Today, I visited the village of Naviavia in Fiji. It’s a relatively unremarkable little village, not unlike most others on the island of Vanua Levu. But, when the island nation of Kiribati purchased 20 square kilometers of land across the river, the village was plucked from obscurity, and placed right at the center of an international controversy.
Kiribati is a nation in the Pacific, composed of 33 islands, mainly coral atolls just a few feet above sea level. Anote Tong, the president of Kiribati at that time, said that the land was purchased for the purpose of possibly relocating the entire population of Kiribati due to the effects of rising sea levels.
This land purchase made big headlines around the world, but I’ve never seen a particularly good photo of the land. I was curious to see what it was like, and I figured the people of Kiribati are curious as well.
According to the local Anglican pastor in Naviavia, the government of Kiribati has given farmers from the village permission to farm some of the land. They’re currently cultivating taro and coconut. One farmer from a nearby village who accompanied me to the land said that the soil was very rich, and didn’t require fertilizer.
“What can you grow on this kind of land?” I asked him.
“Everything!” he said emphatically.
So the land is certainly not worthless, but could it be used to relocate the entire population of Kiribati?
There are about 100,000 people living in Kiribati. The 20 square kilometers of land near Naviavia could theoretically hold that many people, but transforming the undeveloped mountain terrain into homes for that many people would be a monumental task.
To put things in perspective, the population of Vanua Levu, the Fijian island where the land is located, has a population only slightly higher than that of Kiribati at about 135,000. If the entire population of Kiribati moved to the land near Naviavia they would undoubtedly overwhelm the local infrastructure.
With a great deal of development, a few thousand people could probably live on the land and cultivate crops. Perhaps the land could even function as the seat of the Kiribati government in absentia, when and if the islands do become uninhabitable do to sea level rise.
For many years, the Anglican Church owned the land, and the village of Naviavia, a small community of ethnic Solomon Islanders were allowed to live and farm on the land. After the land was purchased, the village of Naviavia was restricted to a small plot of 125 hectares.
Many in Kiribati believed that they would need to displace the people of Naviavia in order to make use of the land, but it appears as though the government of Kiribati is willing to work with this community. Indeed, their local farming knowledge will likely be extremely helpful in cultivating the land.
The real challenge may be in acclimating a few thousand citizens of Kiribati to the environment near Naviavia. This is mountainous terrain many miles from the ocean. The foliage is thick and treacherous. I slipped and fell on wet grass numerous times while traipsing through the bush.
Tempting a few thousand I-Kiribati to move to this mountainous terrain to live a completely new lifestyle may prove difficult.
Burglary, vagrancy and grand larceny are the charges listed under photos of alleged Vallejo criminals. With defiant eyes and grim expressions, they look like rough characters. But, these aren’t wanted posters hanging in the post office. These are art pieces displayed at The Works, a screen printing studio in historic downtown Vallejo.
Thomas Wojak owns this screen printing business, which was priced out of San Francisco in 2002. But when Wojak went looking for a new city to set-up shop, Vallejo certainly wasn’t at the top of his list.
“I had driven by Vallejo for thirty years. I just thought of it as a rough, crime-ridden place,” said Wojak.
But a visit to Vallejo revealed ample opportunities to Wojak, and a live/work ordinance passed by the city in 2001 meant that Wojak could save even more by combining home and studio.
Wojak’s prints featuring mug shots taken in Vallejo from 1909 to 1930, encourage viewers to reconsider their perceptions of the city, just like he did fourteen years ago. But he’s not the only one who’s reconsidering Vallejo.
Ask any of the many artists in downtown Vallejo how they ended up there, and most of them will tell you a story about being priced out of San Francisco or Oakland. With some 28 art spaces in Vallejo the art scene is beginning to bloom, but it might not last. The real estate market in Vallejo is one of the hottest in the nation, and artists are already feeling the squeeze.
Half a mile from downtown Vallejo, just across the Napa River, the economic engine of old Vallejo sits abandoned. For over 100 years, workers at the Mare Island shipyards built ships and submarines for the U.S. naval fleet. In 1996 the naval base was de-commissioned and the builders were out of work.
The closure of the Mare Island shipyards was not the only disruptive event to the traditional blue-collar economy in Vallejo, but in the minds of residents, it may be the most symbolic.
“Mare Island is a part of the collective unconscious of Vallejo. People just keep praying and hoping the industry will come back," said Vallejo-based sculptor Mark Treuenfels.
Truenfels was one of the first artists to find his way to Vallejo. He moved there in 2000 after returning from a stint with the Peace Corps in Jamaica. He bought a foreclosed mobile home and started working on a series of clay busts based on the likenesses of his Jamaican friends.
