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SF Street Artist Swipes City Property, Sells It Online for Thousands

Written by Garrett LeahyPublished Jan. 24, 2023 • 6:30am
Graffiti artist Ongo lays out Muni maps painted with his design in his studio in San Francisco's Mission District. | Garrett Leahy/The Standard

English

If you’ve seen a man with orange skin, green sunglasses and a white wig painted around the city, you’ve seen the work of a San Francisco graffiti artist who goes by the moniker Ongo.

Ongo is known for tagging sidewalks, electrical boxes and even metal grates and Muni maps—sometimes swiping them off the street and selling them on his website, much to the city’s frustration.

“What he is doing is a crime, and if he gets caught, he will be subject to arrest. The city of San Francisco does not give individuals permission to deface, steal, or destroy public property,” an SFPD spokesperson said.

“If the individual who goes by the moniker Ongo—or anyone else for that matter—takes the metal grate off someone’s sidewalk without their permission that would be stealing. Theft is a crime,” said Department of Public Works spokesperson Rachel Gordon.

Gordon added that removing the perforated metal grates creates a tripping hazard, and that property owners living in front of them are responsible for replacing them, which costs between $10 and $30. 

The city’s transit agency told The Standard it is working on a program to update the city’s bus shelters to stop vandalism and that only art produced with the agency’s permission is allowed.

“While art is a component of our shelter program it needs to be expressed in a legal way that does not produce permanent damage to the shelters themselves,” said San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency spokesperson Stephen Chun.

Sipping coffee in camo Crocs, layers of jackets with one latex fingerless glove on his left hand, Ongo said he didn’t feel too conflicted about painting on city property, especially the metal grates, which he says are usually up for grabs anyway.

Metal grates painted by the graffiti artist Ongo in his studio in San Francisco’s Mission District | Garrett Leahy/The Standard

“Like, 70% of them aren’t secured in the ground. If I see a bolt, I don’t even try, because there’ll be one down the block [without a bolt],” Ongo said. “If they don’t want people to take them, they should do a better job securing them.”

‘It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia’

The name Ongo comes from a character of the same name hailing from a 2016 episode of FX’s TV show It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia titled “Dee Made a Smut Film,” where actor Danny DeVito impersonates a fictional art critic named Ongo Gablogian to impress an art collector, satirizing pretentiousness in elite art circles throughout the act.

“The show is silly and outrageous. That whole episode is like, ‘What is art?’ Why is something worth millions just because it’s painted by one particular person, even if it’s just scribbles and bullshit?” Ongo said at Ritual Coffee Roasters on Valencia Street.

It was in June 2020 that Ongo settled on the design of the fictional character, with some stylistic tweaks, including orange skin and green sunglasses.

Painted wooden cut-outs with Ongo’s design are leaned against a shelf in his Mission District studio in San Francisco. | Garrett Leahy/The Standard

“One day my buddy was like, ‘Oh, Ongo would be a cool design,’” he said. “I painted it, and I was like, ‘Yeah, that’s it.’”

Getting Into Graffiti

Ongo first became interested in graffiti when he was a 19-year-old student at the University of Wisconsin, where he saw koi fish painted around his hometown streets of Milwaukee. He later learned that the fish were painted by Jeremy Novy, who has also painted them in San Francisco.

Discovering a street artist’s calling card underneath an overpass or some other obscure corner felt like an Easter egg connecting him with its maker, Ongo said.

“I felt like I was transported through time,” Ongo said.

Ongo was also fascinated by the work of graffiti artist Shepard Fairey, creator of the “Obey” design, who is also notable due to his Obama “Hope” posters and the clothing brand of the same name.

“His whole thing was repetition, having people see the same thing over and over again and then thinking, ‘Oh, there must be some meaning to it,’” Ongo said.

Ongo went on to graduate two years later in 2016 with degrees in psychology and sociology, and moved to San Francisco immediately after to follow his then-girlfriend, who had migrated to the city for work. He then bounced around tech recruiting jobs until being laid off in early 2020, painting his first Ongo design that June on the boarded-over window of a storefront in the Mission, made vacant thanks to Covid.

Spray cans and cardboard stencils used by Ongo in his studio in San Francisco’s Mission District | Garrett Leahy/The Standard

Ongo began leaving his tag around the city, venturing to the Outer Richmond, Inner Sunset, the Haight as well as the Mission. It first took nearly 45 minutes to paint one Ongo design, but he later picked up a tip from another graffiti artist while visiting À.pe—a store that sells paint, art and clothing on 18th Street—on making the paint dry almost instantly.

“Gold Bond powder,” Ongo said. 

$2,000-a-Month in Sales

Ongo said he nets roughly $2,000 monthly in art sales through his website, where he hawks Muni bus signs, maps and grates taken from city streets and painted with his logo.

“I think people like it more because it’s like a piece of San Francisco,” Ongo said.

But rent for an apartment in the city’s Mission District takes a serious chunk out of whatever profits the artist can scrap together.

“More than half,” Ongo said, chuckling.

Graffiti artist Ongo poses for a portrait in his studio in San Francisco’s Mission District. | Garrett Leahy/The Standard

Ongo is committed to staying in the city, drawn to his belief that people here appreciate street art and lend it legitimacy that it would not have in his native Milwaukee. It doesn’t hurt that people here are more willing to spend compared with those in his hometown, Ongo said.

“I know this can only continue in San Francisco. People value artists here,” Ongo said. “Back home, people view it like a little hobby.”

The future of Ongo

Graffiti artists in the past have made names for themselves by spraying their tags around cities and gaining fame and income through their brands, including—perhaps infamously—the street artist Fnnch, known for the honey bears

Expansion isn’t something that weighs on Ongo’s mind at this stage. He said he is more focused on paying the bills before trying to further monetize his aspiring brand, although streetwear like Obey has bubbled in his mind as a potential interest.

“Ten years ago, living here was unfathomable,” Ongo said. “Five years ago, being a full-time artist was unfathomable. I believe in little baby steps every day and seeing what it turns into.”

English

Garrett Leahy can be reached at [email protected]


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