As debates over gentrification in San Francisco’s Mission District intensify, censorship of public art has entered the conversation. After BART would not allow Professor Victor De La Rosa’s commissioned textile posters to be displayed outside the 16th Street-Mission station, the ACLU of Northern California and the National Coalition Against Censorship stepped in to help.
“La Gente De Tu Barrio / The People of Your Neighborhood [The Mission Suite],” commissioned by the San Francisco Planning Department, feature four panels of Mission residents’ thoughts on inequality and gentrification, designed in the style of Lucha Libre. One panel was deemed too profane and demeaning by BART for public display. It includes a quote from Mickey “Tiny Loca” Martinez, in large type, stating, “Bitch you’re not from here!”
BART officials have stated this quote violates its standards due to its strong language and disparaging tone toward a group of people. The transit agency has applied its advertising policy to the art, as it does not have an art policy in place. The ACLU and the National Coalition Against Censorship contend it is a constitutional rights issue.
“It appears that BART officials are engaging in viewpoint discrimination by refusing an exhibition permit because they disapprove of the work’s message, thus raising serious First Amendment concerns,” states their December 4 letter sent to BART General Manager Grace Crunican. “Art can express thoughts and ideas that might not always be to the taste of every single member of a community, but that are nonetheless fully protected by the First Amendment.
“Victor De La Rosa’s work addresses the important issues of gentrification and inequality through imagery that enjoys full constitutional protection — a protection which is not affected by the possibility that some viewers may be made to feel uncomfortable by the message of the work.”
Potential compromises for De La Rosa’s art to be displayed have not been successful. BART declined blurring out the word “bitch,” citing the demeaning tone of “You’re not from here.” BART offered to include the three other panels; De La Rosa declined, citing the need for the piece to be featured in full, with all perspectives shown.
De La Rosa intended the installation to allow people in the neighborhood to “foster a moment for considering one’s values and beliefs towards fellow citizens and neighbors,” he says. “It’s a documentary of what’s been happening in the Mission for the last 10 years. Ninety-five percent is gleaned from overhearing direct conversations, press, even graffiti.”
During one afternoon rush hour in late October, De La Rosa and several students staged a “guerrilla art installation,” attaching the posters to the display cases outside the BART station for several hours.
“Hundreds saw the art; the dialogue was really good,” De La Rosa says. “Mickey was the favorite — without prompting, without anyone knowing the controversy.”
Photo: Students Emily Cruz and Nash Bellows install Victor De La Rosa's controversial poster outside the 16th Street-Mission BART station. Photo by Angelica Ekeke.
- BART accused of censoring artist’s work on gentrification, San Francisco Chronicle, December 8, 2015
- National Coalition Against Censorship, December 4, 2015
- ACLU of Northern California
- Victor De La Rosa
- School of Art