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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.