Dec. 28 2011 12:00 AM

Did the Surfing Madonna get more attention than it deserved?

The "Surfing Madonna" is cool, but what about ThatKidPeep and other street artists who've been putting up images and spreading messages across our city?
Photo by Nancy Carp

The proposed “Wings of Freedom” project got plenty of attention. Do Ho Suh's “Fallen Star” installation at UCSD turned heads. But it was the “Surfing Madonna,” a mosaic depicting Our Lady of Guadalupe on a surfboard with the message “Save the Ocean” written down one side—surreptitiously installed on a railroad underpass in Encinitas in April—that was undoubtedly the most talked-about San Diego art story of 2011. It had all the elements necessary to strike a chord with a wide audience—mystery, controversy and a surprise happy ending.

But what would've happened if the artist had turned out to be a longtime San Diego street artist—perhaps a black or Latino kid— instead of Mark Patterson, a charming 58-year-old white dude who claimed the piece was a response to an inexplicable calling to promote environmentalism?---

My guess is that the city of Encinitas wouldn't have agreed to relocate the piece—an anonymous street artist, after all, wouldn't have had the same connections to engage municipal leaders. I suspect the story would've attracted less attention, too, as media types chalked it up to yet another example of illegal graffiti, albeit interesting because of the mosaic medium and the environmental message.

I'm not taking away from the Surfing Madonna's importance, though, just giving a hat-tip to the hardcore local graffiti artists who undertake far more daring feats to put art up in obscure places and have been doing so a lot longer than Patterson. They, too, make art illegally out of a desire to beautify freeway underpasses and bare cement while spreading messages they value. I'm not talking about the taggers—the messy scrawled text; I'm talking about skilled street artists like ThatKidPeep, whose stylized bird head in spray-paint and sticker form is perhaps this year's most pervasive graphic image in San Diego's cityscape.

Keep up with Peep, Pose 2, Pandemic (whose gutsy street-art stunt was covered in CityBeat in April) and other important-yet-mostly-anonymous local street artists at, a blog run by Nancy Carp, an artist whose cat stickers and wheat-pastes color San Diego, too. And over at, artist Bryan Snyder—an early supporter of the Surfing Madonna and street-art installations in general—continues to document and create some of the region's most inspired outdoor art. “In many cases,” wrote Snyder in an email interview with CityBeat in June, “the term ‘street art' needs to be extracted from the definition of vandalism.”

I agree. And that thinking should be applied in all cases, not just those featuring media darlings. The San Diego Museum of Art made a bold move this year by commissioning Saratoga Sake, one of San Diego's street-art pioneers, and Writerz Blok to create a mural inspired by the museum's Mexican Modern Painting exhibition. And while museum commissions aren't the be-all, end-all in legitimizing art, let's hope 2012 sees more of this sort of open-minded graffiti-art appreciation.

More memorable artful acts of 2011

Never have I seen a more active art scene in San Diego than during the few days of this year's Art Labs, a program of the annual Art San Diego Contemporary Art Fair. While the fair is still maturing, the Art Labs were mostly exciting and edgy. The 8 x 8 exhibition at Space 4 Art, in which artists were given 8-foot wooden boxes to exhibit their work, was especially provocative, and Barrio Logan art hubs like The Roots Factory, Voz Alta and the new venue The Spot represented well, proving that the emerging Barrio Logan Arts District is something to watch in 2012 and beyond.

For those outside San Diego looking in, Pacific Standard Time: Art in L.A. 1945-1980, The Getty's initiative that set out to exhibit and catalogue postwar art made in and around Los Angeles, has been instrumental in elevating our city in the international art scene. The Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego's Pacific Standard Time contribution, Phenomenal: California Light, Space, Surface, showing at both MCASD locations through Jan. 22, helps move the focus of the American art scene away from New York and toward the west. The well-done exhibition shows off California's light-and-space artists in subtle (think Robert Irwin's apertures cut into the museum's existing windows) and striking ways (walk into Eric Orr's physiologically moving “Zero Mass” installation). And the Mingei International Museum's detective work in putting together its PST exhibition, San Diego's Craft Revolution, showing through April 15, has filled a gap in California art history.

