Street Art vs. Graffiti – A Conversation with Fnnch, Pt 1

In my continuing desire to find out how artists around the world are handling the street art revolution and if Trump’s election has affected their choices, Fnnch and I had a long chat about San Francisco.

Fnnch and his honey bear – fnnch.com

Gypsy Queen: Tell me about your name. You pronounce it “Finch,” like the bird? How did you come up with that?

Fnnch: Yes, like the bird. Finch was my nickname in middle school so that was part of the motivation. And my mother’s family makes bird-related artwork. My grandfather carved wooden birds, my aunt made bird related dioramas and things like that. It was a theme that was around since I was a kid. I like the nature aspect of it and it just seemed to be a good name.

GQ: Do you use birds in your artwork?

Fnnch: I do actually. My very first piece was a swan and the second piece was a penguin. And the third was a cardinal, I believe. The only one I painted outdoors was the penguin, which I painted about 2 years ago and it’s still up. At some point I’d like to paint the other birds outside. It’s a theme that I like and I’d like to paint more but it just hasn’t come up. There are a lot of things I’d like to paint more of but I don’t necessarily get that option.

Big Penguin – Art by Fnnch, fnnch.com

GQ: How did you get into graffiti? Though I don’t know if that’s what you call it.

Fnnch: I never use the “G-word,” as it relates to the work that I do. I consider what I do to be street art, which I define as “uncommissioned public artwork.”

For me a mural is commissioned public artwork. Graffiti is uncommissioned non-artwork and advertising and things of that nature are commissioned non-artworks. Now of course these lines are blurry because “what is art?” I define art as anything that an artist says is art and I define an artist as anyone who points at themselves and calls themselves an artist.

To me it’s a matter of intention. I’m trying to do something the general populace will like. That is my goal. The graffiti culture is an aesthetic based on word forms and what I do is quite different in style and intention.

GQ: I definitely think of graffiti as something that is word and font based. Though I went to a museum in New Orleans where I saw an exhibit on a graffiti crewe called Top Mob.

It was an interesting analysis of what makes graffiti an art form with a lot of technical information about brush strokes and edge work and that kind of thing, all of which are very artistic qualities. But as a category in my mind, if it’s a word without any sort of graphic elements around it, then it falls into the graffiti category.

Fnnch: So, there’s a subset of graffiti called character graffiti, which was utilized even back in the 80s when people would draw characters next to their letters. Some people have abandoned all the letters. And it’s actually my favorite kind of graffiti. There’s a guy here called Zamar who paints squid and there’s a whole crew called Greater than or Equal To. Sad Cloud paints a cloud and Minx paints a mouse with wings, Cyclops paints Cyclops and Paper Crane paints cranes and they all consider themselves to be part of the graffiti culture. They do some tagging with letters, Zamar in particular, though I’m not sure I’ve seen a Sad Cloud tag besides his character.

GQ: So yes, graffiti has a broader definition than it used to have. I agree with that.

Fnnch: But yes, it’s hard to define because it’s like defining what’s Jewish, which is a race, a culture and a religion. It’s the same with graffiti. It’s a style, a culture and it’s a lifestyle. Plus there’s a specific legal definition, which is a very important line. Graffiti with damages of over $400 is a felony in California. So the courts determine in part what is and is not graffiti. It’s complicated and I’m certainly not an expert but I am interfacing with that community in positive and negative ways.

Anyway I got into street art by moving to San Francisco in 2011 and I just didn’t see any new street art coming up. I’m not sure that at that particular moment there were more than 1-2 people active. And now it’s not much better. Maybe 2-3 people.

GQ: Really?! It seems like San Fran is a funky artistic city that would embrace that sort of work.

Fnnch: I think the city does embrace that sort of work. It’s just that there aren’t artists here anymore. There have been waves of people who have come through this city but of the artists in the first Mission School, none are active outdoors anymore. The times change and artists get displaced. There is a mural scene that is still going somewhat strong and if I had to guess I would say there are 20 artists out there actively painting, maybe 1 or more per year. But there are few people out there that are doing art that is illegal. I think the godfather of San Francisco street art is Jeremy Novy.

GQ: The sidewalk koi fish?

Art by Jeremy Novy – New Orleans, LA

Fnnch: Yes, the koi. But by the time I got here, Novy had moved out of town. And there’s a guy named Todd Hanson but he’s not as active these days. So, for me I was excited about Bansky and other artists on line and I didn’t see that much in San Francisco. So I decided to be the change I wanted to see in the world.

GQ: You saw a void and stepped into it.

Fnnch: Exactly. I started small in 2013 and I think I made 10 pieces. Then about 25 pieces in 2014 and by 2015 I think I made 100 or more. I got serious about it and I’ve been serious about it ever since.

GQ: How did you pick the honeybear as your subject?

Fnnch: it’s something that makes me happy. So I painted it. And lo and behold it made a lot of other people happy too. I think it’s a universal symbol of happiness. It’s got nostalgia, it’s got desire because it contained sugar, which is something we deeply wanted as kids, and it’s an all around positive image.

