Potrero Hill Mural Fading Away

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The once iconic Potrero Hill mural at the corner of 17th and Connecticut streets is steadily fading, the wall on which it is painted in disrepair. 

“The cost to restore this mural would be at least $20,000, a number I estimated three years ago,” said Susan Cervantes, founder and director of Precita Eyes Muralists Association. “The reason this mural is almost invisible is because something on the other side is affecting it, perhaps water damage. If you look closely, you can see the pigment on the mural has crystallized. That’s why it looks more faded than other murals painted in the mid-1980s.” 

Brooke Oliver, a San Francisco attorney who represents mural artists in California, said that under the federal Visual Artists Right Act (VARA), enacted in 1990, the lead artist’s consent is required to modify, damage, paint over, or destroy an original mural. The property owner is required to give the artist “first right” to restore it. If the lead declines, the property owner can identify another qualified artist.

Nicole Emanuel, who currently lives in Kansas City, Missouri, was the mural’s lead artist. Emanuel didn’t respond to interview requests. 

“If everyone on the Hill gave $20 and some larger donors stepped up…” the mural could be restored, said Cervantes. “One thing that should change after a repaint is to add a coat or varnish to seal the mural, which wasn’t done originally. In addition, it might help to add an overhang to protect the mural from the elements above,” 

Precita Eyes, a Mission-based nonprofit arts organization, has restored numerous murals and mosaics around the City.

Potrero Boosters President J.R. Eppler said the association is in the initial stages of determining whether it wants to try to restore the mural or identify other sites for frescos to be painted. 

“We’re focusing on areas that serve as neighborhood gateways,” said Eppler. 

The mural, painted in 1985, reflects scenes of Hill life: children in puffy jackets, a view of the Bay, grocery stores, pedestrians on steep streets. 

Dan Fontes, who grew up in Oakland, helped paint the mural. On his website, Dan Fontes Murals, he described it as reflecting “the social realism style, using historic images.” Social realism showcases the sociopolitical conditions of the working class, often criticizing power structures. The Hill mural evokes the neighborhood, with “Potrero Hill” in large characters, the area’s history illustrated inside the letters and on adjacent panels. 

A prominent subject of the mural, former Hill resident O.J. Simpson, dressed in his football uniform, has been painted over multiple times since he was charged and acquitted of an infamous murder in the mid-1990s. At one point, vandals painted devil horns on Simpson’s figure. 

A search of Property Shark, a data enterprise, indicates that the Central Family Trust (CFT), an entity formed by Gary Pasquinelli and other Pasquinelli family members, owns the 1345 17th Street building on which the mural is painted. The address is part of a 26,100 square foot property zoned for industrial use, which encompasses the 1300 block of 17th Street. CFT owns other land in San Francisco, including a 2,860 square foot plot zoned for multifamily residential use across the street. 

In 2019, CFT explored, but didn’t proceed with, a complete overhaul of 1345 17th Street. At the time the Planning Department referred to the building as “a visual blight.” Last year, CFT submitted a proposal to the San Francisco Planning Department to alter, demolish, or replace approximately 7,600 square feet of the structures at the corner of 17th and Connecticut streets to build a tennis club and courts. The club would feature a small retail component, as well as restrooms, lockers, shower rooms, and offices, with a rooftop court. Jovinas Upholstery, which has a storefront at 1345 17th Street, would have moved next door, to the former site of Eppler’s Bakery. CFT didn’t mention mural restoration in the proposal, which it ultimately withdrew. 

The San Francisco Arts Commission (SFAC), a municipal agency that champions the arts, is unaware of efforts to preserve or restore the Potrero Hill mural, said Rachelle Axel, SFAC director of public and private partnerships.

“Private property owners are responsible for maintaining murals or other artwork on their property. The Arts Commission does not have a fund to maintain private murals in the City,” said Axel. She added that most efforts to preserve murals on private property are driven by owners and the surrounding community. 

Another possibility is that the mural could be removed and be placed on panels, according to Oliver. “There’s a method that qualified conservators use called ‘Strappo.’ The conservator secures a mural surface to cloth, then vibrate the surface of the wall until the “little fingers” of the painting let go of the wall. Then they remount the mural on panels, which would later be mounted elsewhere,” said Oliver.

According to Oliver, if the Central Family Trust wants to demolish the mural it’s legally required to write the artist at their last known address and provide 90 days for them to remove the piece at their expense. Artists can use that time to save or document the artwork before it’s destroyed.  

MJ Bogatin, an Oakland attorney who represents Bay Area muralists, said the piece was eligible for protection under the California Art Preservation Act (CAPA), enacted in 1979, which protects what are known as “artists’ moral rights.” Moral rights enable a visual art creator to defend a work’s physical integrity. CAPA grants rights to the artist, nonprofits and community groups that safeguard pieces for the artist’s life plus 50 years. The law includes civil penalties and injunctive relief for intentional damage, destruction or mutilation of a work of fine art, or gross negligence in the conservation of art. 

Bogatin suggested that CAPA and VARA may provide authority to allow restoration by artists who collaborated with or contributed to the work of a lead artist, including Fontes and other creatives, should Emanuel decline the project. 

According to Trish Herman, neighborhood safety chair and past president of North Beach Neighbors, a community group, older murals can be restored with public funding. Herman chaired a 2015 project that enabled the original artist, Bill “El Gallo” Weber, to restore the 30 foot by 50 foot “Jazz Mural” above New Sun Hong Kong Restaurant at the corner of Broadway and Columbus streets. Weber painted the mural in 1987 and 1988. “Jazz Mural” depicts Teddy Wilson on piano, Gene Krupa on drums, and Benny Goodman on clarinet.

Herman said she secured a $15,000 grant from the San Francisco Arts Commission for the restoration. “The paperwork is a bit daunting. However, we were able to complete the project. It took about one year of planning, researching to receive the grant, and then coordinating with the original artist to complete the work. You will also need to get permission from the building owner to work on the building,” said Herman. 

Jessica Zimmer contributed to this article.