An attempt to reconstruct an item that disappeared.

27 April 2021 | Rae Alexandra | KQED

In the summer of 2018, I put together a guide to six prolific muralists in San Francisco, including maps of where to find their work. The idea was to create city walks that doubled as art treasure hunts, and to encourage people to learn more about some of our most visible local artists. The list included Jeremy FishSirron NorrisFew and Far WomenSam FloresAPEXER and—try not to hate me—fnnch, the artist behind all those honey bears plastered everywhere in San Francisco.

At the time, fnnch was as well known for his poppies, dogs and bright lips as he was for his honey bears. And at the time, I described his artistic contributions to the city as the “most Instagram-able” on the list, adding that each of his public pieces made the city “a more cheerful place to be.”

Almost three years later, I cannot, in good conscience, say the same thing. In the past 12 months, San Francisco has become so oversaturated with fnnch’s honey bears that what was once an occasional sugar rush now feels like a nausea-inducing force-feeding. And I’m not alone: the backlash, brewing since last summer, finally reached its zenith this month. There’s a new (private) Instagram account, @fuckfnnch, that celebrates “pics or videos of dissed or ripped bears.” There’s a Change.org petition titled “Remove fnnch mural from SF LGBT Center.” And, notably, there are the local artists who’ve been confronting fnnch on walls, in person and online.

Back when I wrote that mural guide, in 2018, fnnch was not a favorite within the art community—but he wasn’t this despised, either. He was seen as too generic, too clean-cut, too… safe. But he held a mainstream appeal that few artists who paint on city walls hold. He was, to put it bluntly, a street artist for people who don’t actually like street art. If regular street artists were the SFMOMA, fnnch was the Museum of Ice Cream.

fnnch’s latest problems, however, are rooted in his transition from public selfie backgrounds into the realm of community issues, where he distills serious topics down into his honey bear image. And he’s been doing that, in earnest, since the pandemic began.

It started harmlessly enough. In April 2020, fnnch began, according to one of his newsletters, “wheat-pasting COVID Bears on boarded up storefronts across San Francisco.” At the time, he said he wanted to “convert depressing storefronts into canvases for art, and encourage healthy behavior.” Then, in May, he came up with the #HoneyBearHunt. It was a more urban take on what was happening in the suburbs during the early days of shelter in place: instead of putting actual teddy bears in windows for neighborhood children, people could display fnnch’s honey bear, and kids could follow his virtual map to find them. He sold 3,500 bear window displays in four days.

In the year since, fnnch—a straight, white, former tech worker—has been bombarding San Francisco with those bears. After the initial mask and soap bears for the #HoneyBearHunt, there was a woefully ill-advised—then re-imagined—Black Lives Matter-inspired bear. There was a bear to encourage voting. There was a Ruth Bader Ginsburg bear, a firefighter bear, a teacher bear, a coffee house bear (which fnnch said symbolized the “many everyday heroes of the pandemic”), a San Francisco Ballet bear, a movie bear and, most recently, a Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence bear.

This critique of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence honey bear recently appeared on Ricky Rat's Instagram account.
This critique of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence honey bear recently appeared on Ricky Rat’s Instagram account. (Instagram/ @rickyratcomix)

One of the reasons people kept buying the bears was because most of them, in one way or another, support a good cause. The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence will receive 50% of funds from fnnch’s painting and print sales in their likeness. Mask bear and soap bear raised over $100,000 for the Safety Net Fund. Of the firefighter bear sales, 50% benefited the CAL FIRE Foundation. The SF Ballet got “50% of [related] art sales and 25% of other sales … to support their extensive COVID testing of dancers and staff.” Ten percent of the profits from the movie bear print went to the Roxie. A line of T-shirts donated 25% of sales to St. Anthony’s, a nonprofit community organization. As fnnch himself noted in one of his regular newsletters, he “went from raising or donating $12,000 in 2019 to $293,000 in 2020.”

After the uproar that greeted his initial attempt at a BLM-inspired bear, an image that people likened to blackface, fnnch donated 50% of proceeds from his subsequent “Ally Bear” to the Equal Justice Initiative, and the other 50% to Newbills Barber Shop and Salon on Divisadero. It was a rare occasion when the artist himself did not also profit from a design.

What is less acknowledged when it comes to fnnch, though, is the primary reason people in the city are so sick of him. He has figured out a way to dominate public space, and without any of the risks or consequences that art that lives in public usually faces. (Such as weather damage, tagging, etc.) Honey bears pasted onto shuttered storefronts will have a shelf life of weeks. Honey bears stuck up safely inside people’s windows, protected by the rules of private property, can live indefinitely.

Which is how you end up with this:

fnnch's own map of honey bear saturation in San Francisco demonstrates how few spaces remain bear-free.
fnnch’s own map of honey bear saturation in San Francisco. (Instagram/ @fnnch)

What’s worse, even at his current level of over-saturation, fnnch’s commitment to blanketing the city with a single image is only getting more aggressive. He specified in his January newsletter that people buying prints for his second honey bear hunt must display the bears in their windows for “at least 3 months.” He added, “It would be swell if you kept it up for the duration of the pandemic, but … after 3 months I will reach out with a survey to see if you’d like to keep your bear up longer.” Children haven’t been this invested in teddy bear hunts in months. So why keep up the proliferation? What’s in it for fnnch?