Run DMC Bear – Art by Fnnch, fnnch.com

I painted the first one on a whim, like I paint most things, but then I started to paint more conscientiously on the mailboxes of the Mission in 2015, which were super tagged and getting buffed out every two weeks. I did maybe 100 of them. There’s a lot of fear around graffiti, people think it’s gang related, but nothing in the Mission is gang related, as far as I can tell. But this perception is out there and it’s very wide spread so I wanted to do something so incredibly innocent that it couldn’t possibly be gang related. It’s not like the Sharks and the Jets are out there at night, snapping their fingers and painting honey bears. It doesn’t make any sense.

GQ: So you wanted something non-threatening. And non-political. A moment of brightness.

Fnnch: Yeah exactly. And to show people that we don’t need to give up our mailboxes to an aesthetic that we don’t like. The vast majority of the populace doesn’t like tagging. But we can do so much more than that. There’s a program to put murals on utility boxes in Sacramento and Hayward and San Jose.

But in San Francisco there have been attempts at that program that have failed. So we need to change people’s mind about this. To view these spaces as canvases. I thought the honey bear was a good ambassador for that vision.

Utility box in Sacramento, CA

GQ: Such a good word, “ambassador.” Are these programs something people can vote on, to change the law? Is that what it would require? Or is it a program a private company is trying to institute to turn these boxes into murals?

Fnnch: I’m not exactly sure. I do know that the Castro Community Benefit District made an attempt to get murals on their boxes and the MTA turned them down. The boxes are difficult because they fall under multiple jurisdictions. I’ve been trying to work with the BART to get art in there and I’ve successfully worked with Pacific Gas and Electric to get art on some of their buildings. I’m playing the politics game so I can get public support behind this idea.

Unfortunately, someone at the MTA decided fun isn’t allowed and they haven’t been converted to the idea of street art. But anything that the populace wants enough, they can get it done. We change the hearts and minds first, and then we’ve got the support.

GQ: Yeah, it’s a cultural thing. Definitely. Having been in many cities with a lot of street art, it seems like it’s usually privately funded at the beginning. An organization brings artists in and they base it around a festival or renovation of a neighborhood. Once there are some art pieces, then there can be more. But the initial fight to get the door open so artists can come paint, the murals will stay up and it’s not considered a blight on society, that door is really difficult to open it seems.

Fnnch: So I was up in Wynwood, Miami 1-2 years ago and not only did art galleries and restaurants have art on them, so did the banks and the storage facilities. It was a culture of participation where all the business owners thought it was really cool and wanted to be a part of it. That is not the case in San Francisco. I’ve walked in places and asked to paint on their walls and gotten responses as bad as people who won’t even talk to me. They just shake their head as I talk to them and I eventually leave.

GQ: I find that so short sighted. In my experience, street art draws foot traffic and visitors and centers the neighborhood around something beautiful. Putting a big mural on the side of a building increases the value of the neighborhood, not only to people who live there but to visitors who want to use it as a destination to see something amazing and picture-worthy.

Fnnch: This seems incredibly obvious to me.

Honey Bear Show – Art by Fnnch, fnnch.com

GQ: So just recently there was a graffiti artist named Hotboxmuni  who, when asked about you and your art, said “Graffiti isn’t supposed to be logical and apologetic. Police are killing people and folks are losing their homes. Honey bears are irrelevant [when] there’s a class war out here.” What do you think about that?

Fnnch: I think I am fighting the class war directly. The medium here is the message. By painting something on a mailbox, I am risking felony charges in an attempt to bring art to the masses instead of putting it in an art museum. That is directly addressing class issues.

Art is not for some select elite of hoity toity rich people. That is not what I believe. I believe that art is for everybody. And more than anyone else in San Francisco at this moment, I am attempting to bring art to everyone.

Because of that, I don’t want divisive messages to jeopardize that goal. There are only so many battles I can fight. If I’m trying to fight a very political battle to open up public and private space to art by lobbying institutions directly and by trying to change the general sentiment of the people, I can’t go and paint public penises. It’s going to jeopardize my goals.

Part of the reason I do street art is to fulfill an obligation. I want 50% or more of people to think that my art is additive. If I pick a message that at least 50% people won’t like, I’m already on my back foot. If one more person decides they don’t like it, I’ve already failed at my goal. So I don’t pick the truly divisive issues.

However, there is piece I did recently where I put a pink pussy hat on a honeybear.

Pussy Hat Honey Bear – Art by Fnnch

And I thought about that for a while because that’s a statement that’s getting into mainstream politics. But in San Francisco, this is not a divisive political statement. For instance, this is not the city to bash on Trump. His support here is at about 25%, if I were to guess. This isn’t the conflict zone where that kind of artistic statement will change opinions and there’s already a very masturbatory proclivity of artists to make political statements that everyone agrees with.

But the reason I like the pink pussy hat is because I’m not trying to change anyone’s mind. I’m standing in solidarity with San Francisco. I’m saying that if you’re out there and you’re part of Uber and you feel like you’re getting harassed, or if you’re a woman getting paid 85 cents to the dollar the man next to you is making, then I want to shine a light on you. I want to say “Hey, I hear you. I see the problem.” I’m drawing some attention so you don’t feel alone. In the same way that if you see a honey bear on a mailbox, you know that someone is out there risking their own safety and wellbeing to bring you something beautiful.

California Poppies – Art by Fnnch

Part 2 of this conversation will go up later this week.

All pieces of Fnnch’s artwork in this piece are used with his permission.

Find Fnnch online and follow him on Instagram.

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