Some months ago, San Francisco was infested with sidewalk stencils of a man in a hardhat with a jackhammer. This 2-color stencil practically invaded the Mission and SoMa, and was even spotted outside these two neighborhoods most known for street art in the city. But beyond sheer ubiquity, the message was unclear. Was it a critique of gentrification? Was someone just “really turned on” by Banksy’s then-recent bombing of SF? The stencils were a promo for a gallery/club venue opening at the time, called Public Works. But many folks failed to “get” the marketing campaign. The black and orange Jackhammer Guy was just kinda hangin’ out at all the hip spots in SF, not quite chippin’ away at the sidewalk with his very quiet tool. Then Tate & Modern showed up.

Yes, [the image of] an innocent horse was [fictitiously] sacrificed, but this square of the sidewalk just got a lot more interesting.

The image raises a lot of questions. Sure, the dead horse is a fantastic idiomatic reference; to engage in street art stenciling whatsoever could be interpreted as “beating a dead horse.” And just what makes this work so important, exactly? And who EVER made the artist the expert on their own importance, anyway?

The horse image is likely taken from a 2009 work by Maurizio Cattelan called Dead Horse, which appeared in the exhibition “Pop Life” at the… gasp! Tate Modern in London. Cattelan’s career has been characterized by his biting satire of the art world. From the Tate.org “Pop Life” exhibition guide: “Cattelan has repeatedly exposed the vanity and superficiality of the art world, which in return adores him… Sceptical headline writers, by contrast, have dutifully picked up the metaphor of ‘flogging a dead horse’ – that is, carrying out an activity or idea that has ceased to have any purpose.”

Dead Horse (2009) by Maurizio Cattelan

If all this seems a little far-fetched, consider the more obvious reference that Tate & Modern have made as of late:

Here T&M sample Andy Warhol’s iconic soup cans- Warhol being another artist known for his contemptuous manipulation of the art world, whose soup cans also appeared in the “Pop Life” exhibition at the Tate. These wheatpastes have recently begun to appear on Valencia Street, always among other works of street art. The usual language on the cans has been replaced with T&M’s own tongue-in-cheek commentary on art, both the museum and street varieties. It pokes fun, it ridicules, but also seems to beg, “Can I come in?”

Aside from the really nerdy art-historical references, Tate & Modern also reference their peers in the Mission District street art scene. The background of the can about trying to fit in is filled with images sampled from Oddfellow, Get Up, and other wheatpaste artists with presence in the immediate vicinity.

I hope to see more work by this precocious street art upstart. As for the question posed on one of the cans about “how many more of these until a Biennale invites us to Venice…” I’m not certain, but it’s likely a better bet than learning CSS3.