Lower Haight artwork has become a target for vandals and a hassle for its keepers
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Stretched across the west wall of the New Santa Clara Market in the Lower Haight is a full 15 by 45 feet of political controversy, in both its intended content and the fact that it has become a magnet for graffiti.
Located on the southeast corner of Haight and Scott streets, Positive Visibility, as the mural there is titled, shows women suffering from the symptoms of HIV-AIDS. It was completed in 1995 by an artist named Juana Alicia, who learned her craft in part from two former students of painter Diego Rivera.
Reflecting a somewhat surreal departure from Rivera's own direct imagery, Alicia's painting (finished with help from other HIV-AIDS activists) contains a multitude of pastel colors applied in vigorous brushstrokes. In one segment, a tattooed drug addict accepts a clean needle from a needle-exchange worker. Another woman nearby wears a shirt with the queer pink triangle and the phrase "silencio = muerte." Three pig-faced corporate drug execs guard a prescription bottle, and a woman is kicking one of them directly in the face. Slivers of broken mirrors create a mosaic across the mural's top center. Affable skeletons celebrate el Dia de los Muertos.
The message: women contract HIV too. It's not unlike the hundreds of other politically charged murals most San Franciscans are proud to have coloring the city. But currently, Positive Visibility faces a cruelly ironic fate; it's half covered in a red paint used by the building's owner to rub out graffiti while awaiting a complex decision about how and when to restore it.
Alicia, who now lives in Mexico and has taught arts education and community organizing for 25 years, has also completed major pieces in the Mission District and at the San Francisco International Airport and the UCSF Medical Center. (She did not respond to an e-mailed list of questions.)
The problem is that Positive Visibility has been plagued by graffiti since it was completed — not spray-can lettering so much as haphazard markings. The entire bottom has been covered at times, sending neighbors into a furor and attracting citations to the owner of the building from the San Francisco Department of Public Works. Some of the graffiti has targeted the content of the mural in the form of angry expressions that the piece is antimale. One resident said she'd prefer that any existing mural at the spot reflect "the neighborhood's vitality."
"It's been very controversial," said Marc Shapiro, who lives nearby on Waller Street. "Some people want the mural. Some people don't. I didn't care what happened as long as somebody would maintain it.... The street has been so terrible for the last 10 years, you know. Nobody was maintaining the mural. So we had to live in a neighborhood with all of this horrible graffiti."
The Neighborhood Beautification Fund under then-mayor Willie Brown put up $8,000 to restore the mural in 2000, an effort that included several layers of what was supposed to be a special graffiti-proof varnish. It wasn't enough, and the graffiti continued.
"The final straw was when there were swear words — 'Fuckin' bitch,' 'asshole,'” said the building owner's son, Suheil Alaraj. "The neighbors were, like, 'We have children. We can't keep walking across the street and bypassing this.'” Shapiro added that sometimes attackers would throw entire buckets of paint on the mural.
Alaraj called Alicia last year to see if she'd be interested in restoring it again. But the talks broke down and Alicia, he says, threatened to sue him if he painted over the mural completely. Exasperated, he called Sup. Ross Mirkarimi, whose district includes the Lower Haight, looking for suggestions on what to do. His office convinced Alicia to allow the Mission-based muralist collective Precita Eyes to restore the piece. Nonetheless, finding money for the project took several months. Some of the funds again came from the mayor's beautification fund.
"Basically, they took such a long time," Alaraj said. "They could have had it up six months ago, restored. They were waiting for this, waiting for that, waiting for this. [The graffiti] kept getting worse and worse. Once there's tagging on it and you don't do anything about it, people feel it's a free-for-all. It just got out of control."
Three months ago he decided to paint over the bottom, which was hardest hit with graffiti. Each morning he'd go back with a paintbrush until finally, about two months ago, the graffiti ceased.
Mirkarimi aide Regina Dick-Eudrizzi told the Guardian that due to a misunderstanding about covering the graffiti, Alaraj used the red paint instead of white, which would have made restoring the mural easier. The red paint doubled the costs, and only recently did Mirkarimi's office and Precita Eyes manage to come up with the $10,000 necessary to complete the restoration. There's a possibility that Precita Eyes could re-create the mural at a new spot, rather than restoring it at its current location. SFBG