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."