‘Made in San Francisco’ fight heats up for street artists 

Investigate that $5 artisan tchotchke you just picked up from a street merchant in one of several tourist zones in The City, because a tag that says “Made in China” is one sign that it is a fake.

Vendors who sell manufactured products as handmade not only compromise the dignity of those artisans who do make their own crafts, but they are breaking the vows they made to their peers when they became a city-certified street artist.

Mucheru Njaga found out the hard way. According to a representative of the agency that recently visited his home, checked his receipts and made him remake some of his jewelry, Njaga was a faker.

“The committee was not convinced,” Street Artists Program Director Howard Lazar said.

Njaga did not show up at a hearing to contest the accusation against him last week, and therefore lost the right to renew his permit. But while he conceded he did not mold the copper parts that went into his hand-festooned jewelry, he called his wares more genuine than most.

“I don’t get it,” he said. “The stuff that I see there shocks me. People buy stuff directly from the stores and sell it like that. I think I was just targeted because I was the new kid on the block.”

He might have a point. During a recent visit to Justin Herman Plaza, questionable items for sale included premanufactured T-shirts, beaded jewelry of indeterminate origin and poster art that seemed mass-produced.

Photographer Michael Addario said the many pretenders lurking in the street-artist community take business away from honest artisans like himself.

“Once people get into the program, it’s next to impossible to remove them,” he said, mentioning one pottery vendor who was believed to not be making all their own wares. “You just can’t do 24 firings in a day, even with two kilns.”

In 2010, a city advisory committee approved more than 400 permits authorizing vendors to sell all manner of art in various neighborhoods. The artisans had to show at least two handmade products for committee approval. However, the Street Artists Committee only questioned a few of those permits last year.

“It’s really not fair to us,” said artist Tad Sky, who has sold his jewelry since the program’s inception in 1972. “We need more people out there patrolling who aren’t afraid to enforce the rules.”

Lazar did not comment during the meeting at which Njaga lost his permit. But he said there should not be room for confusion.

“We consider this a major or serious offense of the street-artist ordinance, which then merits a hearing ... which could result in suspension,” Lazar said.

kkelkar@sfexaminer.com

Lots of artists, little enforcement

A licensing program aims to weed out street sellers of fake handmade art.

$20 Application fee

$166.02 Quarterly permit cost

$664.08 Annual permit cost

400+ Permits issued last year

4 Permits questioned by Street Artists Program in 2010

Source: Street Artists Program

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Kamala Kelkar

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