One Saturday morning in October, Truenfels threaded his way through the thick crowds at the weekly farmer’s market downtown.
“You’ll get the wrong idea being out here today,” said Truenfels. “Six out of seven days a week this street is deserted.”
Truenfels made his way to The Hub a downtown gallery and art cooperative. He had been asked to come in and collect his Jamaican busts. They had been on display for a year without a single sale. Truenfels was disappointed, but not surprised.
“The art scene in Vallejo is anemic,” said Truenfels. “There just aren’t any buyers here.”
Truenfels sells most of his work out of town, and he’s not as enthusiastic as Wojak about the burgeoning art scene in Vallejo. After living in the city for sixteen years, Truenfels thinks it’s time to move on. Truenfels says his mobile home is worth five or six times what he paid for it, and he thinks it’s time to cash in.
Lisa Gueron thinks Truenfels is right. Gueron, a Solano County realtor says that the housing market in Vallejo is booming.
“Vallejo is just on fire!” said Gueron. “I’ve seen houses go on the market and sell the next day with multiple offers.”
Gueron’s experience indicates how far Vallejo has come in a very short time. Vallejo was hit hard by the Great Recession, going so far as to declare bankruptcy in 2008. According to U.S. Census Bureau data, 8.7 percent of the houses in Vallejo were vacant in 2010. But these days, Gueron says that Vallejo has a housing supply shortage.
Thanks to high demand and short supply, in the summer of 2016, Vallejo was listed as the “hottest” market in the country by the National Association of Realtors.
So, what’s behind this demand?
It’s a common notion that the arrival of artists in low-income areas is the first sign of gentrification. Some argue that artists initiate the process by making run down neighborhoods more appealing. Thomas Wojak certainly doesn’t mind taking credit for the real estate boom in Vallejo.
“We don’t affect the economics much, but we do change perceptions, and over the years, we’ve really changed the perception of Vallejo,” said Wojak.
Guerin admits that there may be something to that idea, but she doesn’t spend too much time thinking about the arts when she’s making a sale. Guerin focuses on the price point.
“People from San Francisco don’t mind paying over asking when they can buy a charming Tudor style home with a 10,000-foot lot for $350,000,” said Guerin.
With established artists like Wojak spreading the word about the vibrant arts and culture scene in Vallejo, and realtors like Guerin promoting the booming housing market, some fledgling artists are starting to worry about their place in town.
Edgar-Arturo Camacho-Gonzalez grew up in Mexico, but Vallejo has been his home for about 10 years. He started El Comalito Collective with his husband in January of this year.
The mission of El Comalito is to exhibit the work of artists from marginalized communities. The front room of the small space on Georgia Street is filled with Dia De Los Muertos paraphernalia. At the back of the store is a gallery space.
Camacho-Gonzalez is emblematic of not just the art scene in Vallejo, but of the changing population as well. In 1990, half of Vallejo residents were white, according to US Census Bureau data. But by 2010, the population was one of the most diverse in the nation, approximately 32percent white, 22 percent black, 24 percent Asian, and 22 percent Hispanic. Only Oakland could claim to be more diverse.
Diversity was one of the main reasons that Camacho-Gonzalez decided to open El Comalito Collective in Vallejo. There were marginalized artists in the community who needed a place to exhibit.
Camacho-Gonzalez said their first year was quite successful, but as the gallery approaches its one-year anniversary, he still worries about the future.
“Gentrification is real, and it’s a worry,” said Camacho-Gonzalez.
El Comalito Collective has not been able to secure a long-term lease, and Camacho-Gonzalez has heard that rents are rising throughout Vallejo. He invested a lot of money into altering the storefront, so he’s a little worried about the possibility of losing the space.
Camacho-Gonzalez is not alone. According to Gretchen Zimmermann, who organizes an annual arts festival called Vallejo Open Studios, gentrification is a big concern among Vallejo artists.
Zimmermann said that the best solution for Vallejo artists would be to actually buy commercial space, which is unlikely as most of the artists are just scraping by now. She said that local artists were trying out some new ideas, like legally incorporating their cooperatives, but she laughingly admitted that artists often find it difficult to cooperate and organize.
“We need to start talking about rent control now, not after everybody’s kicked out,” said Zimmerman.
San Francisco city officials are considering placing a toll on Lombard Street, otherwise known as "The Crooked Street." With over two million visitors per year, the traffic is often backed up for blocks, and some of the street's residents say they have had enough. The city finished its latest study, which suggested placing an unprecedented toll in about two years. However, some tourists and tour guide companies are concerned that a toll on Lombard Street will be contributing to a larger pay-to-play trend happening in the city. Is it fair?
