Through A Million Avenues with Jeremy Fish

San Francisco's Art Mayor Talks Skateboards, Cannabis and History

“Welcome to my fucked-up bakery,” Jeremy Fish says unfastening a small latch built into a bookcase of his North Beach, San Francisco studio. His laid-back voice juxtaposes the outlandishness of his statements and the surreal fantasia of his artwork. The bookcase swings open on a hidden hinge revealing a massive expanse of white brick.

In this room, once the furnace of a local bakery, Fish works on an upcoming exhibition: a ring of easels showcase his works in progress, figures in various shades of gray all rendered in his now signature style. For the past quarter of a century, Fish’s illustrations have graced art galleries worldwide, as well as magazine spreads, skateboard decks, tee shirts, album covers and business signs around San Francisco — S.F. City Hall named him its first artist-in-residence in 2015.

No matter the medium, Fish’s hobby horses are constant. Caricatured wildlife — bears, fish, dogs and especially rabbits — commingle with human skulls and other more morbid symbology. Their elastic bodies metamorphose into cars and other objects, presented unrealistically in comic landscapes that seem safer, cleaner and more earnest than ours. Fish’s work offers a window into an imaginative realm more accepting of mortality and simultaneously more harmonious than reality. It’s no small wonder that intellectual hip-hop musicians, art critics and skateboard enthusiasts find common ground in his output’s adorable and anarchic spirit.

The cannabis space is no stranger to Fish’s work, either. He’s worked with cannabis brands internationally and collaborated with AbsoluteXtracts on his own cartridge – aptly named Fish Tank. Multiple sherlock-style vapes cradled in carved wooden holsters sit at the ready near his workstations: a sometimes-grim reminder of Fish’s brush with death. He survived an aneurysm and subsequent brain surgery and can’t burn flower or smoke cigarettes any longer.

Though Fish prefers tequila, the counter in his workspace is stocked with beer, mostly gifts from friends in the North Beach neighborhood which he observes from behind a drawing table, invisible from the outside thanks to a glass etching of his own face. Fish watches S.F. from inside the image of his own eye, dressed head to toe in the brown shade that’s become his signature. He’s lived in that neighborhood during the tumultuous period that brought legalized cannabis back to the United States, rubbing elbows with the technological innovators that now shape our society, and his reach is just as global. Pretty good for a kid who moved to the bay from upstate N.Y. in the early ‘90s to attend art school, skate around and smoke some great grass.



1994

During DOPE’s visit to Fish’s studio, he reveals that he first moved to California 25 years ago that very week to attend The San Francisco Art Institute.

“At 19 years old, I was far more interested in skateboarding than I was in art school, and so that’s what I spent the majority of my time doing here,” Fish says. And with skateboarding came cannabis. “Some of the greatest fucking grass was coming from Northern California, and I was just a few hours south. It blew my doors within the first few months I was here.” A longtime sufferer of chronic migraines, he found that cannabis would clear his head long enough to allow him to draw unencumbered, making him an ideal medicinal cannabis activist.

Fish found himself advocating for medicinal cannabis not long after. A chance encounter at Fort Miley with a skateboarder working for Denis Peron led to a part-time job collecting signatures. “It paid 50 cents a signature,” Fish remembers. “Every person you could coax to feeling the same way about it that I did, was 50 cents in the pocket of an art student in what was slowly becoming a more and more expensive city to live in.”

Fish’s father had warned him to keep his finances near the fore of his mind, advice which he took to heart. “My father said, ‘Major in something practical so you can get a fucking job because a fine arts degree is not the sort of thing that opens the doors to great paychecks; focus on something that has a practical application.’” That practical application turned out to be screen printing, which led to a job offer right out of school at a print facility which serviced skateboards and tee shirts. “It was a dream job; it is more than I could have wished for,” he recalls.

At the time, transitioning from skateboard decks into fine art was an unthinkable career track, but Fish has no aversion to breaking from convention.

“I think there’s a million avenues to be successful at visual art, whatever that is, and I’ve taken a lot of non-traditional ones,” he says.

He thinks of that period in the print shop as the equivalent of graduate studies, a crash course in the technical and commercial application of his craft. When Fish entered the shop, he didn’t have the skillset to complete a professional board graphic. By the time he exited, his now-iconic style was fully developed, owing to years working with local influences. “I was studying the illustration styles of these guys that I just worshiped. And that’s kind of when my style shifted to look more like it does today.” Fish quickly points out that he never took any ideas from his then-mentors but admits: “We joke frequently that my style is kind of a melting pot of all the guys that were contributing to that print shop at that time.”

The print shop came with another advantage: its owners published a murderer’s row of touchstone skateboarding magazines, including Thrasher, Slap and Juxtapoz – the latter of which brought Fish international attention. “While I was in art school [it] was a Bible,” he says of Juxtapoz. “It’s created an entire genre and a niche of visual art that wasn’t really there before I moved here.”

