Take a walk, run, or bicycle ride down the streets through any neighborhood of San Francisco and you may find yourself strolling, jogging, or riding alongside families and lovers, or photographers and runners, who seem to be on some sort of mission. They catch your eye. They stop. Look. Point. And, you wonder, “What are they pointing to way up there?” You witness excitement in a fidgety 10-year-old girl, probably on a walk-break from her zoom classes, as she yanks a small notebook out from the back pocket of their father’s Levi’s, clicks open a pen, and places a thick black mark through something that looks like a location on a small map. “What kind of mission are they on?” you ask yourself.
What you have just witnessed is Fnnch’s Honey Bear Hunt.
“What’s a Fnnch?” you ask.
Fnnch is a somewhat elusive San Francisco street artist who is best known for his Honey Bear designs, resembling the classic plastic squeezable honey bear honey container with a spout cap lid sold in supermarkets across the country. No one knows his name, only going by his pseudonym Fnnch. During about the past eight years, he has created and placed Honey Bear art up in the streets of San Francisco – on sidewalks, on walls, even on residential exteriors if people will have them. His goal is to offer public art to San Francisco’s residents, especially for those who don’t have the opportunity to visit or have access to museums. His motivation? To inject a bit of joy into people’s lives.
During about the past eight years, he has created and placed Honey Bear art up in the streets of San Francisco – on sidewalks, on walls, even on residential exteriors if people will have them. His goal is to offer public art to San Francisco’s residents, especially for those who don’t have the opportunity to visit or have access to museums. His motivation? To inject a bit of joy into people’s lives.
As the buzz continues to intensify for his Honey Bears, it has also inspired him to churn out different designs such as bright red lady bugs, pretty-in-pink flamingos, and ultra-vibrant lotus flowers. To appeal to the over-21 crowd, Honey Bears holding martini glasses and shakers can be spotted up on the walls of a couple bars in town too. The designs are simple, clean, relatable: happy. His work has become so sought-after that, in addition to San Francisco, Fnnch’s work has also been featured in Los Angeles, New York, Miami, Chicago, St. Louis, Tel Aviv, and Hong Kong. Momentum had only been accelerating for Fnnch.
Then, the pandemic hit.
Reflecting on 2020, Fnnch shared his early fears as a consequence of the pandemic in a recent newsletter:
“When the shelter-in-place was announced in March, my only goal became survival. I feared a deep economic recession, and seeing as art is basically a luxury good, I thought my sales would go to $0.”
Struggling with these dark fears, he put himself back out onto the streets just like he did when he first began eight years ago. With the city abruptly converting to one big, empty canvas of boarded up shops, restaurants, and other places of business, he moved forward with a plan to beautify its walls for the sake of lifting people’s spirits.
He designed masked Honey Bears holding pizza, gripping wine glasses, and clutching ice cream cones, all the indulgences many people turned to during this period of lockdown. He targeted spaces where he expected there to be a steady stream of walking traffic and started pasting them up. The response to these “Covid” Honey Bears out in the wild were so overwhelmingly positive, many people requested these bears to be put up in their own homes. People loved them. This inspired an idea: The Honey Bear Hunt.
The response to these “Covid” Honey Bears out in the wild were so overwhelmingly positive, many people requested these bears to be put up in their own homes. People loved them. This inspired an idea: The Honey Bear Hunt.
What if he created a scavenger hunt built around the Bears populating San Francisco? Not just on the streets, however, but Bears available for people to put up in their homes as an incentive for others to get out and join in on a quest to spot as many Bears as possible.
Yet, how would that work?
The resident purchases the kit for $18, a price close to cost and what most people could afford. The kit contains a disposable cardboard Covid Honey Bear to put in the window, a sticker, and a small Fnnch print as a thank you. Fnnch requests that the buyer commits to putting the Honey Bear in their window for three months, and, after that, they may elect to keep it up and remain on the Honey Bear Hunt map or take it down. Only one per household, Fnnch urges. The map would be available for everyone to follow and they can count and identify all the Bears they find. Initially, Fnnch just regarded this Hunt as an experiment. At the very least, it would get people out of their homes for a safe, entertaining activity.
But little did he know, with this project, he would quickly approach a tipping point with his art.
He launched the first sale on May 7, 2020 and, as he told me, estimated about 500 would sell. “Instead, I sold over 2500 in the first 24 hours,” he explained, “and about 3500 before I cut off sales when I realized they weren’t going to stop on their own. The task of making thousands is entirely different from the task of making hundreds.” He swung into action, staffed up, and began to get these Honey Bears out. This was no longer an experiment. It was a struggle. Would it be more than he can handle?
Following the launch of the Hunt, there have been Honey Bears dressed in hearts and peace signs. In protest to police brutality, Bears held BLM signs. Bears waved Vote signs in an effort to get out the vote. The longer people were on the hunt, the higher the demand for Fnnch’s artwork became. As weeks turned into months of dire circumstances, people seemed desperate for a bit of joy and amusement.
However, in most cases, popularity does not exist without hate. In the case of these Honey Bears, this is no exception. As people living in neighborhoods with homes appraising at upward of 1.5M clamored for these Honey Bears, resentment from displaced native San Franciscans, artists, lower income and minority communities was steadily brewing. They viewed the Honey Bear as a symbol of gentrification.
As people living in neighborhoods with homes appraising at upward of 1.5M clamored for these Honey Bears, resentment from displaced native San Franciscans, artists, lower income and minority communities was steadily brewing. They viewed the Honey Bear as a symbol of gentrification.
