Banksy, Political Art and Trump – a Conversation with Fnnch, Pt. 2

This is the second part of a great conversation I had with Fnnch, a street artist out of San Francisco. Read Part 1 here.

Art by Fnnch – @fnnch

GQ: I know your work has been defaced and also removed, given its outdoor nature and where it’s placed. Does it bother you that it’s something temporary?

Fnnch: Well, I think of it like this: if a dog lives 10 years, we think it had a good life. For a human it’s, what, 75 years? For a honey bear, if it lives two weeks on a mailbox, that’s a good life. If it goes away in a day, I’m a bit disappointed.

Now if I get a legal wall and I paint on it and a 12 year old kid decides to tag it, that’s a first amendment issue. That work is completely legal, I’m expressing free speech and someone else is committing a very serious crime against my work. They’re also violating property rights as well as VARA, which protects the rights of artists and keeps their work from being defaced. So, in that case my work shouldn’t be fucked with.

Also most people get into graffiti at the ages of 10-12 and most people get out at 18 when the charge is a felony and it goes on their permanent record. Probably the people tagging my work are around 16-years-old and they don’t like what’s different. In their eyes, I’m the enemy, something to push against. It’s misdirected and immature but every muralist deals with it. I don’t take it personally and I don’t think it represents a wide spread sentiment. The work of every street artist, even the most legit, gets tagged. And the bigger I get, the more my work will be tagged. Shepard Fairey, for instance, all of his pieces in town were messed up.

GQ: Shepard Fairey’s stuff just disappears! I’ve gone looking for pieces that aren’t even a year old and they’re already gone. Peeled off? Painted over? I don’t even know what.

Fnnch: I think part of that, here at least, is because he’s not from San Francisco. So he’s coming here and doing street art in someone else’s territory. Now I think it’s cool because there aren’t many other people out there doing work like his. And he got spots I didn’t even think about getting. I was like “Holy shit! You can see that from the highway! Why didn’t I get that spot?” But in the graffiti culture, you don’t come to someone else’s town and not play by their rules. Fortunately, I don’t have to play by the graffiti rules because I’m not part of their culture.

GQ: You’re in kind of an in between space.

Fnnch: Yes. Street art is it’s own thing wholly independent of graffiti and murals. I think it overlaps more with murals than it does with the graffiti scene.

Art by Fnnch – @fnnch

GQ: I have a few questions about the artistic effects of the election, which is going to be a bit different for you since there’s not a big community of street artists in your area, but have you noticed any changes in your artistic community? In the type of art of that’s being created or even in the ways that people are treating their artistic careers?

Fnnch: So, the first thing is that if you walk through Clarion Alley, it was already pretty political but now it’s almost every mural. And even I decided to use the pussy hat so I put my toe into the political waters. Also, the naked Trump statue went up here during the election and that was cool. But again, from my perspective this is preaching to the choir. If I wanted to make a political difference, I’d go to Florida and put up art since they’re actually voting for the president, unlike us.

GQ: Except that with social media, art isn’t isolated to area where it’s put up. For instance, you have a zillion followers on Instagram so if you post something, it’s worldwide dissemination instantly.

Art by Aniekan Udofia and Liz Brown – Washington DC

Fnnch: Yes, that’s true. And I’ve gotten flack from friends who tell me that I have a platform and I should use it more. But I’m trying to direct it towards certain goals. I think there’s a rich tradition of artists being active in politics and certainly murals fall under that category.

GQ: Along with that, there’s an idea swirling and bubbling right now, that art can make a difference. During the Civil Rights movement and the Vietnam War, artists were very prominently involved in the change that happened. There were musicians writing protest songs and people whose artwork we can now see made a huge impact. Is the same thing true now? Do we have that same power now?

Art by Shepard Fairey – Cincinnati, OH

Fnnch: Ok, so one of the things I think about, and let me choose my words very carefully, is that Trump is not the Vietnam War. I don’t put those two things on even remotely equal footing. And Trump is not lynching black people in the South. We live an incredibly privileged life that we can focus on this clown.

I think part of the reason for Millennial apathy is that our current problems aren’t on the scale of the problems of the 1960s when people were being drafted and sent into battle to be mowed down. I think if we had something on the scale of the Vietnam War, we’d have a lot more people out in the streets. This is not an endorsement of Trump, this is me trying to rank evil.

But I do think that my peers from school and in San Francisco have become a lot more politically active. And we’re excited about it. It’s like we finally get a chance to sink our teeth into something. We’ve been in a long peacetime and we don’t have the issues they had in 1942. Or in the 1960’s.

