On the midnight prowl with one of S.F.’s hottest street artists

On the midnight prowl with one of S.F.’s hottest street artists

By Ryan Kost (SF Chronicle)
June 1, 2015

The street artist known as fnnch stands at the corner of Capp and 19th. It’s just started to rain, the sort of rain you can feel but you can’t see unless you catch it in a car’s headlights. He’s staring at a postbox just across the way, freshly painted, a blank canvas. “I really want to hit this box.”

But there are people near it, drunken and rowdy people, people who holler at the woman pacing in front of the corner store. “I got a dollar for you, baby. What’s up?”

Fnnch keeps watching them, and then, after a few minutes, he starts walking. “I don’t think they’re going to care,” he says. “There’s only one rule: Let me know if a cop is coming. Like, nothing else really matters.”

It doesn’t take him long to set his stencil up against the box, to start filling it in with bright yellow spray paint. When he pulls back, there’s an outline of a bear, the kind that’s sold in stores full of honey. He’ll pass by this same place two more times tonight, adding layer after layer of paint.

As he walks away, one of the guys nods. “Keep doing your thing, man.”

Fnnch, who avoids using his real name in connection with his art, has been laying down stencils across San Francisco for about two years now — multicolored ladybugs and butterflies in Alamo Square, bright monochromatic lips in Hayes Valley, a penguin in the Cole Valley Dog Park. Lately, though, he’s been focusing on his golden honey bears in the Mission District. He plays with them, adding top hats, bandannas, chef toques and chains, depending on the night, but they all start off the same, with that bright yellow base.

Gentler tone of images

As you look at fnnch’s work, you start to realize how tame it all is, almost quaint — and that’s sort of the point.

Street art is rooted in public protest, slogans scribbled across walls, bringing politics to the people. It’s a theme that carries on today. Banksy creates pieces that are unambiguously political, children dancing around mushroom clouds, doves wearing bulletproof vests. Shepard Fairey’s style directly co-opts the aesthetic of communist propaganda. Locally, Jeremy Novy, one of San Francisco’s best-known street artists and the man behind the sidewalk koi, is also known for confrontational queer street art.

For fnnch, though, painting on a sidewalk or a mailbox is a political statement.

“First and foremost, the point of the artwork is to deliver some surprise and joy in people’s lives. But after that, if I have a message, it’s that this art should exist and that these spaces should be opened up to artists,” he says. “Any sort of overt political message would be divisive. People could object to the art on the basis of disagreeing with the political content.”

It’s a difficult line to walk. Novy’s koi have been invited into stores and onto private property, but when they appeared at the new playground in Dolores Park a few years back, some called it vandalism.

“Some people might think it’s whimsical,” says Rachel Gordon, the spokeswoman for the city’s Department of Public Works. “It was really an affront to the community.” All told, the city spends about $20 million annually to buff and paint away this sort of thing.

That’s sort of the point, though. Fnnch is trying to push back against the argument that there’s not much difference between a sloppy tag, a feminist critique or a wide-eyed honey bear.

As he walks his route, fnnch nods toward a squid that’s been drawn on the side of a trash bin — Zamar, he says, one of San Francisco’s most prolific graffiti artists. Spend enough time outside at night all alone, and “you start to see things, some of which are really cool.” He likes the squids, he likes the sad clouds drawn by the Misfits Crew. He spots a stencil on the sidewalk, more political than his own.

“That’s Eclair Bandersnatch. I’ve never met her, but I hear she’s a character.” But then he comes across some big black loops, nearly impossible to read, spray-painted on the side of a building. “I don’t like that stuff at all,” he says. “I don’t think it has anything to do with what I do.”

Aside from the paint on his faded jeans, it’s hard to say whether fnnch looks much like a street artist. But when he walks down Mission Street, nobody really seems to notice the skinny 28-year-old with the stencils in his hand.

It’s a little after midnight now, and fnnch is flipping through stencils in the basement garage of his apartment building. Once he’s found them, he grabs a few cans of spray paint. He shakes them hard, as if he were mixing a martini. “The ball-rattling sound is the sound of a criminal,” he says. “It’s the sound of a crime.” Afterward, he sticks magnets on the bottom of the cans to stop the metal ball from banging around while he’s out on the street.

Becoming more efficient

“I’ve come up with just a lot of little tricks that kind of add up,” he says. That’s part of what pulls fnnch to this sort of art. He likes the challenge of innovation, of figuring out how to do this all as simply as possible. (It used to take him five passes to finish a bear. Now it’s only three.)

“I’m trying to push the art of street art in some way,” he says. “How quickly and reliably can I do them without getting caught? That’s a constraint of the medium.”

It’s not as if fnnch couldn’t find artistic success elsewhere. He works in design during the day, and he’s had his stencils displayed in two galleries along with some other street art. They sold well, well enough the anonymous street artist had to fill out a W-2.

“I think it’s extremely generous that artists are doing this art in the streets, mostly for free, and giving the public a museum experience in the open,” says Daniele Rocha, who included some of fnnch’s pieces in a fundraiser at her gallery Rocha Art.

And that’s just it, fnnch says. “I think people want to live in a city where we have interesting, funky arts and culture. They don’t want to live in a city covered with graffiti, but they would like to live in a city covered in street art.”