Fnnch’s newest honey bear design.
In the wake of Russia’s devastating invasion of Ukraine late last month, scores of San Franciscans have stepped up to support fleeing refugees. Recently, local chef Michelle Polzine (of now-shuttered 20th Century Cafe) raised $17,000 in relief funds from sales of her famous 10-layer honey cake, a network of groups including the San Francisco Recreation and Park Department held a free benefit concert at Golden Gate Park, and more than 1,000 people gathered at City Hall to protest the war, while Russian spa Archimedes Banya offered free spa passes to anyone with a Ukrainian passport.
Now, controversial San Francisco street artist fnnch has joined the fold, unveiling a new blue-and-yellow honey bear design in the likeness of the Ukrainian flag that he sold in the form of 30 signed plywood paintings, costing $500 each, and 300 window decals for $30 each.
In a post shared on Instagram on Tuesday morning, he said 50% of the proceeds will go to Nova Ukraine, a Palo Alto-based nonprofit group providing emergency aid to Ukrainians. He’ll take his own cut for most of the prints and decals, keeping 50% of those sales. One of the 30 prints is currently up for auction on eBay, and 100% of proceeds will be matched by the auction site and go toward relief funds.
“This is challenging to talk about because the issues are many, and I am not an expert,” fnnch wrote in the caption of his post. “But I believe that fighting a war of aggression to capture territory is heart breaking and totally unacceptable, and purposefully targeting civilians is even more so. We need to find a way to live in a world in which these are lines that one does not cross.”
Fnnch told SFGATE he came up with the idea for the new design after he was approached by “a Ukrainian-born chef I know [who] suggested I do something.”
“She said that her country needed ‘some beautiful art and extra attention.’ I agreed,” he said in an email to SFGATE on Tuesday night.
One of the many honey bear murals by San Francisco artist fnnch, photographed in 2019.
It’s not exactly a new model for fnnch, who has conducted similar fundraisers for local arts organizations during the pandemic including the San Francisco Ballet and the Roxie Theater. The artist told SFGATE he raised about $320,000 for “various non-profits last year, most of which were local to San Francisco,” while he has stated in past promotional material that he raised another $293,000 in 2020.
But in the context of the current crisis, some of his critics perceived his efforts as not wholly charitable.
San Francisco-born cartoonist Ricky Rat, who has long been among one of fnnch’s more outspoken critics, said that the design looked “like it was marketed — and I use that word heavily — toward helping a nonprofit organization that aids [Ukrainians].”
“Which seems cool on the surface but then when you dig a little deeper and you find out only 50% of the funds are actually going to this organization that helps [Ukrainians], which makes you wonder if the artist is just pocketing the remaining 50% as profit,” Ricky Rat continued via email. “Which some could argue is in poor taste because you’re technically profiting off of innocent people dying.”
A post shared by Ricky Rat (@rickyratcomix)
Fnnch said that the responses that he’s seen from the project have been “uniformly positive,” and he’s “received kind notes from several Ukrainians.”
Not everyone seemed to be convinced, however.
“Congrats on being a war profiteer! Lead gentrifier wasn’t enough for you ey?” read one reply to his announcement on Twitter.
The criticism comes after fnnch received citywide backlash last year. What started as a casual disdain for the oversaturation of his art culminated in one of his murals at the SF LGBT Center getting painted over and a subsequent confrontation filmed by street artist DoggTown Dro, who told the artist his work was “synonymous with gentrification in San Francisco” and the “displacement of the artists that come from here.” In the video, fnnch said he was from Missouri and described himself as “an immigrant,” which drew further criticism from the public. Ultimately, his honey bears were replaced by a mural painted by queer artists Juan Manuel Carmona and Simón Malvaez, whose work has been featured at El Rio, Blondie’s Bar and next to the Painted Ladies.
It wasn’t long before a guillotined honey bear appeared in the window of Artists Television Access in the Mission that August, a disparaging installation further fueled by fnnch’s collaboration with Williams-Sonoma that was released around the same time.
A depiction of a guillotined honey bear in the window of Artists Television Access in the Mission on Friday, Aug. 6, 2021.
In the aftermath, the once seemingly innocuous honey bears started to disappear. Fnnch addressed this in a recent Instagram post, stating that he “quietly ended the Honey Bear Hunt” earlier this year. (He later clarified to SFGATE that the honey bear hunt was “conceived at a time when not only museums and galleries were closed, but when we were advised not even to leave our neighborhoods,” and as businesses began to reopen, he no longer felt the project was relevant.)
