In the world of street art, painting over somebody else’s work — especially one connected to the local community — is sacrilegious.
This past June, Precita Eyes, a veteran muralist group in the Mission district, stumbled upon one of their murals being whitewashed.
That day, Laura Waxmann, a reporter for Mission Local, says she received a text from one of her friends at Precita Eyes.
“You have to come to 24th street, someone is whitewashing our mural, an artist who is not from our community,” Waxmann remembers seeing on her phone.
“I just ran over there, as fast as I could, and when I got there I did see a group kind of gathering on the sidewalk in front of this building on 24th and Folsom,” she says.
The mural that was being covered up had been there since 2015, and had read, “our culture is not for sale.”
“That's very blatant about what is happening in the community if you know anything that is happening in the Mission or in the city as a whole. There is gentrification, families are being displaced, low income residents are being displaced really aggressively” explains Waxmann.
And what did the property owner want to put up on the wall instead?
“He wanted to replace it with something colorful, so he put mandalas; geometric shapes and flowers. He wanted this artist to paint bright colors and another message. He wanted it to say, ‘BE A GOOD PERSON.’” says Waxmann.
The whitewashing ended up being a one-two punch. Community members later learned the new “Be A Good Person” message was actually a clothing brand from Denver, Colorado.
When I spoke to Max Martilla, who is a muralist himself and lead coordinator for Precita Eyes’ Urban Youth Arts Program, he explained what the kids he works with are thinking about the most these days.
“When we talk about doing murals, and about what they wanna see in the mural, a lot of the times they bring up gentrification, you know.” said Martilla.
Martilla had been there when the original “our culture is not for sale” mural had gone up two years ago, and says there was no good reason to whitewash it.
“You know, people buy a building, and they want to have ownership over it and have control over what's going on there. To a certain extent I understand why they did that,” he said. “It's just unfortunate they weren't really informed about the importance of the murals in general, or Precita Eyes as a 40-year old mural organization.”
It’s all about respect
As the situation developed, it became clear that the property owner hadn’t consulted with the community. Was there a right way, a respectful way, to own and alter property on 24th street?
I decided to ask Erick Arguello, the co-founder and president of Calle 24, a group that is trying to preserve the Latino community within the Mission District.
“Oh, absolutely. And that's something that we’re trying to tell folks,” Arguello said. “The wrong way is to come in and say you love our community, you love what's here, then when you’re here you establish something and want to change it.”
For Arguello, murals are really the lifeblood of the neighborhood. In fact, according to a 2016 report by the San Francisco Planning Department, there are 508 murals in the district, which makes it the largest outdoor public gallery in the country.
So when the property owner covered up the Precita Eyes artwork, it wasn’t only a mural that had disappeared. It was Erick’s community disappearing, too.
Mural by mural, block by block
Arguello and I are on 24th and Capp, standing in front of a building halfway under construction. In this case, there was a negotiation between Arguello and the property owner regarding the look and feel of the restaurant, which he feels was done respectfully. He also encouraged the owner to create a large mural on the entrance.
“We told them, this is interesting to our Latino cultural district. It is important what is here. So we said a mural would be great because it represents our area” says Arguello.
We’re now at 24th and Folsom, and end up walking to the corner where Precita Eyes’ mural was covered up. I’m introduced to Jose Ruffrage, one of the restaurant’s owners. We end up entering the restaurant. It hasn’t opened up yet, but it’s going to be called Alma.
Making friends with the community
Ruffrage, and the other owners of the restaurant, were not part of the decision to cover up the Precita Eyes mural. “That was something we had nothing to do with it,” says Ruffrage, who distanced himself and his partner from the property owner, Ali Rismanchi, when asked about the incident.
“We understand that they took part of the community when they just came in, they don’t know nothing about the community, the wall, the people here, they just come and take over, that's not cool.”
“I believe in this community, being here doing business, friends and everything, neighbors, we’re gonna be successful. We are gonna do good and make a difference in the community” said Ruffrage, who is hopeful that his restaurant’s reputation won’t be damaged by Rismanchi’s missteps.
There is some hope in this situation. Ali Rismanchi, the property owner, ended up sitting down to negotiate with Precita Eyes. They decided that the artists who had created the original mural back in 2015 would paint another mural over the one that had been whitewashed. This agreement didn’t come easily though. Rismanchi says there were some artistic differences at first.
“The only issue we had was that they wanted to put the exact same mural up,” he explains. “[I] wanted a different type of mural, maybe different graphics, with colors.”
Precita Eyes had compiled a book, showcasing all of their murals in the Mission District. “After going through that book I realized the mural we were putting up, the ‘be a good person’...didn’t even blend in” said Rismanchi.
He decided the arts organization should be in charge of the new mural’s design. And he realized it went further than not just blending in.
“I think the majority of the murals in the neighborhood, they’re stories, you know. Ours didn’t have a story.”
Rismanchi has big hopes for the new mural going up. According to Precita Eyes, some of the youth that created the 2015 mural will be working on it. They plan on using a design inspired from Loteria, a Spanish bingo card game, except each card will be based on Mission district culture.
“I’m a fan of stories. I’m hoping we get a story up there on our wall, too,” Rismanchi says.
EDITOR'S NOTE: A previous version of this article contained errors that have been corrected