What’s With the Critical Mass Comic in Mayor Newsom’s Press Office?

Gav_CM_Bike_Coalition_small.gifClick to enlarge. Photo: Matthew Roth

On a recent visit to Mayor Gavin Newsom’s Press Office, I was a bit befuddled by the enormous comic behind the reception desk. The four-by-five foot framed illustration completely dominates the room, but that wasn’t the half of it. Click on the picture to enlarge it and read the speech bubble, you’ll see what I mean. 

Besides conflating Critical Mass and the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition in the same way Rob Anderson might, I didn’t really get the joke.

Turns out there’s a longer story here. 

In 2005, artist Drey Tosi started a business specializing in custom pop art inspired by Warhol and Lichtenstein. As part of an effort to drum up publicity for his business, he approached a former classmate of his, Lisa Calegari, who was friends with Mayor Newsom, and pitched her on a picture that would draw on Lichtenstein’s style, but would include subject matter relevant to the time. 

Tosi hired illustrator Jay Mazhar to make the picture and used a photograph of Newsom’s assistant, Becca Prowda, as the subject for the secretary. The period phone and typewriter were meant to evoke trappings of Lichtenstein’s era, according to Tosi.

As for the speech bubble, Tosi said San Francisco was in the running as a host city for the 2016 Olympics and he wanted to play off of the news. "I wanted to create a scene of shock by a statement the secretary was
delivering to him," said Tosi. "What could she be telling him that was absurd,
something relating to the Olympics, but something particularly San
Franciscan?"

Not long after presented to painting to Newsome for his birthday in 2006, San Francisco withdrew its bid for the Olympics. The painting, as far as Tosi knew, was put away with any of a number of other gifts the Mayor received. The press attention he hoped for didn’t bump business too much, though he did get a mention in the San Francisco Chronicle at the time.

Flash forward to this year. According to the Mayor’s press office, Newsom pulled the painting out of storage recently and they put the picture up in reception a couple
weeks back with the transition from former Communications Director
Nathan Ballard to Tony Winnicker.

"I’m really happy that it was used and appreciated," said Tosi. "It’s an accurate representation of Lichtenstein and it’s worth something for that."

The SFBC, it turns out, likes the image and the joke.

"It’s really pretty funny," said SFBC Program Director Andy Thornley, though he reiterated that the SFBC doesn’t control Critical Mass and vice versa.
"We’re flattered to have such a prominent presence in the Mayor’s press
office, no point quibbling too much about the factual errors. It’s art,
after all."

  • Jym

    =v= Given that it’s spread to nearly 500 locations, I dunno how “particularly San Franciscan” it is. We did originate it, of course. ;^)

  • Excellent find, Matt! But wouldn’t worry too much about about the conflation of CM with SFBC, especially if SFBC doesn’t mind –CM can use all the help it can get.

  • Sean

    Free police escorts aren’t enough help?

  • Alex R

    The police “escort” CM by driving behind it, threatening stragglers to move on. They never block traffic at intersections except to corral the Mass. I’ve never seen them act in a protective fashion toward CM, and their presence is unwelcome to most riders as far as I know. Saying that SFPD “escorts” CM is like saying hunters’ hounds “escort” foxes.

  • There was a time in the faded past, when a certain Emperor reigned in these parts, that the police did try to block traffic for Mass. I suspect it was mostly to to facilitate our fast removal from downtown to wherever.

    In any case, it was a failure on all counts, I think. It made the cops look like they were condoning the ride (horrors!) and made the Massers forget how to watch out for their own safety. It gave a lot of control over to authorities.

  • David

    over-analyze much?

  • If anyone is interested I recently posted a brief (and I mean very brief) history of Critical Mass vs. SFPD along with a photo slide show from the last ride.

    http://www.examiner.com/x-32279-SF-Crime-Examiner~y2010m4d3-Of-bicycles-and-the-critical-history-of-a-mass-future

    … and just as a reminder, the death of CM has been predicted/announced before …

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