Bears were tagged and destroyed at many boarded-up sites and murals were not exempt. Fnnch’s murals were tagged at such a rapid pace that he was finding it difficult to keep up with the clean-up. There was one mural in particular, the Bears at the LGBTQ Center at Octavia and Market, one of the busiest intersections in San Francisco. During a November visit, I drove by the LGBTQ Center to check out the vibrant Bears and snap a photo only to find they were tagged with stark black strokes. I wondered if it was too heavily tagged to be fixed. Nevertheless, I dropped by early on the morning I was leaving town to take the photo, tagged or not, and ran into Fnnch cleaning it up. Although irritated with having to clean up this mural yet again, by then he had accepted it as par for the course.
Despite the grievances in the streets, the Honey Bear Hunt continued to gain strength in popularity, and as the Honey Bear Hunt brought more attention to Fnnch’s work, he was selling more fine art and merchandise and receiving more commissioned mural opportunities. Fnnch’s philanthropy efforts also proved considerably more fruitful. Already ecstatic with the $12 thousand he raised for charities in 2019, by the end of 2020 he had donated a total of $293 thousand to charities, one of which was the SF New Deal, a non-profit supporting small business and benefiting restaurants as they shuttered.
Already ecstatic with the $12 thousand he raised for charities in 2019, by the end of 2020 he had donated a total of $293 thousand to charities, one of which was the SF New Deal, a non-profit supporting small business and benefiting restaurants as they shuttered.
Fnnch kept moving forward with his vision, and soon what began as unique to San Francisco, people throughout the United States and other continents started purchasing the Honey Bears for their own Hunt. By the end of 2020, Fnnch had sold and expanded the Honey Bear Hunt map to all 50 states and five continents. One city that benefited was Provo, Utah where the Utah Transit Authority instituted a Honey Bear Hunt to support the City of Provo’s Masquerade Initiative, a program that encouraged the public to wear masks while using public transit. Mary De La Mare-Schaefer, Regional General Manager of United Transit Authority’s Timpanogos Service Unit, heard about Fnnch’s Honey Bear Hunt in San Francisco, and said in an interview with the Daily Herald in Provo, Utah, she just “had to have them for UTA.”
Provo Mayor Michelle Kaufusi went on:
It seems as if Fnnch has no plans for slowing down in 2021. Already in 2021’s first quarter, he has released “Ballet” Honey Bear paintings, prints, t-shirts, and a special Hunt Kit with a percentage of the proceeds going to support Covid-19 testing for the San Francisco Ballet’s dancers and staff. He released limited edition posters of a “Movie” Honey Bear clutching a bag of popcorn and wearing 3-D glasses, with 10% of proceeds going to the Roxie Theater, an independent theater in the Mission District in San Francisco. Recently, in the spirit of keeping pace with the vigorous growth of his business, he leveled-up and sold his first NFT, offering both the digital art piece and the original print, of Mark Zuckerberg, Daniel Ek, and Tobi Lütke Honey Bears for $64 thousand dollars with 20% of the proceeds going to Charity Give Directly, a Covid-19 relief fund. Yet, even with his business exploding, he continues to ship out Honey Bear Hunt Kits that are now stronger, sturdier, and more vibrant than ever.
I asked Fnnch what was the most gratifying for him about this Honey Bear Hunt. I expected that maybe his answer would speak to the overwhelming response, or the sales he made, or the amount that he raised for charity. I didn’t expect he would appreciate his own discovery of the Bears, “I know where all of my murals are, and so I am never surprised to see them. But I have no idea where all of the Hunt Kits have gone, and so I occasionally run across one in a totally unexpected place.”
Fast forward to late April 2021 when the community’s rumblings of discontent erupted on the corner on that super busy intersection where Fnnch was cleaning up that LGBTQ Center mural once again. Instagrammer DoggTown Dro, fraught with frustration, confronted Fnnch and questioned if he understood that his Bear was a symbol of gentrification. The more Fnnch tried to defend himself, the quicker he got into trouble. The words that came out of his mouth would be construed as clear evidence that he did not understand the community’s angst. Following the confrontation, the video went viral, the mural was buffed, and by the next week neighbors were posting pictures of their windows tagged with hostile words and big black marks canceling out the $18 Honey Bears that, from their own interpretation, was a Bear symbolizing joy.
Instagrammer DoggTown Dro, fraught with frustration, confronted Fnnch and questioned if he understood that his Bear was a symbol of gentrification. The more Fnnch tried to defend himself, the quicker he got into trouble. The words that came out of his mouth would be construed as clear evidence that he did not understand the community’s angst.
Fnnch addressed the anger from some in the community days later on his Instagram account, “To me the Honey Bear is a symbol of happiness.” He continued, “Its positivity and nostalgia have connected with a broad audience, and those positive feelings can lead someone to rethink the use of the space in which they find it.”
Fnnch also summarized a philosophy of painter Marcel Duchamp’s for his followers, “Duchamp said that the artist is only responsible for 50% of the work, and the audience brings the other 50%.”
However, can Duchamp’s quantitative principle really be used to determine what the Honey Bear truly symbolizes? Or, does its symbol lie within the context of Fnnch’s intent? Within the context of a passerby’s own interpretation? Within the context of San Francisco’s struggles? Conversely, is it fair to assume a universal meaning could be attributed to the Bear at all? Or is the Honey Bear merely just doing its job, provoking conversation amongst passersby as it merely sits there, bearing the brunt of what could be San Franciscans’ own revelations or misunderstandings?