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The fnnch Honey Bear Controversy Explained

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Image: Stephen Kelly Photography via Flickr

Honey Bear street artist fnnch has raised nearly $400,000 for charitable causes during the pandemic, yet KQED describes his work as “the Most Despised Street Art in San Francisco.” Love them or despise them, you will see those ubiquitous honey bears in now-saturation mode on bus stop shelters and towering on the sides of nightclubs. But you will not see them on LGBT Center on Market Street and Octavia Boulevard anymore. 

Tuesday’s removal of fnnch’s mural from the LGBT Center represents the most recent honey bear controversy, but a general loathing of the bears has been slow-boiling among street artists and subcultures for years. Fnnch critics have often repeated the phrase that the honey bears are “synonymous with displacement and gentrification.”

One on hand, fnnch’s prints, paintings, and other works have raised about $390,000 for nonprofits, charitable causes, and struggling small businesses during the COVID-19 period. This includes more than $100,000 raised for the Safety Net Fund that gives grants to out of work artists, and about $25,000 for the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence. He’s done campaigns to promote mask-wearing and vaccination during the pandemic, and prior to the pandemic, fnnch worked with elementary school students.

On the other hand, the commodification and superspread of his pricey prints has led to gripes that these are “the logo of SF gentrification,” “twee confederate flags,” and “an extension of elitism and White Supremacy.” And fnnch threw some major gasoline onto that fire with the wildly ill-advised comment, “I’m from Missouri. I immigrated here. I’m an immigrant to San Francisco.” 

That comment came when fnnch was removing defamatory graffiti from a honey bear mural at the LGBT center. That mural has been there for 10 months, largely without incident, until being tagged hard a couple times this weekend, with commentary that called out fnnch specifically.

Local artist DoggtownDro confronted fnnch in the (highly edited) 7-minute video above, accusing him of “painting our walls with all your out-of-town, bullshit-ass bears.” The conversation obviously escalates from there, but all that anyone will remember is the “I’m an immigrant to San Francisco” remark.

 

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A post shared by 𝖝 (@xeniyuhca)

This led to an open letter to the LGBT Center decrying that “Fnnch has become a symbol of gentrification and displacement, especially as a self-proclaimed ‘immigrant’ from Missouri.”

“Fnnch’s mural on your wall were 3 flags in the forms of a plastic, mass-produced product in the shape of a honey bear created in Pennsylvania,” continues author xeniyuhca. “The three flags represent Gay BIPOC, Bisexual and Transexual pride. We are a community and movement that champions those flags’ values as minorities.”

 

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A post shared by SF LGBT Center (@sflgbtcenter)

The LGBT Center removed the mural Tuesday, and put out the statement above Wednesday. “We acknowledge the fact that fnnch has engendered a host of opinions and that some of his recent comments about being an immigrant have brought pain to many members of our community,” the center said. “Though we believe that every artist we work with is entitled to their own opinion, the Center does not agree with fnnch’s recent comments, and we have shared our concerns about the impact of his comments directly with him.”

 

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A post shared by fnnch (@fnnch)

Fnnch did not respond for comment for this article, but has since posted an apologetic post. “As some of you are aware, I was recently approached on the street by a detractor, asking me to account for how my work is sometimes being interpreted and telling me that I was not welcome in San Francisco,” he says. “I was shaken by this encounter and did not handle this the best. In particular, I used the word ‘immigrant’ to describe myself, a person who moved from Missouri to California 16 years ago. This is an insensitive usage, and I am deeply sorry. I believe that both America and San Francisco should be welcoming to everyone.”

Fnnch has also drawn criticism for a Black Lives Matter honey bear that some saw as “blackface,” and selling a $64,000 NFT that channeled Mark Zuckerberg. And boy do we despise those fucking NFTs.

The conundrum of fnnch is that he can raise a hell of a lot more money for charitable causes than many other artists, thanks to a savvy years-long campaign of saturation and promotion. But his being the go-to street artist can shut other artists out. And fnnch is incredibly goddamned good at capitalism, but capitalism is something streets artists generally abhor.

“fncch’s honeybear has become the latest symbol of tech gentrification, colonization and artwashing of San Francisco and beyond,” poster artist Lil Tuffy tells BrokeAssStuart.com. “Now, fnnch is San Francisco’s artist. White, non-confrontational, cutesy. Instead of being fined or arrested for defacing government or public property, he’s rewarded with commissions from the city, corporate partnerships and the ability to put up his work in broad daylight and the Mayor poses for photo-ops.”

“The honeybear has come to represent gentrification because it is a constant reminder of what the tech industry has done to this city over the last 30+ years: self-seeking opportunists coming to San Francisco for the art, culture and community and then presumptuously eradicating it with bland and tasteless crap that no one really asked or or needed in the first place,” he adds. “We’re sick of disruption, going fast and breaking things and he is ‘the Uber of street art.’”

Or as rival street artists Ricky Rat told us in July, “Fuck his Fisher-Price street art.”

