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 –

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,

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,

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,

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.

Tigers, Trump and the Internet – A Conversation with Dustin Spagnola

Art by Dustin Spagnola and Ishmael – Detroit, MI

I first saw Dustin Spagnola’s work in the Grand River Creative Corridor of Detroit. Ever since Trump was elected in November, I’ve been increasingly interested in the reactions of the artistic community to our newly charged political and social atmosphere. I reached out to Dustin Spagnola to get his thoughts on the current climate and he took some time out to talk to me.

The conversation below has been edited for length.

Dustin Spagnola –


Gypsy Queen: It seems that the piece that you’re best known for is the mural of Bush holding the mask of Obama. And then I saw different one you made of Hitler holding a mask of Trump. A reviewer said these two pieces look like “old boss same as the new boss.” Is that fair?

Dustin Spagnola: Yep.

GQ: And in that case, what’s the point if all we’re doing is repeating ourselves?

Spagnola: That’s a really good question. I mean, I don’t know. I can tell you about those images, which might be an easier way to understand what I think about that kind of stuff.

GQ: Yes, please.

Spagnola: So those images are based off a piece of poster art created in 1968 in Paris, France during the student uprising at the Sorbonne. The students took over their art department and printing room and they made a bunch of political art and someone made a print that was an image of Hitler holding a mask of de Gaulle, the French president.

When Obama got elected, I decided to make an image of Bush holding an Obama mask, which was really signifying “same shit, different day” but also, I felt it was a much softer critique of the system than comparing the president to Hitler, whom we universally view not as a person but as a monster.

I was really surprised at the kick-back that got because a lot of people were really upset about it. And I voted for Obama twice. Obama was a president who did a lot of good things and a lot of bad things and he was a leftist and a talking head, a visionary. And there’s also a cult of personality attached to him. So a lot of people got really upset about me comparing Obama to Bush, which I found very interesting personally. I feel that as a free thinker and someone who tries to have an open mind about things, comparing one president to the next is not exactly a big jump, to say the least. It’s kind of a logical linear progression.

Art by Dustin Spagnola –

So when Trump got elected, a bunch of people around me were obviously very upset and I thought “Well, it’s a great time to make some political art”, which is one of the things that I really love to do. So I decided to just recreate the poster that I based the Bush Obama image on. I replaced de Gaulle’s face with Trump’s face and I literally used the exact original image of Hitler to pay homage to that original image.

Art by Atelier Populaire (left) and Dustin Spagnola (right)

And maybe to answer your bigger question about what the artists think, I have to say that most artists are leftists, and a lot of them are leftists who actually fall very far on the left end of the spectrum, like me and a lot of people that I know who are really more like radicals or anarchists. And we look at the two party system and it looks like business as usual and we think “Well this shit doesn’t work for anyone, except for the people in charge.” I think most of the population doesn’t really have as extreme or radical of views as we do but I think that’s the root of our problem. I think there’s a hierarchy in place that is very very unfair, to say the least.

GQ: So when you paint something that’s very pointedly political, especially when you’re recreating something or paying homage to it, are you looking for a particular reaction? Or just a reaction? In your ideal world, what do people do when they see your artwork?

Spagnola: I can’t really speak for anyone else but for me it’s about contributing to a dialogue and making images that resonate with people. We live in the United States and I’m allowed to think whatever way I want to and I’m allowed to say whatever I want and I’m allowed to paint pictures of whatever I want. For me the conversation that I’m interested in having is just throwing that shit out there and letting other people talk about it.

Sometimes I make things that aren’t political and I hope that those things affect people also. I hope they make people feel a certain way, that it makes someone’s day better or gives them an opportunity to stop for a moment and take a picture. Or maybe it inspires someone to paint something of their own.

I would hope that on some level the images spur conversation and dialogue between people that I don’t know. That I’ll never even meet.

Art by Dustin Spagnola –

GQ: You paint street art, which I use as a very broad umbrella term for painted public art outside, but then you also show in galleries and museums and you have fine art canvases for sale. Do you prefer one mode of expression to another?

