Merchant exposes statue's penis
by Matthew S. Bajko
Santa Claus is coming early for lovers of artwork with engorged penises. As of today (Thursday, December 8), a Castro merchant plans to disrobe a teak statue and allow passersby to once again view a now world famous 8-inch penis on the chiseled, naked kneeling man in his store window.
In October, police officers responding to complaints informed the storeowner that he had to cover up the penis on the Balinese statue â€“ which functions as a tabletop holder â€“ because it was pornographic and violated city codes. The merchant complied by draping a blue loincloth over the statue's genitals but felt his rights had been violated.
Robert Hedric, the proprietor of Phantom*SF, an antiques store and art gallery on 18th Street near Cala Foods, said this month he had decided to remove a red colored skirt currently covering the carved cock because after repeated requests the police have failed to cite what codes he is violating.
"He is disguised as Santa's little helper," said Hedric, who opened his store and eBay drop off center in the Castro in September 2004.
Hedric has nixed his idea of hanging a Christmas wreath with blinking lights from the phallus, fearing such a decoration would only ignite more controversy than it is worth. He also will be uncovering but removing from his window display a giant wood carved penis fertility idol, similar to those found in many Chinatown shops.
The nude male statue first appeared in his window, with the penis covered, in late summer. During the Castro Street Fair in early October. Hedric removed the loincloth, and the statue remained exposed in his window for the next three weeks until an anonymous man lodged a complaint because the penis was at his children's eye level. The man then complained to the police.
Hedric insists the wooden work is art and not pornography, and therefore, he has every right to display it in his window.
"I don't run a sex shop. I sell porcelains, antiques and art â€“ and therefore, never in my dreams would it occur to me to put something pornographic into my window," he said.
Enter the ACLU
An attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union agreed that the piece would not be considered pornographic under current laws. Staff attorney Ann Brick said as a piece of folk art, it is her belief the statue is entitled to First Amendment protection and can be displayed without incident.
"I think it is unlikely a court would find otherwise," said Brick. "The bottom line is when you are displaying art, the police cannot tell a store owner to take that piece of art out of a window simply because others find it offensive."
Hedric contacted the ACLU for advice, and Brick spoke to Captain John Goldberg at Mission Station last week to inquire about the case. Brick said it is unclear why the artwork needs to be covered.
"The thing that was troubling about that conversation was I asked what law the police contended was being violated by the display of this statue and I never got an answer back," said Brick. "I asked, what is the San Francisco ordinance, and I got no answer. What is important is when the police take a position that the display of an object violates the law there is an obligation to tell us just what law is being violated so there can be a fair review. It is unfair to Mr. Hedric not to tell someone if there is such a law."
Goldberg did not return a message seeking comment. Brick said Goldberg informed her it was his understanding that his officers and the storeowner had reached an agreement that Hedric would move the statue or cover up the offending body part. Hedric acknowledged he agreed at the time to comply but says he did so only to give him time to determine if he indeed was violating the law.
"If somebody would just let me know what code I am violating then I would comply. But I don't know what code I am violating. Everyone is using scare tactics and I am sick of it," said Hedric.
Brick said she could not recall another incident in San Francisco similar to Mr. Hedric's case.
"I think it is a first but that doesn't mean it hasn't happened before," she said. "Certainly, the issue comes up from time to time but it is not local to the Castro. We more typically hear about it from smaller communities."
Story hits Net
After the Bay Area Reporter first reported the story on November 10, Web sites around the world picked up on the story and posted links to the article on eBAR.com, resulting in 22,000 hits over that weekend. A week later a local newscast aired a piece on the problematic penis and the morning show hosts of Energy 92.7 also picked up the story and were flooded by callers.
Visitors to www.Fark.com posted over 75 comments about the controversy, from those both for and against seeing the statue revealed.
"I understand the argument of 'sex can be art, too,' but thing is, that form of art is directed specifically toward adults, and as such, should be for adults only. After all, that's how pornography is dealt with, and the true 'sex art' is simply tasteful pornography," wrote one person.
Another stated, "Okay, I know the area and just have to say that going down there, and not expecting to see something exactly like this is fairly analogous to hanging out on Bourbon street and getting pissed off at the boobage on display there. It's the Castro, fer cryin' out loud! It's not a Baptist daycare center."
One person decried America's Puritan roots, stating, "Why is it all of a sudden no longer artistic if a penis is involved? For centuries humanity has made artwork of the human form, especially women, and people consider it beautiful maginificent works of art, but the moment a penis is involved it is no longer art, it becomes trashy, vulgar, and inappropriate. Is it because so many people are stuck with Victorian sensibilities, or because these people seem to have a serious case of penis envy?"
One poster insisted the issue was not one of decency but taste, writing, "Gawd, that is so tacky! It's not obscene so much as farking hideously tacky. Might as well gild it, too."
Supervisor Bevan Dufty, who had been approached by a lesbian mother complaining about window displays in other Castro stores, said he does not think Hedric's statue violated the law.
"In my view, in no way is this harmful. We have a definition of what harmful material is in the Penal Code and I don't think this meets that standard," said Dufty. "My belief is that this is a piece of art that is perceived differently by different people."
He said the controversy has been good for the community because "I think in a respectful way, people have been made aware of some individuals, not all parents but some individuals, who are concerned and want to make us aware. And that is fine.
"If anything, it is shaking up the knee-jerk reaction that the Castro is being gentrified with straight people. I just don't think that is the case," added Dufty. "That is not the way this is panning out. I've got lesbian moms who have concerns and straight parents who say it is not a big deal."
Hedric said most of the people who contacted him (or mistakenly called the similarly named adult sex shop Phantom on Castro Street) have been supportive. He said he is not surprised at the worldwide attention the story has received.
"San Francisco, and the Castro District especially, is or was the gay capital of the world and everyone is still looking to see what is happening here," he said.
The statue may not be in the window much longer. Three people, including Mr. Florida Leather 2005, have expressed interest in buying the piece, priced at $3,800.Â
"It would be most favorable to everyone involved if the piece was sold," said Hedric.