But now, he believes reprising it in the colors of the Ukrainian flag will help raise awareness about the struggles faced by Ukrainians.
“One of several fronts on which this war is being fought is in the minds of the world. One thing I can commend Ukrainians for is working with media to keep their struggle visible to others,” he wrote on Instagram. “The more this can happen, the more support — financial, political or otherwise — can be lent to the cause. Putting a Ukraine Bear in your window is a way to keep this issue top of mind in your own community and to show solidarity with the Ukrainian people. I hope this can help in its own small way.”
A honey bear on a mailbox by street artist fnnch is seen on the corner of 19th and Linda streets on Wednesday, May 27, 2015, in San Francisco.
To be fair, there is an audience for fnnch’s work. According to an update from the artist on Wednesday morning, the paintings sold out in two minutes, while the window bears sold out in 20 minutes, raising a total of $12,000 for Nova Ukraine. Meanwhile, at the time this article was published, the painting on eBay had a max bid of $2,025, with 33 bids. The auction ends next Tuesday.
But other street artists have taken issue with the way fnnch uses his work to address such topics. Well-known artist and muralist Sirron Norris has called out fnnch in the past for releasing a “blackout” honey bear, designed to resemble the black squares posted on social media to protest police brutality in light of the murder of George Floyd. The black squares garnered enough pushback on their own, but some, including Norris, thought fnnch’s new bear appeared to resemble blackface.
“He argued with me that it wasn’t blackface,” Norris told the San Francisco Chronicle in 2020. “I had to be direct with him. He doesn’t understand what a person of color has gone through.” (SFGATE and the Chronicle are both owned by Hearst but operate independently of one another.)
Norris ended up collaborating with fnnch on a revised design including one of his own blue bears, but said he later regretted it.
A post shared by fnnch (@fnnch)
“He makes money off social issues. That’s the problem,” Norris told the Chronicle. “It fits in that internet entrepreneur mindset. He’s doing what white tech bros do.”
For Norris, the same criticism seemed to apply to fnnch’s latest design.
“This dude constantly profits [off] others’ pain. His bears can’t do anything else,” he tweeted on Wednesday morning in response to KQED journalist Rae Alexandra, who critiqued fnnch’s announcement on Twitter.
Responding to pushback, fnnch later stated on Instagram that his profit margin in 2021 was less than 50%, so he is “aiming to give something near 100% of profits.” He also shared a screenshot from PayPal to show his $12,000 donation to Nova Ukraine.
This dude constantly profits of others pain. His bears can’t do anything else. https://t.co/frdiU4845b
Fnnch said the other 50% of proceeds not going toward Nova Ukraine “will cover the costs of materials and making the pieces in my studio, which employs 4 people and pays rent on an art space in San Francisco.” He told SFGATE he also hopes the painting on eBay will “raise a substantial amount” for Nova Ukraine, and encourages people to donate to the organization directly on its website.
“With the fundraiser I hope I can significantly help a few individuals, even if the benefit to the overall cause is modest,” said fnnch.
“With the Window Bears, my hope is to raise awareness. The more this can happen, the more support — financial, political or otherwise — can be lent to the cause,” he continued via email, echoing the Instagram announcement of the Ukraine bears. “Putting a Ukraine Bear in your window is a way to keep this issue top of mind in your own community and to show solidarity with the Ukrainian people.”
But Ricky Rat called the nature of his work “an unfortunate trend.”
“Tons of individuals, artists or whatever you want to call them find out what the latest hot button issue is — covid, a potential World War III, marginalized groups’ struggles — and then figure out a way to make a dime of it,” he said. “Money donations are always cool, don’t get me wrong. But making a business model off of it to earn profit seems lame. And art-wise it’s just the same design over and over again with slight differences. It’s like we’re in ‘Zoolander’ and we’re all Mugatu yelling ‘It’s the same thing! I feel like I’m taking crazy pills!’”
He added that it “sounds like he pays people to make his ‘art’ … which doesn’t really sound like an artist to me but a tech start-up.”
Amanda Bartlett is a culture reporter for SFGATE. Prior to joining the newsroom in 2019, she worked for the Roxie Theater, Noise Pop and Frameline Film Festival. Bartlett graduated from the University of Iowa and lives in San Francisco.
Fnnch’s newest honey bear design.