Video by Alan Toth and Sawsan Morrar
Some 5000 mourners gathered for a vigil at Lake Merritt on Monday to remember victims of Oakland's "Ghost Ship" fire, which claimed 36 lives on the night of December 2nd. It was the deadliest fire in California in over 100 years. Read more...
Cannabis farm in Humboldt County CA.
Way out in the East Bay, hidden in thick trees and brush, there’s a portal to another world. It’s down below the streets in a creek bed, where the mouth of a storm sewer opens up like a cavern. Inside, crawdads scuttle in ankle-deep pools, and ominous booming sounds echo throughout the vaulted interior.
A menagerie of fantastic paintings cover almost every inch of wall inside the half-mile tunnel that runs underground. Scott Finsthwait, the unofficial curator of the constantly evolving exhibit, walks the subterranean gallery regularly.
“This place is like a museum to me,” said the 45-year-old Finsthwait, an artist and photographer based in San Francisco, who is on a trek for the best street art. He declines to give up the exact location as the artists prefer that these tunnels remain a secret to the general public, to help ensure that their work is not painted over.
“This is sacred ground for street artists,” he said.
Increasingly, Finsthwait said as he walked along the tunnel, the best street art is found in out-of-the-way places like Orinda or Fairfax. His self-appointed role has been to find the best work and share it with the world in exhibits such as the one displayed in September at City Art Gallery at 828 Valencia St. His photos there featured street art pieces surrounded by fantastic streaks of light, like neon apparitions.
The tunnel Finsthwait is exploring on this Monday afternoon is pitch black. He turns on a flashlight and casts it across the paintings in the tunnel to see what has changed.
“There’s a nice piece under there, but this shithead covered it up!” he says. Finsthwait is referring to a new addition that’s covering one of his favorite works, a painting by an artist known as Eugor.
The offending artist, known as Spree, painted a throw-up – a very large, ornate rendering of the artist’s tag or signature. Now lost is what Finsthwait describes as a piece – a masterpiece, an elaborate mural.
To Finsthwait the tags and throw-ups are mainly about communication and territory, he’s not at all interested in throw-ups, and Spree’s recent addition leaves Finsthwait livid.
“It hurts when that happens, but that’s just part of the game,” says an Oakland-based street artist known as Nite Owl. “Nobody asked me to put it there, I can’t get too upset if someone comes and takes it off.”
Nite Owl’s work appears in the tunnels where Finsthwait is shooting. From his small studio in Oakland, Nite Owl, a former architect-turned street-artist, ekes out a living selling art directly to clients. He says it took him about 10 years to build his local reputation and develop a client base.
Like Nite Owl, Finsthwait’s path to street art was circuitous. There was no street art photography course at Kenyon College in Ohio where Finsthwait studied English. He wasn’t even interested in photography until found himself admiring post cards in Greece. He became obsessed with figuring out where they were shot and re-creating the photos. This obsession led him to a course at the Rocky Mountain School of Photography which changed his trajectory completely.
About half-way down the tunnel, Finsthwait finds the piece that he wants to photograph. It was another Eugor, depicting a seated man, three cloaked figures and numerous floating heads. He runs his hands over the piece, appreciating the texture.
“I love his lines and the way he uses colors,” says Finsthwait. “He always uses a very limited palette.”
It is clear looking at the piece that the quality of street art that no photographer can capture is the texture. Seeing a piece in person is a bit like seeing a Van Gogh in a museum and realizing that a two dimensional photo can’t capture the layering or the brush strokes.
Eugor’s crisp clean lines display a mastery of spray paint. The figures are accentuated with thick blocky brushstrokes. Drips of paint run down the piece like tears.
Finsthwait sets up his camera and gets to work. He uses a wide-angle lens and sets his camera to take a very long exposure – 30 seconds – and then runs through the frame painting the walls with different colored flashlights. The light slowly builds up on the camera sensor, gradually revealing the room, burning streaks of light into the photo.
It is a process that gives Finsthwait’s finished photos the impression of a space lit with many powerful studio lights. In fact, when Finsthwait takes a photo in a tunnel, it’s almost completely dark.
Finsthwait was all business as he shot the Eugor, using a yellow light to complement the blue in the piece.
When asked what Eugor might think about the photo, Finsthwait says, “It’s difficult, because these guys love getting their work seen, but for obvious reasons, they have to be very secretive about it.”
Finsthwait wants to collaborate with street artists. This is why he’s always so careful to respect spaces like the tunnel by never publicly revealing the location.
Since 2004, when San Francisco passed a graffiti removal ordinance requiring property owners to remove graffiti promptly or pay steep fines, spontaneous street art has been vigorously targeted for removal by the city.
