January 16, 2024

Love Letter To SF: Six Local Artists Chosen For North Beach Billboard Campaign

by Joe Bonadio

As we swing into 2024, it’s hardly a secret that San Francisco has been facing some serious challenges of late. Between homelessness, property crime and vacancy issues, we’ve had our share of woes in recent years—and the news media has made a meal of it. Local coverage about the city is almost uniformly negative, and the national news paints an even bleaker picture of our fair city.

Meanwhile, facts on the ground tell a different story. Despite some pockets of blight, many of San Francisco’s neighborhoods are looking better than ever—North Beach chief among them. The city is emerging from its doldrums; our communities are rallying, and San Franciscans have been showing our better lights. Programs like Vacant to Vibrant have been reactivating empty storefronts across the city, and initiatives supporting both small business and the arts have begun to gain real momentum.

The arts have played a prominent role in San Francisco since its founding, and the city has always hosted more than its share of galleries and museums, a tradition that continues to this day. We also have a deep heritage of public art and urban murals, the latter being near-ubiquitous in our Mission District. And San Francisco’s commitment to the arts is good policy: looking back at our history, the health of our creative community has always reflected the well-being of the city at large.

San Francisco photographer Markelle Palombo in front of the Union Street billboard in North Beach

San Francisco photographer Markelle Palombo in front of the Union Street billboard in North Beach the day after her work was posted. | Photo: Joe Bonadio

Going back to his earliest days, Tony Gemignani has been an active supporter of local art. From the enormous Jeremy Fish mural that has adorned the north wall of Tony’s Pizza Napoletana from the pizzeria’s start to the Ed Hardy pizza box designs that many came to identify with the Tony’s brand, the restaurateur has always found a way to integrate local art into his businesses.

This month Tony doubled down on that commitment, choosing six local artists to be featured on two full-sized billboards in North Beach over the next six months—and he’s picking up the tab. This week the first piece, by North Beach photographer and longtime resident Markelle Palombo, was installed on the billboards at Columbus and Union above Mario’s Bohemian Café, and at Columbus and Vallejo next to Caffe Trieste.

As Tony explains, it came about pretty organically. “Markelle reached out to me initially because she knew I had the board on Union. Neighborhood girl, and I didn’t know her actually,” he told me. “A couple of people, you were one of them, told me she wanted to talk to me.

“So we met at Capo’s, and she brought her portfolio, and her business card. She said I love your billboard, and I’d love to do some photography, maybe take a shot of Tony’s. Put your logos under it, and maybe we can split the cost or do something together.

“So she started the meeting out kind of like that. I looked at her portfolio, and I saw her card—and I said that the image on the card should be the billboard. It was an image of her standing with her back to the camera in the middle of the road with mountains in the background, holding a red suitcase.

Tony secured an annual lease on this board, located directly next to Caffe Trieste

To increase the billboard program’s reach, Tony secured an annual lease on this board, located directly next to Caffe Trieste in the heart of North Beach. | Photo: Joe Bonadio

“I thought it looked sort of like a Guess ad, but it needed to say something. Like ‘Letter to North Beach’ or something. It took me a minute—and then I said, how about On The Road To North Beach?

“You always hear that everyone is leaving California. How about someone who is just arriving here? Then there’s the Kerouac reference. It was kind of perfect.

“So she asked me, What’s it going to cost? I said it’s not going to cost you anything. Do you want your logos on it? I told her no, it’s not about the logos.

“So we finished the meeting, and I think she was kind of taken aback, thinking it was going to cost her something. Sort of like, what’s your angle?

“And then she sent me the first version—with all of my logos on the bottom. And I’m like, No. I don’t want my logos on the bottom. I just want the photo, no logos. [Laughter]

“Anyway, it took me maybe half a day to think about it, then I told my wife what I was going to do: I’m going to do this for six months. I’m going to find six artists or photographers, let them have the billboard—it was just one at first—and each piece has to be a love letter to San Francisco or North Beach. I’ll tell my PR team, and maybe somebody like the Chronicle or SFGate will be interested in doing a call for artwork submissions.