Image: Shepard Fairey’s Cesar Chavez mural: Stephen Kelly Photography via Flickr

It’s an inherent dynamic of street art that the most popular and commercially successful artist will always have a target on their back. Graffiti artists absolutely hate Banksy. And it’s no accident that Shepard Fairey places his work at higher altitudes where taggers and his haters can’t reach it.  

But the fnnch controversy is happening here in the petri dish of San Francisco, which is the nation’s ground zero for income inequality and the displacement of people of color. Add to that the extra triggering value that in this case, a straight man is often welcomed to paint on LGBTQ spaces. So in that sense, fnnch’s work is not unlike “the Uber of street art” — a brand that is widely disliked and carries a lot of baggage, but is nonetheless an astonishingly lucrative venture.

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14 Comments

  1. Common Sense
    April 29, 2021 at 2:26 pm — Reply

    Oh, you mean Doggtowndro from Watsonville? He is no “local” lol.

    https://abc7news.com/free-speech-rally-sf-philip-anderson-adroa-proud-boys/7196991/

  2. C. D.
    April 29, 2021 at 2:50 pm — Reply

    Ricky Rat is just bitter that he doesn’t even know how to draw stick figures.

  3. Shill Cravy
    April 29, 2021 at 2:57 pm — Reply

    Aside from the admittedly cringey “immigrant” comment, I don’t really see any “controversy” that exists outside the frothy maelstrom of Left Twitter. The dude is arguably a “sellout” for becoming successful and making lots of money with his art, but the rest just sounds like pointless identity-politics shit-flinging. The “blackface” accusation in particular is such a reach I actually laughed when I saw the piece in question (seriously, click the link).

  4. C. D.
    April 29, 2021 at 3:27 pm — Reply

    This reminds me of Pepe the Frog controversy. Bad things forced upon an artist’s creation that have nothing to do with it. Also, people clearly don’t bother looking up what pop art even is. Andy Warhol painted soup cans and he is a legend. A lot of people can make the same quality art, but the person behind the art matters just as much.

  5. lolwut
    April 29, 2021 at 3:29 pm — Reply

    first let me say, i don’t care for fnnch’s art. it’s bland. it’s “whatever”.

    second, when i look around SF i see street art by tons of different people all over the place. the idea that fnnch is somehow preventing local artists from putting up art is ridiculous. and the idea that putting up work is an either/or situation is a fallacy. if fnnch didn’t put a piece there, that doesn’t mean that another local artist would have. it’s not a direct relationship. plus, if you want to put up shit that people want to see, you can go ahead and do it. most people like basic ass shit. if you don’t wanna make basic ass shit, guess what? you’re not gonna have your art in every other window in the city.

    third, the idea that people from outside the city should not be allowed to put up art in this city is also ridiculous. is everyone just supposed to stay where they are? if you’re born in missouri stay in missouri? i wasn’t born here. should i not have a job here? should nobody from outside LA get into making movies since they’re not from there? should all of us quit our fucking jobs and go back to wherever because all of this land is stolen to begin with? there’s a very complex relationship of a lot of inequitable shit going on, but i hardly think that cartoon bears that raise money for charitable causes is the root of the problem.

    fourth, the tags that have been put up over his art are certainly not an improvement, and i’m sure the owners of the walls that he put these pieces on are not super thrilled that they now have a bunch of shit on their walls. are those people part of the problem do? is there no respect for the LGBT center? shit, this mural was in honor of his uncle that died of aids, but i guess fuck that guy since you don’t like cartoon bears.

    fifth, Doggtowndro made a huge deal about gentrification and displacement and posted his message on Instagram… INSTAGRAM… part of FACEBOOK. literally the mothership of gentrification and the destruction of the bay area. mark zuckerberg is personally responsible for more horrible shit that happens in this city before he wakes up for breakfast than fnnch could ever do in a lifetime of putting up bears.

  6. Picasso
    April 29, 2021 at 5:00 pm — Reply

    You’d think there’d be massive cognitive dissonance with all the rampant hypocrisy in the anti-fnnch rants.

    The dorky provincial “native SF” stuff is amazing; that’s a similar flavor of tripe you’ll hear at a typical Trump rally. As a dynamic innovator world city, we welcome people and ideas from all over, but then criticize fnnch for not being “local” enough? News flash: the vast majority of people that live in the Bay are originally from elsewhere. What would be “acceptable local” to these folks? I’ve lived in 6 states and 3 countries, and have lived in the Haight for 22 years, but wasn’t born here. Am I allowed to be part of the local Bay Area art/music community or not, according to these rules? Are artists supposed to stay put where they happen to be born? Was Picasso an evil sucka for leaving southern Spain? Absurd.

