October 13, 2020

North Beach Kin: An Interview With Local Artist Jeremy Fish

by Joe Bonadio

Here on the Seven Ovens blog, we’ve been spending a lot of time lately talking about our people, and I recently profiled both Stephanie Danese and Elmer Mejicanos in these pages. Steph and Elmer have both been key contributors to the Tony’s organization over the last decade, and their interviews really seemed to spark the interest of our readers.

That leads us to another figure who has been in the Tony’s orbit from the very beginning: celebrated San Francisco artist Jeremy Fish. A prolific posterist and known quantity on the San Francisco art scene, Fish is strongly identified with North Beach, his home for the past 26 years. Anyone who’s been paying attention in San Francisco has seen Fish’s work, and he was even anointed City Hall’s very first artist-in-residence in 2015.

Fish was originally hired by Tony to create the iconic mural on the north wall of Tony’s Pizza Napoletana way back in 2010. The two struck up an immediate rapport, and the illustrator has worked with Tony on literally dozens of projects since. I sat down with Jeremy last week to talk about his work, and his long collaboration with Tony; lightly edited for clarity, our conversation is below.

Tony's Pizza Napoletana - Mural

Jeremy Fish’s classic mural on the north wall of Tony’s Pizza Napoletana in North Beach.

Joe Bonadio: I know you’ve been in the neighborhood for a long time. How did you originally meet Tony?

Jeremy Fish: When they were building the restaurant, I looked him up. You know, something was opening next door to my house, and I kind of wanted to see what it was. And I saw that he had a good reputation, and had been doing this a long time.

I had always really wanted the wall here, because it’s right next to my house. Before the awning, it got a lot of visibility from this intersection [Union & Stockton Streets]. So I came over and introduced myself, and said Hey, I live next door. I’d love to do a mural on the side of your building. Here’s a copy of my recent book, and if you want to something, I’d love to.

I didn’t hear from him for a while, but eventually he got back to me and we worked something out. We did an even trade: I traded him this mural for free pizza for life, and he’s been very, very generous. We just hit ten years, and just I had two little spots to patch where a kid drew on it with a crayon.

Love North Beach

Billboard of support that Tony put up at the corner of Union and Columbus in North Beach at the start of the pandemic. | Photo: Joe Bonadio

JB: You and Tony have worked together quite a lot since then.

JF: If he asks me to do something, generally I’ll say yeah. I’ve asked him to do a few things and he never refuses.

It’s one thing to be a super-talented chef, and it’s another thing to be a good neighbor. Not only because of what he brought to this neighborhood, attracting other chefs of his caliber to come here and open. But he’s just a supportive dude. He’s made food for my art shows, he catered my wedding. He’s as neighborly as he is talented, and I don’t think he could ask me for something that I would refuse.

He’s just that kind of guy. At a time when all of these guys thought they were going broke, this guy put a “Stay Strong, North Beach” billboard up on the corner. Telling everyone in the neighborhood not to freak out.

JB: Didn’t take credit, either.

JF: No. No logo, no branding, no website. I don’t know anyone else that would do that. I got choked up when I saw it.

JB: I know what you mean. And the two of you recently worked together again, for the relaunch of Capo’s.

Jeremy's graphic

Jeremy’s graphic for the pair’s successful Guinness World Records run back in 2014.

JF: Yeah, I designed a pizza box graphic for him—he changed the menu over there from being strictly Chicago-style to more of a Detroit-Chicago combo. And the Detroit needed a box.

I drew a really fun box graphic for the Detroit, and I did a separate version, which we did for a screen print. We were going to release it all at the same time, but unfortunately the pizza box industry has gotten kind of backed up. Obviously—it might be the biggest surge of pizza delivery in the fucking history of mankind.

A good thing. But not if you’re trying to get a pizza box in a hurry. So we did the event, just to get people to come out for the reopening. To celebrate the new menu, and that Laura [Meyer] had taken over the kitchen.

But it’s a tricky thing these days. You want to invite people out to support a friend’s business, but you don’t want them to feel pressured to come out when they’re feeling nervous about social distancing. So a lot of the events I’ve done over the last few months to raise attention and business for neighbors got met with a lot of negativity.

But I think Tony handled it well and respectfully. They were taking people’s temperature, literally taking ever precaution that they could.

JB: So do you guys have anything cool coming up?

JF: Yes. He’s in the process of trying to make some cool stuff—I won’t say what it is yet, but I’m trying to help him get some really cool things made.

I’m probably going to bug him to make pizza for an opening that I have in January, but we don’t have another event together for a while, I don’t think.

I’m working on an artist-in-residence project in the Haight at the moment. It’s my first break from North Beach in like sixteen years. I think when that project is finished, I’ll probably have him make some food for it, which he’s done in the past.

But if he said I need something tomorrow, I’d do it.

I’m friends with a lot of business owners in this area, and I’ve lived here more than half my adult life. I’ve lived in my apartment longer that I’ve lived anywhere. I live alone with a cat in a basement apartment, and draw pictures for a living in the most expensive city in the United States.

Washington Square Park in North Beach

Another perfect evening in Washington Square Park in North Beach, home to Tony’s Pizza Napoletana. | Photo: Joe Bonadio

Without my neighbors, and the people who own the businesses around here—who are kind of like my roommates, and my family on some level—I wouldn’t feel so strongly about it. I wouldn’t fundraise, and contribute, and care. But guys like Tony, and Pete, and a lot of the people who mean a lot to me—they make this neighborhood what it is. Otherwise it’s a piece of real estate with a view.

The history of this neighborhood is important, but you know, those guys are gone. The people that are running it now are the heart and soul of North Beach. Especially now, as we watch an enormous, unspeakable portion of those businesses go away—we’re going to have to depend on the heroes of this neighborhood even more.

I wish I could convince my neighbors to realize how much of a risk these guys are taking. Maybe try to be a little less critical, and a little more supportive, and recognize how incredibly difficult it would be to continue doing business in this neighborhood. And just give them the support they deserve.

JB: Thank you, Jeremy. I couldn’t agree more. And we’ll make sure to circle back to you soon.