While Sushi Contemporary Performance & Visual Arts closed this year, new spaces like Ice Gallery, Double Break, ArtLab Studios, McNabb Martin Contemporary Art and jdc Fine Art opened (Ice Gallery, by the way, could potentially close in 2012 if they don't raise enough money for structural repairs on the old building where the gallery is housed). Also, as I reported in my blog post about Sushi closing, the building where Sushi was housed is required to be leased by an arts organization for 25 years ( arts editor Kelly Bennett did a great piece on what that really means). A bit of good news for 2012: The nonprofit arts group Sezio is currently putting in a proposal for Sushi's former digs. 

In late 2010, I wrote about an architect who came up with a more friendly design for Friendship Park, the infamous plot of land in Border Field State Park where the United States ends and Mexico begins. In January  2011, Friends of Friendship Park, the nonprofit pushing the park's redesign, met with U.S. Customs and Border Protection about the plan, which got them a step closer to actual implementation. This month, though, there was a major setback in the redesign of Friendship Park. I broke the news that a new replacement fence had gone up inside the park, blocking access to Border Monument 258, an important historical site. 

In March, I wrote about a show's cancellation at a gallery at the Naval Training Center (NTC) in Point Loma. Alan Ziter, executive director of the NTC Foundation, told the curator of Martha Pace Swift Gallery, which is housed in a building's public corridors, that he could not exhibit large-scale nudes by San Diego artist Anna Stump. After my story came out, local arts leaders organized a panel on the subject and people involved (me included) debated the case.  

In June, CityBeat got a poor young writer-turned-mailman fired after we profiled him in a story we called "Mailman meme." In the piece, we mentioned his 'zine, Slave Labor Makes You Look Great!, a title the United States Postal Service didn't like too much. Well, now there are two bits of good news involving the creative mailman: one, he now writes for CityBeat from time to time and, two, he recently posted Slave Labor online.

As I argued in the lead story above, we need more open-minded graffiti-art appreciation in this town. Case in point: The incident earlier this month when someone reported The Linkery's commissioned mural on the outside of their building as illegal graffiti. San Diego's Neighborhood Code Compliance Department served The Linkery with a citation warning, which was eventually recognized as a mistake. Stay tuned for a story involving a National City business owner who's been told to paint over the pieces of commissioned graffiti on his building. 

Earlier this month, I reported that Technomania Circus was in danger of losing they're new venue, Victory Theater, after being told they'd need to fork over $17,000 for special permits to continue operating as a theater. San Diego City Councilmember David Alvarez blamed outdated zoning rules for the issue. After my story ran and Alvarez's office contacted city planners, Technomania Circus was told that since the building had a history of operating as a theater, they could continue without the pricey permits.

Speaking of circuses, in October, we reported that Fern Street Circus would be closing permanently after 21 years in business

On Dec. 9, I reported that the Agua Caliente mural painted on the California Theatre downtown was in danger of being painted over with a beer advertisement. KPBS followed it up with an excellent piece on the mural, which inspired CityBeat columnist Enrique Limón and his Art Fist Collective to start an online petition to save it. A few days later, the city announced they would not paint over the mural until they conducted a historical-resources report. Limón followed the announcement with an interesting piece on why the mural should indeed be seen as an important historical site.

San Diego Visual Art Network showcased the final Art Meets Fashion collaborations at a big runway fashion show at the San Diego International Airport in April. The event successfully showed off some of San Diego's top artists and designers and proved that collaborations can be good for creativity. Look for SDVAN's The DNA of Creativity project in 2012

The Balboa Park Online Collaborative continues to be a progressive force in San Diego's culture scene. Their Museum Marathon, in which two employees spent 26.2 straight days at Balboa Park institutions in May and June, was a fascinating and creative experiment in using blogging and social-media to connect with audiences. Check out the Facebook page if you somehow missed the adventure.

In October, The New Children's Museum opened TRASH, an ambitious exhibition that enrolled the help of a dozen contemporary artists to create installations educating kids and families about the issues around waste and waste management. Rachel Teagle, the museum's executive director, also announced this year that she'd be stepping down. In late November, the museum's board of directors appointed Julianne Markow as the new executive director

Thumbprint Gallery, which moved from North Park to La Jolla this year, continues to be the place to go to see local, urban contemporary art. 


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