement. “It represents the ongoing struggle to purge SFPD of its decades-long racism, brutality, and corruption.”

Alto al Fuego en La Misón is on the corner of 24th and Capp Streets, and will be staying up indefinitely. 

We Are La Cocina

La Cocina has had a big year.

The kitchen incubator focuses on food businesses run by low-income immigrant women of color, trying to promote equity in a challenging marketplace that doesn’t favor working-class communities. But La Cocina has been changing San Francisco’s food scene for over a decade. 

This past year, they’ve brought businesses like Alicia’s Tamales to the new Chase Center, introduced Mama Lamees’ Palestenian dishes to the Emeryville Public Market, and published their first cookbook with Chronicle Books.

The cookbook, We Are La Cocina, is composed of over 75 recipes from over 40 La Cocina alumni. There are bold colors and photographs by Eric Wolfinger, along with profiles of the chefs featured.

“The women who are represented in the book are the heart and soul and innovation of our region,” Caleb Zigas, the executive director of La Cocina, says. 

Prefacing every recipe is a small note by its chef — little anecdotes about the food they’re sharing, connections with their hometowns, stories about landscapes they miss: 

“I started cooking for my entire family at the age of eight. Mafè was one of my favorites. I loved how the vegetables came from our backyard.” —Nafy Flatley

“Where we are from there was an ojo de agua, with big trees all around it. The smell of fresh corn.” —Dilsa Lugo

“I said I would never make it when I was older. Now I make a shitload of macaroni and cheese.” —Fernay McPherson

Collectively, We Are La Cocina is a testament to how equity in food businesses can transform a community.

“The book really takes a look at the impact of those entrepreneurs in our community,” Zigas says. “You can see the changing space in our regions — the challenges they’ve had to face and the legacies they’ll leave.”

Grace Li covers arts and culture for the SF Weekly. You can reach her at gli@sfweekly.com.

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