Fish published his first poster in Juxtapoz in 1999 after leveraging his contacts inside of the print shop. “I kind of snuck in through the back door. I knew their production guys before I knew their editor.” That work led to a feature in Slap, and shortly thereafter exhibition offers from galleries worldwide looking to explore the ascendant skateboard culture.

He worked in the skateboarding industry for a decade, enduring the economic ups and downs that eventually made him the sole member of his art department. Meanwhile, the standard operation of print shops gradually included more and more computer technology, which Fish had no training in. He left to freelance full time and landed even more high-profile gigs, including the cover to critically acclaimed rapper Aesop Rock’s 2007 album “None Shall Pass.”

“I’m a humongous hip-hop fan and have been my entire life,” Fish says. “At that age, and at that time, the backdrop to all my artwork was his era of hip hop and tons of guys like him.” Fish and Rock were introduced by a mutual friend when the emcee relocated to S.F. from New York. The two empire state expats struck up a working relationship which continues to this day. That partnership led to more gigs for Fish with similar backpacker rappers including Atmosphere, further raising his profile. But the key to Fish’s future would not be music, but the history of the city he calls home.



The Barbary Coast

A circular marker sits embedded in the concrete outside of Fish’s studio, one of many such markers that point out historic locations in the city dating back to the Gold Rush. Fish’s neighborhood offers an embarrassment of cultural riches, both famous and infamous. The Condor, the first legal strip club in America, sits two intersections away, and not far from that is City Lights Booksellers and Publishers, founded by poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti. Nearby Caffe Trieste, the oldest espresso bar on the west coast, adorned with photos of famous singers of the ‘40s and ‘50s, hosted Francis Ford Coppola while he wrote his script to “The Godfather” — an early scene in the film wherein Johnny Fontane visits Connie Corleone’s wedding bears the shop’s obvious influence.

Fish strolls through the neighborhood with easy confidence. Locals sitting outside of Italian restaurants on their lunch break call his name and wave to him while he strides by. Numerous local businesses proudly display signs which he illustrated. He might as well be the Mayor of North Beach — after all San Francisco, home of Emperor Norton, is no stranger to such beloved unelected ‘officials’ — and the local history and culture of the city have inspired some of Fish’s most critically acclaimed material.

“In 2008, I did this whole show that was about Barbary Coast history, the dawn of the city, the Gold Rush, a crazy bar that had a bear tied up in it, and crazy brothels that were saved by the firemen because they loved [them],” Fish says. That exhibit came at a time when the ascendant tech industry began to price-out many of the city’s creatives, a process which Fish doesn’t take issue with. “I was trying to point back at something historically about the city to remind people, “Hey, shit has bubbled and changed before.’” Fish says. “Look at the phoenix, the symbol of the city, our flag, is one of rebirth from tragedy and rebirth from the flames. There’s been shitloads of ups and downs in this town, and there will be it seems … until I either leave or the place explodes.”

The Barbary Coast exhibit proved to be a game-changer for Fish, raising his local profile and catching the attention of those outside of the art scene. “People in the city started to give a fuck about my stuff because I was giving a fuck,” he recalls. “It was at a time that you needed to give a fuck. Things were getting volatile here; people were getting pissed off.”


100 Days in the Broom Closet

In 2015, Fish was selected as the city’s first artist in residence and was commissioned to create 100 drawings in as many days celebrating the history of San Francisco City Hall.

“The Arts Commission picked me because they knew that my work had a broad appeal,” Fish opines. “Because of the amount of tee-shirts I put my artwork on and signage around the city, advertising in commercial work, I had a very recognizable style and something that has a narrative. It tells a story very quickly, and the Arts Commission wanted people to give a fuck about city hall.” In an interview that year, Fish said that if the project could make one percent of the city’s new tech community care about city hall, the project would be a success.

Fish demanded an office at City Hall in which to finish the project and found himself assigned a storage closet. “There was a giant storage room full of architectural drawings and retrofit plans and cool stuff about the building,” he remembers. “That’s the perfect thing to sit around: dusty old models from presentations and things like that. It was wonderful. I was probably the only guy that had an “office” [at city hall] in 2015 that was sitting there stoned drawing pictures.”



The Bronze Bunny

Fish’s most lasting contribution to San Francisco’s art history came about as a gag. A construction project in the Haight was set to demolish a long-abandoned building. As a way to give back to the community, the developers worked with neighborhood supervisor Thea Selby to commission a series of murals to beautify the building before its demolition. Naturally, she approached Fish, who had a slightly different idea.

“[The building] had been heavily tagged with graffiti forever as long as I lived here, so I just thought, ‘Man, putting a mural on that thing is a death wish. Your shit’s just going to get destroyed no matter what you put there.”

Instead, Fish chose to work in an odd, triangular space on the corner, which sat just a little too high to be easily graffitied. And rather than paint a mural, he spent around $500 by his estimation to sculpt a six-foot-tall rabbit out of foam and cover it in fiberglass.