    The article conveniently leaves out the fact that the mural at the LGBT Center was chosen & commissioned by the Center itself, for a wall space that was empty for over a century, to honor a community fnnch has connections to, and he did it for free. What I see is criticism of fnnch for doing things that other artists do also to get heard, and also criticism of him for not doing things that they don’t do either. fnnch’s message obviously connects with a lot of the Bay Area, and it’s obviously not a gentrification celebration the critics are on about. Check out the IGs of the critics mentioned in the article and you’ll see a lot of 7th grade bravado, endless selfies, and flatness; there ain’t a lot of there there. These folks have never considered hosting a fundraiser for anything. fnnch has done far more for many Bay Area communities than they could ever dream of, if they even bothered to try. He’s also turned a ton of people onto street art that would not have been paying attention before… his efforts at turning public spaces into art spaces grows the community for everyone… fnnch is a big hearted authentic artist. I appreciate fnnch.

  7. Steve
    April 29, 2021 at 6:33 pm — Reply

    “The smaller the stakes, the nastier the battle” – old academia warning

  8. Wha-whut
    April 30, 2021 at 8:24 am — Reply

    The honey bears are fun. Lighten up. Plus there’s plenty of room for other artist’s work all over our City.
    Pretty sick of my bum-ass fellow natives using the accident of their birthplace to assume some mantle of authority over matters of culture. Maybe if you spent more time creating art, and less constructing these academic-grade citadels of hating, SF would get back to being the dope City we all remember.

  9. Patrick Batt
    April 30, 2021 at 12:52 pm — Reply

    Wha-Whut says it the best. I had no idea Fnnch had raised so much money for charity nor that he had any connection with the Center. Compared to the crap graffiti I’ve been seeing on the walls along upper Market Street recently on my ride home on the K bus; his art is worthy of acclaim.

  10. MMC
    April 30, 2021 at 1:45 pm — Reply

    I wonder how many of the replies arguing that the honey bears are just art regularly buy art from local artists or buy any art at all. To support these ubiquitous bear-things is conflating publicity with art. Linking support for art & artists with buying a mass produced symbol of blandness is a willful misunderstanding that art is a symbol, is an action. Even an ad is a statement of position and perspective.

    Fnnch’s blandness is intentional, is designed to elicit the kind of response you hear from people taken in by a con artist, “He seems so nice.” His stated position is that the honey bears symbolize sweetness and avoidance of confrontation. He shows his ignorance of history by using an icon of a corporate commodification of food, then claiming that his work is original.

    Fnnch repeatedly says he is not political, then, in the same breath extols his own generosity to socially leftish causes. By accident he reveals the moral contradiction inherent in claiming that one can be socially liberal but fiscally conservative: money – who has it, who gets to have it, who controls it, how it is acquired – is political. Money is at the core of every public policy, at core to how we live.

    Money defines our access to every thing we need. It defines &, for most of us, limits everything we do. You can’t talk about money, make hundreds of thousands of dollars by literally campaigning to take space away from other artists, then say you’re not political. Fnnch is exactly like Starbucks, mediocre at best, but pervasive and widely advertised as wonderful.

    • Picasso
      May 1, 2021 at 11:53 am — Reply

      I replied in support of fnnch, and I’ve purchased 17 paintings by local artists. fnnch is definitely an authentic artist, and he has not created a “mass produced symbol of blandness”; fnnch has created something unique and joyful that many people connect with. An “icon of the corporate commodification of food”? Gimme a break. Lol at “moral contradiction”… And Starbucks is beloved by many… another unique idea embraced by people everywhere. You might get outta your head and reconsider thinking that everything popular is somehow inherently evil, ignorant, and wrong. fnnch is an innovator, I’d liken his tedtalk to jay-z’s appearance on 60 minutes…. you might check it out, it’s inspiring

  11. Native Johnny
    April 30, 2021 at 4:36 pm — Reply

    As a native, I hate the ubiquitous honey bears, so I don’t support the artist. But it’s hard to ignore how much money he’s raised for good, important, local causes. Be real curious how much money Rickey Rat or Doggtowndro have funneled towards similarly good works, because otherwise, their comments sound like sour grapes from jealous artists. It also seems ludicrous to blame this artist for gentrification because a lot of people seem to enjoy his bland art. People embraced the shit out of Shepard Fairey, but his “art” wasn’t much better, and was easily much more favored by white, tech crowd everyone assumes is supporting honey bear guy.

  12. Scott D
    May 1, 2021 at 9:04 am — Reply

    The people triggered by these bears strike me as the product of snowplow parents—people who have had all obstacles removed from them and can afford to become “offended” over things that, in the grand scheme, matter little. It’s a lot easier to deface a street mural than put in the political work to effect real change. Meanwhile, those with REAL power look at stuff like this and laugh. Like it or not, the country is tilted to give small, rural areas and states more power. Winning those people over means showing them we have a plan to revitalize where they live and make things better for them. Painting over honey bears isn’t it.

  13. Anton Glibkitsch
    May 6, 2021 at 11:26 pm — Reply

    These insipid plastic bears are the candy-colored visual equivalent of a car alarm going off at 3:00 AM. Noisy, stupid and annoying.

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