The Lower Haight neighborhood is probably one of the lesser defined in San Francisco. Noe Valley says strollers; the Castro says pride. But the Lower Haight’s identity isn’t so clear; its cultural presence still has room to grow. Since the collapse of the old Central Freeway in 1992, neighborhoods to the east have developed into settled, economically prosperous communities, while the western and southern neighborhoods have blossomed into world-famous cultural scenes. This has made the Lower Haight a somewhat overlooked middle child between the Castro, Upper Haight and nouveau trendy Hayes Valley.
Jeremy Fish’s Homage to Twenty Years of Silly Pink Bunnies (1991–2011)
I live on the cusp of Hayes Valley and Lower Haight. About a year ago, I noticed a lot of activity happening along a poorly lit, heavily tagged, french-onion-dip colored wall, located right beside the University campus. The activity bore fruit: a pink bunny sculptural installation flanked by murals featuring owls, UFOs and an awesome waistcoat-wearing rat. Entitled Love in the Lower Haight, it clearly said something about the eponymous neighborhood, which I interpreted thus: Lower Haight is irreverent, maniacal even, energetic and not averse to a bit of fun. I was proud of our little neighborhood and the arty community’s work. It seemed that the Lower Haight had finally been claimed; the artists had planted their bunny-skull flag. Finally our neighborhood had a welcome mat.
But not everyone loved the mural. Soon after its completion, a tagging battle began on the wall. It was saddening.
The mural rose again. Some panels were restored by the original artists; some were painted with fresh work. New artists even came on board, and the renewed art lived in peace for about six weeks. Then, things got interesting. Someone blasted the wall with fire extinguishers, spraying two different colors of latex paint all over it.
I had a chat with Thea Selby, who was in charge of designing the original mural: “I had the idea that we could create a ‘gateway to the Lower Haight,’ a way to help the identity of a neighborhood that is still struggling for recognition; and, at the same time, take a sad and tagged blank wall and put something nice on it. People may not know that many [of today’s] local artists got their start doing street art in the Lower Haight. Rent was cheap, and the quasi-anarchic nature of our neighborhood culture worked well for flourishing street art. [The Lower Haight] remains a hot spot for art. We have five galleries in the space of about four blocks: Fifty24SF, Fecal Face, Revolver, D-Structure and Lower Haters.”
Thea notes the support given by the community in the aftermath of the latex-paint vandlism, “The bright side [was] the incredible outpouring of thanks from passersby, when [we went] to fix the mural.”
Artist Max Albee, a Lower Haight resident who collaborated on the dream theme panel (shown below) and participated in the restoration, adds, “There are lots of transient people in this part of the city. But there are those who want to invest time, creativity and money in making the community better. You can complain about the damage or you can step up and do something about it.”
Faced with all this passion and enthusiasm, I’m hopeful that the Lower Haight mural can remain as street art-if the folks holding the spray cans agree to play along. Thea explains, “We expected the tagging, although we were surprised that taggers weren’t going by the rules that the street artists themselves had grown up with-tag buildings, not art. [The latex paint incident] was shocking, because it was so obviously blatant vandalism. I recently found out that they hit the backsides of buildings on the block below as well. So they sprayed painted over almost two full blocks of Haight and Rose. Yeah. That was shocking. I cried when I saw it.”
Is it reasonable to think that we can have our mural forever? No. “One of the contingents for using the space was that it could only be temporary,” says Thea, “UC Berkeley has a plan to develop the space for housing, community space and retail, and has been working with many neighborhood organizations and non-profits for years to make it happen. We were explicitly told they would guarantee us a year. The year will be up in October 2011, but I anticipate us being able to have the space longer than that. I know that some folks at UC Berkeley would consider keeping the bunny sculpture in or around the new building (Jeremy Fish’s Homage to Twenty Years of Silly Pink Bunnies 1991–2011). And if they don’t want it, we certainly would be interested in featuring it somewhere else in the Lower Haight!”
The upside of the many challenges to the mural’s existence is that there’s some urgency; its transience forces out new work regularly and prevents us Lower Haighters from taking it for granted. Thea says it best: “People are so happy that the mural is there, and they are so grateful that we’re trying to keep it up. And, as I now look at it, the Love in the Lower Haight mural is a living entity and will continue to change. Now it has wavy latex hair.”
Thea and the Lower Haighter’s Artist Collective are ready for the next iteration of the Haight Street side of the mural. To volunteer for mural restoration or if you wish to contribute art to the wall, please contact the Lower Haters Gallery.