Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Sidewalk Stencils

Sidewalk stencil outside the Women's Building of a mother penguin instructing her child penguin in the prudent use of a timed explosive device attached to an evil corporate tower. I immediately recognized this as an illustration from The Fountainhead – re-conceived as a children's book about global warming – with brave orange penguins substituting for Ayn Rand's heroic building-bombing architect.

And it is not uncommon to notice young people all around San Francisco even to this day reading the novels of Ayn Rand. This fact has always seemed mildly surprising to me, given Rand's well-deserved reputation as a right-wing lunatic.

My guess is that her message to youth is mostly not political at all, but ties in to that deepest of all American myths  – shared equally by the hip and the un-hip – the primal New World myth of self-transformation, self-empowerment, self-invention.

Is that also the point of this gold-and-marble installation in the window of 18 Reasons on Guerrero? A parody of a fantasy? I am whatever I imagine myself to be. Poor Britney, how shocked she would be to walk by and see herself interpreted as a tombstone.

But we have drifted shamefully far away from the stated topic of sidewalk stencils. They should probably not be interpreted at all, only reproduced and left to speak for themselves.

Who, for example, can explicate this one, discovered in the Lower Haight? What does it mean, this militant call for a return to olden-days San Francisco geographical dynamics? It is not addressed to the Castro, or to Polk Street. It did not get painted on their sidewalks. So why was this urgent project assigned by the stencil-maker to a seemingly irrelevant neighborhood? Well, maybe it is like Jesus calling the tax collectors. Maybe there is a logic behind the apparent ill-logic. Could it be that the stencil-painter is targeting the Lower Haight as one of the areas that most deeply shocked the city's liberal Establishment by voting with overwhelming homophobia in favor of the recent Prop 8?