'Restore Drag!' event paints a queer visibility message in the Mission as mural is restored

  • by J.L. Odom
  • Friday October 20, 2023
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Artist Juan Manuel Carmona, left, restored his mural with the help of a volunteer as drag artist Per Sia, center rear, spoke about the importance of queer visibility. Photo: J.L. Odom
Artist Juan Manuel Carmona, left, restored his mural with the help of a volunteer as drag artist Per Sia, center rear, spoke about the importance of queer visibility. Photo: J.L. Odom

At the corner of Valencia and 22nd streets, music emanated from a speaker set up outside of Aditi restaurant as a crowd watched San Francisco artist Juan Manuel Carmona and volunteers chip away at a dark brown coating of paint on a utility box. Gradually, they unearthed the art beneath it: Carmona's "Forever Drag."

As the Bay Area Reporter noted online October 19, the mural, featuring drag artist Juanita MORE!, had been defaced and a man who strongly objected to the art confronted Carmona in a threatening manner, he wrote in an artist's statement this week.

"I'm here to support the community, to fight queer erasure and to support the folks that need to be held up and embraced," said Chris Pimentel, who identifies as queer, as he watched the group continue to work together, making enough progress with their tools to reveal the image of MORE!, to whom Carmona had painted a tribute.

Pimentel and others had gathered in the Mission for "Restore Drag! Painting Against Homophobia," an event held Friday to support Carmona's repairing and repainting of his street art.

"I've known Juanita for many years; I've been in the [Castro] neighborhood since 1994. ... I don't know the artist, but I know his work because he's got lots of artwork around the city," explained Pimentel as Carmona used a pressure washer on the utility box.

Carmona is the artist behind several public art projects in the city, including mural collaborations on the exterior of the LGBTQ+ clubs Oasis and El Rio. Carmona's and collaborator Simón Malvaez's work "Queeroes" appeared on the side of the SF LGBT Community Center from spring 2021 to summer 2023, a predecessor to Alma Landeta's mural "Joy is the Fuel," which was unveiled in July.

Carmona, whose work celebrates Latinx heritage and queer identity, is also one of the artists participating in Paint the Void and Civic Joy Fund's "Paint the City," a project centering on creating public art on 100 city utility boxes. He was assigned three utility boxes to paint along Valencia, on 20th, 21st, and 22nd streets. The project was approved by the San Francisco Arts Commission and had the necessary permits, Carmona stated in an artist's statement.

The third box featuring MORE! was reportedly painted over by a resident shortly after Carmona's completion of it in late September; the same individual continued to deface the mural when Carmona attempted to repaint it in early October, stating that it should feature Cesar Chavez, the late founder of the United Farm Workers, and not MORE!.

Carmona had stated that he called police after the October confrontation. The San Francisco Police Department has not responded to the B.A.R.'s request for comment.

As Pimentel commented about the incident, "I think it's just the lack of education and tolerance and empathy for other folks. We all live here; we're sharing a community. And for someone to say that this shouldn't be here or doesn't belong is wrong, and so this is why we're fighting back."

At the event, Carmona spoke of how when he was a child he had to hide in his room to play with Barbies because his mother disapproved. He also shared that he'd been bullied and attacked by others because of being queer.

He said he moved to San Francisco 12 years ago because he "wanted to be free." His very first mural was of MORE!, at 18th and Sanchez streets in the LGBTQ Castro neighborhood.

"That mural represented a big message. It was Juanita in front of the [Pride] flag protecting our rights. ... Today we're here because a person was trying to erase us from Valencia Street, and our message today is killing it with kindness but with a firm hand that we're not alone and we're not going to tolerate homophobia," said Carmona.

Friday's gathering was hosted by MORE!; Honey Mahogany, chair of the San Francisco Democratic Party; drag artist Per Sia; Galería de la Raza; and the GLBT Historical Society. Speakers at the event included MORE!; Carmona; Ani Rivera, executive director of the Galería de la Raza; Roberto Ordeñana, executive director of the historical society; and Per Sia and Mahogany. All called attention to the importance of queer and transgender visibility in the city and through the LGBTQ+-centered work of artists like Carmona.

"It has been completely disheartening to see the way that this mural was defaced and erased," said Mahogany. "And let it be said that here in San Francisco, we will not be silenced. We will not allow our histories to be erased, and we are a queer and trans mecca for the entire world."

Mahogany, the first Black transgender person to lead city Democrats and who is district director for Assemblymember Matt Haney (D-San Francisco), noted that the city is likely to become increasingly trans and queer as individuals flee other states with anti-LGBTQ+ laws.

"I am so proud of the fact that we are a sanctuary city for our community — that we are a safe space," she said. "And all of us have to continue to fight to make sure that it remains that way. So this is a call-to-action for more visibility, for celebrating our queerness, our transness but also for ensuring that when people come here ... that we ensure that San Francisco is welcoming. And one of the ways in which we are doing that is by murals like this by Juan Manuel.

"The Mission, Valencia Street, all of these spaces have such a deep history within the queer community—something that should be celebrated and uplifted," Mahogany added.

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