Tony Gemignani in Washington Square Park with Rhonel Roberts

Tony Gemignani in Washington Square Park with Rhonel Roberts, one of six artists whose work will be featured on two full-sized billboards in San Francisco’s North Beach. | Photo: James Phillip Wright

“And I got flooded. Tons, just dozens and dozens of responses,” Tony explained. “I got some amazing pieces. I have enough for six months, and another six pieces for next year, if I want to do it again. They were that good. Complete diversity—each work is totally different.

“I had a couple from Jeremy Fish that I had to do, because we’re so close, and he has always wanted to be on the billboard. Also the artist who did the Carol Doda mural off of Filbert Street, her name is Natalie Gabriel. Then there’s Doug Lawlor and Rhonel Roberts. Lawlor is the only one from outside San Francisco, he’s from Oakland—but when I saw his work, I wanted him to be in it. He’s working on a movie right now. His shit is like….it’s cool. So I wonder what he’s going to do, that one I’m pretty excited about.

“When I met Rhonel Roberts, I told him his work has this kind of timeless, Sixties-Seventies vintage vibe to it. Like the old TWA posters. And I collect those, I told him—I have all the original prints.

“So if you look at Palombo’s work, you look at Lawlor, at what Roberts is going to do, Fish….they’re all just totally different.

“I ended up buying the second billboard in North Beach next to Trieste. So now it will be the same art on two billboards in North Beach. I’ve been walking past the one next to Trieste almost every day on the way to get coffee. And it’ll be tagged, and it always has old advertising on it. Once in a while someone will place an ad on it, but hardly ever. So I took the whole year on that one—committed to the next year with Clear Channel. So now it’s double the exposure for the artists, so it’s pretty cool.

Union Street billboard bearing Markelle Palombo

On the Road to North Beach: the Union Street billboard bearing Markelle Palombo’s work dominates the corner of Union and Columbus. | Photo: Joe Bonadio

“Does it bring people to North Beach? I hope so. I was asked a question by channel seven for a story they’re doing: When someone is driving down the street and sees one of these billboards, what do you want them to feel?

“I want them to feel positive about San Francisco, and to put a smile on their face. Because it’s not all negative. I even told the news guy: the news is all negative. It’s always about somebody getting shot, or corruption or something.

“There are some good things happening out there. And it’s not like an ad meant to direct business or anything. Some people have said to me, you mean you’re going to pay $4,000 a month, and nobody’s going to know it’s Tony’s or Capo’s? And I said, Yeah.

“Some might say it’s a poor choice of advertising. As far as I’m concerned, it’s 2024, let’s kick it off with something different, something positive. Artists typically don’t have the chance to get this kind of exposure, and have a billboard up. So it’s a way for them to get some exposure.

A painting by Rhonel Roberts

A painting by Rhonel Roberts, one of the participating artists, shows his affection for the North Beach neighborhood. | Photo Courtesy of Rhonel Roberts

“You hope writers write about it, and you hope the city supports it. Maybe Clear Channel hears about it and comes in and gets behind it with a discount, or something. We hope the Mayor and the supervisors see it; it’s a positive reflection of the city when the city needs that. It’s about coming to San Francisco, not leaving.

“I’m really excited to see it go up.”

After talking with Tony, I also had the chance to speak with artist Rhonel Roberts about his participation. “I think it’s notable that Tony would reach out to local artists to celebrate their artwork on a billboard,” he told me. “I’m honored to be one of his choices, and to have my work exhibited on such a grand scale in the city that I love.”

Meanwhile photographer Markelle Palombo, whose pipe dream was the original impetus for the whole project, spent last week anxiously checking the Union billboard three times a day, waiting for her work to go up. “I’m just super excited,” she said. “Tony has been so great to work with.

“It’s funny, this all started because I found some prints of mine in the park, discarded and burnt. I had no idea why, but I decided that I wanted to be on that billboard, so that whoever did that could look at it every day,” Palombo explained with a smile. “So something that started out negative turned into something really positive.”

Participating Artists 2024
January – Markelle Palombo, Photographer
February – Jeremy Fish, Artist
March – Natalie Gabriel, Artist 
April – Douglas Lawlor, Artist
May – Dennis Hearne, Photographer
June – Rhonel Roberts, Artist