In April, the Soma West Community Benefit District reached out to the LEATHER & LGBTQ Cultural District, the SoMa Pilipinas Cultural District, and a number of other local artists to create artwork that would be displayed on the neighborhood’s new Big Belly trash cans. The hope was “to support local artists, and to get something unique and creative out there,” Christian Martin, executive director of the Soma West CBD, told me.
Among the artists from the LEATHER & LGBTQ Cultural District were Dorian Katz and Justin Hall. Both Katz and Hall had submitted pieces of unique artwork to hopefully be displayed on the Big Belly trash cans that are now spread out across SoMa.
They were paid for their artwork and even given a location of where their unique trash cans would be – but when they went to go see their trash cans, they weren’t there.
Katz and Hall were among five artists who painted submissions for the LEATHER & LGBTQ Cultural District but had their submissions pulled at the last minute with no notification from the Soma West CBD.
Katz, a queer/bisexual woman, has been creating queer art as her alter ego Poppers the Pony for over 15 years and has been a part of the leather and LGBTQ community in San Francisco since 2000. Katz’s submission for the Big Belly trash cans displayed her character Popper the Pony in leather.
“For my drawings, I decided to use the hanky code as itself, a color code used to communicate sexual interests in the queer leather community,” she told me by email. “Most people, young and old and all ages in between, will not know the code. For them, I hoped they’d still enjoy these playful, cartoon-y drawings. For queer leather people, I hoped that seeing images reflecting our culture would add to their sense of belonging.”
(The hanky code was created in the 1970s; different colored hankies are used predominately by gay men to signal which type of sex they want to have.)
When Katz realized her trash can wasn’t going to be displayed she said she “was really sad, because there is a lot less to look forward to.” In a year marked by a pandemic, stay-at-home orders, and social isolation, and therefore fewer opportunities for public art display this was an exciting prospect for Katz.
She was even more disappointed that she had to find out by going to the location since she wasn’t notified by Martin or anyone at the Soma West CBD that her art had been pulled. “Once you tell someone their art is going on a corner,” she said, “it seems reasonable to expect it will happen.”
Hall, a gay man who has been an artist for more than 30 years, moved to San Francisco 25 years ago and found a home as a part of the city’s leather and LGBTQ community. When he submitted his art to hopefully be placed on one of the Big Belly trash cans he was excited to become a “trashy artist” and even more excited to be a part of the lineage of the leather and bondage scene in Soma.
He, like Katz, wasn’t notified that his art ultimately didn’t make the final cut and wouldn’t be displayed, and said the incident felt “tremendously disrespectful… nobody knew, and nobody had a chance to change their art.”
Although both Hall and Katz believe that one Soma West CBD board member, who had an issue with the hanky code, ultimately had the final call about whether certain LEATHER & LGBTQ Cultural District art submissions would be displayed, Martin said that wasn’t true.
Martin said that one board member expressed concerns about “Katz’s piece and the graphic nature of the artwork” and from there it started a larger conversation at the board level during which more voices came into the conversation.
Martin explained that Katz piece was pulled, because the board didn’t agree with having the Soma West CBD logo (which is displayed on all of the Big Belly trash cans in the neighborhood) displayed alongside her explicit art piece. The other pieces were ultimately not displayed for various other reasons.
Martin said the lack of communication about these decisions to the artists, was his fault, and only happened due to the short timeline which ultimately left the Soma West CBD scrambling to get everything together in time to meet their deadlines.
Even though Hall was disappointed by the situation, he noted that Martin was very engaged and transparent when it came to addressing the miscommunications and missteps of the CBD during a private meeting which Hall, Katz, one other affected artist, and Bob Goldfarb, president of the LEATHER & LGBTQ Cultural District were present for.
Goldfarb wrote in an email to me, “My recollection is that the CBD’s offers included a pledge for better communication, a pledge to pay for new art or revisions, and an agreement to produce a set of standards for their art.” He continued on noting that the LEATHER & LGBTQ Cultural District, “view the situation as still in the process of being resolved and my expectation is that we will all meet with the CBD again.”
Hall and Katz suggested that the Soma West CBD work together with the San Francisco Arts Commission or California Lawyers for the Arts to build a paper trail and set of standards when commissioning art in the future.
And although Hall’s experience with the Soma West CBD wasn’t ideal this time around, he noted that “it is great that they are giving people this opportunity to be a part of this community,” and even though there was a miscommunication he wants this to be a positive thing for the community.
While Martin and the Soma West CBD hope to gather new art commissions in springtime, Martin noted that in order for that to happen they must not only find a way to ensure the mishaps that occurred this time are resolved, they must also find a way to secure more new Big Belly trash cans.
The Big Belly trash cans, which rely on solar panels to compact the trash, have been the targets of recent theft. According to Martin, seven of the new trash cans have had their solar panels stolen off of them and are now unusable until they are repaired. The CBD is working to come up for a solution to this problem but until then no new art will be commissioned.