“My friends and I poured a puddle of liquid cement. We drilled way down into the shelf, my construction buddy came, and we put these fat lug nuts down into it. You’d have to cut, I don’t know, 10 bolts off the thing [to remove the sculpture],” he remembers. “It was on there. I just bounced and left it there, and it really got a reaction right away.”

Briefly, Fish has a thing for rabbits. The animal often appears in his work, frequently in a slightly skeletal form. Fish is the leader of a nationwide gang named the Silly Pink Bunnies, boasting over 100 members. The group claims no criminal activity and appears to be more of a social club than anything else, meeting annually in different cities. Fish owns its web page.

That sentimentality may explain why, when it came time to remove the statue, Fish made a to-do about it. He held a funeral for the statue, complete with a eulogy by the city’s now-mayor London Breed —the two now text sometimes. The statue was demolished by a crane, but that was not the end of it.

A local museum, the Haight Street Art Center, received an offer to move into a new building. Selby knew that Fish’s statue had to be a part of the new Art Center and helped organize a Kickstarter to recreate the Silly Pink Bunny, this time in bronze.

“Those guys had watched the whole story of the enthusiasm that grew around the statue and the fact that it was going to get destroyed,” Fish remembers. “They raised the money like that, and it became the largest crowdfunded public bronze statue in the state.” Mayor Breed donated $5,000 to the Kickstarter. The second, much larger, bronze statue now exists outside of the Haight Street Art Center. In all likelihood, it will outlive all of Fish’s other work.

“Long after the paintings are gone and the murals are painted over, and you’re long since dead, here’s this giant several-ton fucking rabbit,” Fish says of the statue, which may be his most enduring piece. “Now, I have this relationship with the mayor because of this fucking statue. You couldn’t predict that kind of outcome from something like this. And it’s a reminder that we should all once in a while just do the most outlandish, most stupid [thing,] just because it seems like a good idea.”


Obelus

Fish underwent treatment for his aneurysm in 2015, during the height of the bunny statue’s mania, he suffered a brain aneurysm. Fish had been a heavy smoker of cannabis and tobacco for years, but doctors warned him to abstain. Quitting nicotine was one thing, but cannabis was another.

Once again, Fish’s deep communal roots came to the rescue. One of his friends, a grower for CannaCraft and AbsoluteXtracts, provided him with oils and edibles during his recovery. “They started providing me with all kinds of oils and edibles and things that at that point were a fucking gift because my life had changed dramatically, “Fish says. That relationship eventually led to the creation of the Fish Tank cartridge, at a time when collaborating with a cannabis brand was no safe bet. “A lot of the people I work with were like, ‘Definitely don’t do that. Don’t put your name on drugs; you’re not Snoop Dogg, it’s not a good idea.’ But I had so much loyalty to them.” That loyalty extends to other businesses as well, such as Mendocino Grasslands in Ukiah, California.

Once again, Fish swam against the current, and wound up with a hit on his hands. “It was a risk worth taking and I’m glad I did. The cartridge won a bunch of awards and it was really well-received and continues to do really well and make shit loads of people happy,” he says. Fish Tank was such a success that a second version of the cartridge, one that comes paired with an infused beverage, is in the works.

Fish’s seemingly contrafactual choices adhere to a workable methodology: using unusual avenues to forge a relationship between his artwork and people who would not otherwise come in contact with it. “Taking a picture and hanging it on a wall in your house, that’s one experience. Hanging it near the toilet? Whole ‘nother experience,” he explains. “But consuming it, eating it, smoking it? That’s a different way of thinking about visual art and the person behind it. To me, that’s really romantic and special, and I’m super proud to have those kinds of things out on the market.”

He’s currently working with the minds behind bay area dispensaries Moe Greens, Grassroots and The Barbary Coast on a new dispensary, right near his headquarters in North Beach. “I couldn’t possibly have a dispensary open in the neighborhood without being involved,” he says. “I’d feel fucked up about it.” The yet-unnamed dispensary promises to be a bifurcated operation, part cannabis outlet and part art gallery, which Fish will help curate. He promises to use the space to keep up the tradition of visual artists in the area, such as Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo.

The dispensary will be one of many traces Fish leaves on North Beach, but it may have to take the place of his headquarters. Fish’s fucked-up bakery, with its secret bookcase door and massive blank expanse, is slated for destruction in the name of development at an uncertain time in the future. The sword hanging over his studio doesn’t bother Fish, though — while the rest of the community complained, he went out of his way to remind the world that San Francisco grew through the Gold Rush, through the rise of big tech and also the rise of legal cannabis. So long as the city exists, the phoenix will continue to fly higher, and Fish will be there to illustrate it.

Joseph Schafer

Joseph Schafer is an Editor at DOPE magazine. He writes about cannabis as well as politics, technology, pop culture and music played at ear-splitting volume. Follow him on Twitter at @JosephPSchafer and Instagram at @timesnewromancatholic

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