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.

King Cake, Pralines and the last of Louisiana

It all started here

New Orleans, LA

With its inexplicable rules

New Orleans, LA

and improvised confessionals

New Orleans, LA

A shout out to the bar we visited several times during Mardi Gras because they have a “taco truck” serving late night food in the back

New Orleans, LA

It’s a uniquely NOLA experience to wade through the massive dancing throng in a reggae bar and order yourself a quesadilla and a beer to go.

Another uniquely NOLA experience? Pralines

New Orleans, LA

Don’t get them packaged in plastic. Order them sweet, crunchy, warm and fresh from a counter. So delicious it makes your teeth hurt!

I chased down this King Cake, because Mardi Gras requires King Cake

New Orleans, LA

Even though this one had no baby. Gypped!

A salute to road beer silos

New Orleans, LA

And the boys who joined me

Ryan

New Orleans, LA

Corey

New Orleans, LA

Matt

New Orleans, LA

And to an amazing trip.

Au revoir, N’awlins! We’ll be back, don’t you worry. And until then

New Orleans, LA

Peace out.

New Orleans, LA

Sazerac Bar

Before I took this trip, my sister asked me if New Orleans had a signature drink and I told her it was the Hurricane. This might have been true several years ago but Hurricanes seem to have fallen out of favor since Katrina, for obvious reasons.

I didn’t know anything about the Sazerac.

The Sazerac is one of the oldest known American cocktails and it’s basically a whiskey cocktail (originally made with Sazerac brand whiskey) with a secret ingredient. Absinthe.

Absinthe has a magical haze around it, what with references like this one from Bram Stoker’s Dracula

Bram Stoker's Dracula

Plus the reports of it driving people mad and the almost world-wide ban on account of it being potentially poisonous, a ban that stood for almost 100 years before it was again made legal in the US a couple of years ago.

That’s a lot of drama over a liquor. Or rather, a spirit. Anything with that kind of history is going to acquire mythical status whether or not it rightly deserves it.

The Sazerac has absinthe in it, along with whiskey and bitters, and since it’s the official drink of New Orleans, I had to try it. I wanted to drink the best one in town and where better place than the Sazerac bar in the Roosevelt Hotel?

Roosevelt Hotel, New Orleans

The Sazerac bar is a gorgeous old-school gentlemen’s club type of place with lots of leather and wood, deep armchairs and a feeling of entitlement. Not cheap and not my normal thing but sort of delicious.

However, compared to the surroundings, I found the Sazerac underwhelming

Sazerac Bar

And I like whiskey.

I might have liked the Sazerac better on the rocks, or colder, or perhaps with a touch more absinthe. It tasted mostly like whiskey, which meant I could have just ordered whiskey and gotten something I liked better. Or perhaps a different whiskey cocktail like this Old Fashioned that Ryan ordered…

Sazerac Bar

But that said, I would go back and do it all over again because I love the story-telling symmetry of finishing my trip to New Orleans by drinking the official city cocktail in a beautiful old namesake bar.

Even if you don’t like whiskey (or alcohol), make a stop at the Sazerac bar. Rest your feet, order something cold and revel in the dim cool quiet of all that New Orleans history. It’s a great place to while away the hot afternoon and by the time you leave, you’ll be ready for dinner.

Tomorrow, a few last bits and pieces of my far-too-short trip to NOLA.

Adolfo’s in the Marigny

This place was my idea and we nearly didn’t eat here because the wait was a supposed hour and forty five minutes long.

An hour and 45 minutes to eat a place where the doorway looks like this

New Orleans, LA

Now I know that sketchy doorways like this hide amazing restaurants all over the world and the overwhelmingly delicious smell of garlic and tomatoes made me pretty sure even the table cloth would be worth eating, but the real reasons we waited were two fold:

1. We couldn’t find another restaurant on Frenchmen’s Street that caught our fancy

2. Adolfo’s is built over a blues bar called the Apple Barrel and nothing mitigates a long wait for a table like cold beer and live music.

New Orleans, LA

So, we put our names on the list, ordered a round of beers and hung out listening to a great blues guitarist. Just as I was about to order a second round, a guy with a clipboard came down the crowded staircase, he hollered a list of names and no one answered but us so we got the table. The whole process took about 30 minutes.

Many of the reviews online gripe about this long waiting list and the rather lackadaisical manner in which the tables are filled so I’ll only offer these pieces of advice: stand near the staircase so you can hear your name, keep checking back with the host/servers to make sure they haven’t crossed you off the list accidentally and keep an eye on the time. After a certain point their kitchen will close and they won’t seat you even if you are on the list.

The food was definitely worth the 30 minute wait. We ordered a variety of things including the oysters pernod

New Orleans, LA

Spinach and oysters in a pernod cream with crusty bread? Sublime. I could have just had this for dinner.

But of course I didn’t.

Adolfo’s ocean sauce gets a lot of love online so I ordered it over the freshest fish they had available, which happened to be amberjack. The sauce is half crab and half shrimp and crawfish.

Adolfo's

It was incredible but it bore a striking resemblance to the oysters in ingredients and consistency. For reasons of variety, I probably would have preferred Matt’s smoked pork chop instead.