Spagnola: It’s a good thing to have art, whether it’s on a canvas or on a wall. And for me, I enjoy traveling and I like painting pictures and murals, I like seeing murals, I enjoy street art and graffiti. But I also really enjoy canvases and galleries and museums. I like showing in them and I feel like they’re kinda two sides of the same coin. Galleries and museums are certainly not the be-all-end-all of the art world. I think in a lot of ways street art and the internet surpass them.

Art by Dustin Spagnola –

Street art fits in a different context and reaches more people and people engage with it differently. I feel very privileged to have the opportunity to lead a life style where I can choose to get in my vehicle and go to another state and paint a wall and meet people there who paint or organize events around painting. I’ve personally really been welcomed into a lot of communities that I don’t think I would have met otherwise and I’ve made great friends. And there’s something really awesome about that.

GQ: I feel that the internet has had a lot to do with the rise of what I call the street art revolution, which is the current outpouring of public painted art everywhere all over the world, because the internet has extended the reach of the average person. For instance, I can see things in Moscow without ever going there.

Spagnola: Right. The internet makes everything more accessible to the common viewer. But remember that graffiti and murals and street art all existed prior to the internet. And people have been fans of it for a long time, even pre-internet. But with the rise of the internet and cell phones that are computers with cameras in your pocket, now people can engage in and regurgitate “the spectacle”, as Guy Debord would say.

We see it and we want to understand it, and we want to be a part of it and interact with it but then really we just take a picture of it and put it on Instagram.

It makes us feel like we’re doing something because we get positive feed back from our peers. And that’s cool. But it’s like I was saying before, I hope that one of the other things that happens is that people talk. That they consider the images and then decide to make their own.

Art by Dustin Spagnola and Ishmael –

GQ: When you’ve been invited to paint, have you ever had people put parameters on your subject matter?

Spagnola: All the time. People love to say “no sex, no violence, no politics.” All the time.

GQ: Do you abide by that?

Spagnola: Yeah, usually. That’s why a lot of my public work isn’t political. I painted a lot of tigers because I was trying to find a subject that was interesting to me. And tigers are beautiful and interesting but I probably would have been painting pictures of cops shooting black people or something. Because that’s the reality.

Art by Dustin Spagnola –

GQ: When did you get started painting publicly?

Spagnola: Maybe around 2009 or 2011? I went down to Miami to do a gallery show, and I saw a lot of murals and that got me excited about painting murals. Just seeing the scale that people were working on. You can paint things that are 30’ high and 60’ wide and immerse the viewer and it really changes the experience of the viewer. Because if it were a 2’ x 4’ painting, it might be a really nice painting but it’s just not going to do the same thing.

GQ: Like the difference between seeing a painting in a museum and seeing a replica in a book. Even if the replica is perfect, the scale makes all the difference.

Spagnola: yeah, scale is really important.

GQ: You use your real name, Dustin Spagnola, to tag your street art murals. Have you ever felt you needed anonymity or wanted to choose a name that wasn’t your name?

Spagnola: No. I thought about it but it just seemed kind of fake to me. I’m not a graffiti kid and that’s what graffiti kids do. I’m not out breaking the law. I don’t like cops so I give them no reasons to talk to me. In general, I paint in spots where I have permission. And I know it’s not romantic or cool in the eyes of a lot of people who enjoy graffiti but that’s pretty ok. I’m just a normal person who is realistic about shit.

Art by Dustin Spagnola –

GQ: You live in Asheville NC. Is there a good-sized artistic community there?

Spagnola: Oh yes. Most people here are artists, of different stripes, and this town is rapidly gentrifying. There are a lot of people moving here who aren’t artists and property values changing drastically. But this community has largely been shaped by the people who are artists. It’s a good place to paint. You can get a wall here pretty easily if you want.

GQ: What’s next for you?

Spagnola: I’m in the middle of learning to make films right now. I’m actually working on a short film at the moment and I’m going out to do some filming next week. Not that I’m giving anything else up but I’m learning a new medium. Because I want to.

Thanks so much for talking to me, Dustin. It was a pleasure and you gave me some interesting things to think about.

If you would like to know more about Dustin Spagnola and his work, you can find him on his website and follow him on Instagram.

Follow Your Heart – Dustin Spagnola,

Unless otherwise noted, all the pictures used in this piece were borrowed from Dustin Spagnola’s website with his permission.