Only planned murals, with content approved by property owners or the San Francisco Arts Commission, are safe from destruction. Non-approved pieces are considered graffiti and vandalism. And for street artists like Nite Owl, controversy is the whole point.
“The scene in San Francisco is definitely not what it used to be,” says Nite Owl. “There’s a lot of corporate and city-backed pieces, so you’re not getting a real cross-section of city artists doing them, only the safe artists. It’s a sham.”
But local powers don’t much care what happens in hidden spaces like the tunnels, so artists like Nite Owl aren’t rushed when they paint there. This is what makes the tunnels so special.
Nite Owl recently started collaborating with Finsthwait. He air-brushed a design onto one of Finsthwait’s prints, which was the featured piece in the exhibit at City Art.
“Friends tell me that I’m curating street art,” said Finsthwait, “by choosing the better ones to share with people.”
But for Finsthwait, the street art is a side-effect of his main obsession. He sees himself as an urban explorer. He loves witnessing dereliction, and finding places that have been abandoned. The pieces hidden deep inside tunnels are the treasures he finds after a long arduous journey.
The harsh afternoon light surprises Finsthwait as he exits the tunnels and walks back into the open air. As he climbs back up to street level, to the land of the local powers, he mentions his main concern with his work.
“I love street art in these tunnels, or abandoned buildings. I don’t like it when graffiti artists deface public property or private property, and it’s constant quandary, because a lot of these guys do.” he says.
Deport Trump. That’s the statement that stops pedestrians in front of Casa Bonampak at 1051 Valencia St. But it’s not just the sign that catches the eye. All day long, people are stopping outside the Mexican art and craft store to gawk at Trump piñatas.
With their tiny hands and oversized empty heads, the Trump piñatas are a perfect likeness of the Republican candidate who says he’ll build a wall between the United States and Mexico. The figures are works of art. Their crafted immobile faces seem dynamic, as if they were frozen right in the act of saying something derogatory about Mexicans.
They’re terrific piñatas, believe me. In fact, sales have soared so steadily that demand for Trump piñatas often outpaces the supply.
“We didn’t think Trump was going to be a factor,” said Nancy Chárraga, owner of Casa Bonampak. “Who would have thought that?”
Chárraga said that many piñata artisans were hesitant to make Trump piñatas, thinking that the offensive statements toward Mexicans would swiftly disqualify the candidate. Since Trump became the nominee, the artisans have been playing catch-up. With the election in full swing, the demand is only increasing.
“Trump piñatas got us through the first quarter,” said Chárraga.
And when it comes to piñatas, Mexico is sending us their best.
Chárraga imports all her Trump piñatas from traditional artisans in Mexico and they run $60 to $75 depending on the size.
For those interested in smashing Trump on a budget, there’s a popular option at Discount City on Mission. The owner, Mohammad Shafi, said he was the first person in San Francisco to sell Trump piñatas.
The piñatas at Shafi’s store – manic figures with wild yellow hair and wide mouths – don’t look much like Trump, but the price is right for many people. Shafi’s piñatas cost about $14. He said that he’s sold about 6,000 of them since he first stocked them last year.
When asked if the piñatas actually resemble Trump, Shafi said, “Sure, he’s got a big mouth.”
Piñatas like Shafi’s are on the low end in terms of quality. The best Trump piñatas are made by artisans like Romeo Gilberto Osorio. A sculptor from El Salvador, Osorio crafts custom-made piñatas at about $80 apiece and sells them at his store at 4268 Mission St. in the Excelsior District. He makes two a week, because he knows they will sell immediately.
Osorio uses a traditional Salvadoran technique to craft his Trump piñatas, first making a wire frame and layering papier-mâché and crate paper. It’s a three day process that results in a much tougher piñata. Unlike the candidate that the piñata mimics, Osorio’s Trump is not thin-skinned.
For Osorio, producing Trump piñatas is not necessarily a political statement.
“I’ll make anything that will sell,” laughed Osorio.
But for some customers at Casa Bonampak, making a political statement is exactly why they want a Trump piñata. Bob Dearth was delighted to see the Trump piñatas. He plans to buy one to put in his window, and has no plans on breaking it open.
“It seems like a great way to make a statement about immigration,” said Dearth.
Chárraga is careful to point out that the piñata tradition is not just a political protest – even well-liked figures can be made into piñatas – but there is definitely an element of protest in Chárraga’s display. The Trump piñatas themselves are surrounded by large paper vagina sculptures. Poetic justice perhaps, for the misogynist candidate.
In addition to Trump piñatas she also sells Trump toilet paper, and red hats reading “Make America Mexico Again.”
“We call it revenge Mexican style” said Chárraga.