New Orleans, LA

I wish I’d thought to put a dollar bill or a Volkswagon or something next to that pork chop to give you an idea of the scale. That was one gigantic hunk of meat. Richly flavored and delicious.

Vegetarian options were slim so Ryan had pasta and said it was good but I think that you shouldn’t order pasta if you go to Adolfo’s. You can get good pasta a lot of places and you won’t wait 2 hours to get it.

Adolfo’s is fun. We happily waited for 30 minutes and thought it was worth it. I loved the Apple Barrel and the music and I think every tiny 10 table restaurant should be built over a blues bar to give the waiting patrons an amusing way to pass the time. Would I have been as happy had I actually waited an hour and 45 minutes? Hard to say.

As with most of my NOLA restaurant recommendations, you’ll have a great eating experience if you aren’t in a hurry and you settle in. As another reviewer put it “This isn’t America, it’s New Orleans.” The normal rules don’t apply here.

Three Muses in the Marigny

We all got into New Orleans in the late afternoon and found our way to the house we’d rented only to discover that a house in the Arabi is about as far from the French Quarter/heart of NOLA as you can get and still be within the boundaries of the city. By the time we’d settled in, walked around the neighborhood looking for a grocery store (nope) or convenience store (nope) and caught a taxi into the Marigny, it was 10pm. At 10pm after traveling all day, you don’t choose a dinner place so much as walk into the first place that’s open and still serving food.

Ergo and voila

New Orleans, LA

I’d call this visit a happy accident rather than a focused attempt at finding a quality dinner location.

That said, I’d go back and choose this place for dinner because it’s a tiny place with live music and outstanding food. What more do you want for your first night in New Orleans?

This picture is at least 75% less impressive than the food tasted

New Orleans, LA

That’s beet and spinach bruschetta, mac and cheese, and the remains of what I think was sweet potato gnocchi.

The mac and cheese was so good, we ordered it twice

New Orleans, LA

We also tried the lamb sliders (good) and the feta fries, which were also great so we ordered those twice too.

Traveling makes us hungry.

We finished with ice cream made in house

New Orleans, LA

Don’t ask me the flavors… something sweet and creamy, I’m guessing…

Long travel day, a rental house far away from everything, great food and music found by accident and terrible pictures taken as an afterthought.

Hey, welcome to vacation!

Slim Goodies Diner for Breakfast

New Orleans, LA

Who is Slim Goodie? Why does that egg have wings? Would we have loved this breakfast half as much if we hadn’t been starving AND traveled over an hour and a half from one end of New Orleans to the other AND utilized both the bus and the streetcar to get here?

So many questions.

I do know this, I’ve taken a lot of breakfast pictures that make me happy but this one’s my new favorite.

New Orleans, LA

A table crossword puzzle done in ink and showing many differences of opinion, one single pancake to share as a breakfast appetizer, my coffee cup on its 5th fill, a g i a n t plate of delicious food and (unseen) a locked front door because we were the last customers served that day.

That’s shrimp etouffee on top of eggs on top of spinach on top of potato pancakes with the ohsoclever name “Jewish Coonass.” Yep. Howzabout it?

And this pancake?

New Orleans, LA

Sweet potato. And just about the best pancake I’ve ever put in my mouth. Most of the Slim Goodie reviews online mention this pancake, so here’s another one:  It’s light, fluffy and just sweet and nutty enough.  It’s bonkers delicious. Order it.

I don’t know why the Slim Goodie egg has wings but I recommend you follow it. And then eat it.

New Orleans, LA

PS: There were men in lucha libre masks staring down at me from the bathroom wall. I found that… curious.

Bennachin for Vegetarians

New Orleans, LA

It should be pretty clear by this point that New Orleans isn’t a vegetarian friendly city. Creole/Cajun food in general isn’t vegetarian. Pescatarian… yes, but not vegetarian. I would recommend Bennachin primarily to those vegetarians who want to eat something besides salad and another version of mac-n-cheese when they visit NOLA.

Creole food has a lot of African influences so Bennachin fits into the New Orleans food scene quite nicely with a lot of shared ingredients like beans, rice, coconut and sweet potatoes. It’s a busy place, which led to the purchase ‘”walking around beers” while we waited for a table.

New Orleans, LA

And a beverage buffet complete with BYOB wine in styrofoam cups at dinner, cuz we just classy like that.

Bennachin

These plantains reminded me of South American cooking, which makes (some) locational sense given that this is West African cuisine.

Bennachin

I didn’t love my lamb dish because the meat was SO tough

New Orleans, LA

But Corey’s beef was excellent.

New Orleans, LA

And for some reason I didn’t get pictures of whatever Ryan ordered but he loved it (whatever it was) and I do know that it was the first place in a week where he could fold the menu and say “I’m a vegetarian. Just have the chef make me something.” It was worth the whole dinner just for that.

Bennachin food is good and cheap and there’s lots of it. It’s a tiny place and busy; so, like every restaurant in New Orleans, it’s better not to be in a hurry. Bring a bottle of wine and settle in. There are a lot of yummy sounding entrees on the menu.

And just for fun, here’s a picture of the Louis Armstrong arch.

New Orleans, LA

Pretty, right? It’s walking distance from the restaurant so go visit after you eat.

I’ll have a few more NOLA food picks for you next week. Have a good weekend!