One of my favorite art pieces was when John Lennon bought all the billboards in Los Angeles, San Francisco and New York and covered them with text that said “War is Over! If you want it.” He paid for these out of pocket, as a person with a platform deciding to be active. Shepard Fairey is very politically active, and certainly Banksy probably does the best of anyone. I mean, look at the Walled Off Hotel in Israel and Palestine.

Banksy takes a very global view and what’s going on in America doesn’t even register on his radar as being one of the worst crises of our time.

GQ: No, obviously not. But you could argue that the populist revolution is worldwide and Trump’s election is definitely a part of that.

Fnnch: Yes, I’m disturbed by the amount of nationalism that’s starting to rear it’s ugly head. But ultimately, who are John Lennon and Bob Dylan except people with platforms? Anyone with a platform can make a difference. And art certainly has a more visceral appeal to it than just words.

Art by Banksy – New Orleans, LA

GQ: I find that as I interview street artists, one of the things that everybody says is that they want to create pieces of art that cause a reaction and a discussion. Something that changes the viewer. Banksy’s art is directly political with a definite point of view but he has a really light touch.

Fnnch: Yes, he’s also very funny. Which helps. Stand up comedians can talk about anything. They’re the only people in society who can talk about issues of race and gender in a completely open way. It’s the same for Banksy with politics.

GQ: I think that’s true. Who else would paint the walls of a hotel on the border of Israel and Palestine? That kind of work is not for the faint of heart.

Fnnch: I think his goal is to get 100,000 people to go into Palestine to see his hotel.

GQ: Which would change everything about the economics and visibility of the region. Perhaps even the politics.

Fnnch: Right? I mean how many street vendors there are going to get a lot more money? How many restaurants? How many more hotels? It raises the whole community. If I were in Israel, I’d want to cross the wall to see his hotel. I respect his work immensely.

GQ: As do I. And we’ve come full circle so I only have one more question for you. What’s next? What are you working on?

Fnnch: A lot of things, actually. My most immediate project is that I’m going to repaint the wall where I have the turtle mural.

Art by Fnnch –

It’s gotten tagged on and off and I used to defend it but at some point I got exhausted, mainly because I made a mistake where I tried to put up an anti-graffiti coating but I did it wrong. And so when I would paint roll the wall to buff out graffiti, that part would look different. And I like my pieces to look really nice and crisp and clean. Eventually it just disheartened me to the point where I didn’t see any option but to repaint the whole thing. This time I’ll protect it in a fashion that’s more effective. I’m also going to do it as a collaboration with an artist who was born and raised in the Mission.

It’s only been since 2015 that I’ve done this seriously and tried to make a real go of it. And only in the last 6 months have I thought I could make a living at making art. It’s very project based. I try to pick the project that’s most impactful and execute it. I’ve got a couple exciting things in the works but I try not to talk about things too far out because for every 10 things that seem really exciting, maybe only one happens. People reach out to me, it seems like a done deal but then for whatever reason it falls through. But I’m playing around with different ways to do fine art and different ways to stencil and trying to have fun with it. Just trying to make people’s lives better.

Art by Fnnch –

GQ: And trying to change the law. Seriously, I wish you all the luck with that.

Fnnch: Yeah, if the culture goes first, the law will follow. It’s ridiculous to me that graffiti with damages over $400 should be considered on par with rape or murder. It’s a three strike offense just like those crimes. And that’s just wrong. I honestly don’t think I’ll change the law. But maybe we can reach a point where the courts won’t enforce the law.

I mean I don’t like graffiti and I don’t want it in my city. Bombing in particular. I think people wantonly destroying private property and causing a large financial burden on store owners is wrong.

But the way you address the graffiti problem is not with a big stick, putting people in jail for 30 years. Instead go the opposite way, encourage people to make art and give them a space to do it. Make it more legal, not less legal.

GQ: I agree. And maybe you’ll get private funding. It would help to have a big company in your corner. Zappos helped change downtown Las Vegas and Dr. Ian Wilson and Wall/Therapy changed Rochester. It changes the nature of the conversation to have a big public figure support you.

Fnnch: Agreed.

GQ: Thank you so much for talking to me!

Fnnch: Yes, of course.

All the pictures of Fnnch’s art reproduced in this piece were taken from his website and Instagram account with his permission. Check out Fnnch’s work here and follow him on Instagram.

Art by Fnnch – @fnnch

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.