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Downtown Modesto mural of homeless man has people talking

A mural of Rick Hernstedt, a longtime homeless man who died in September, is seen on J Street between 10th and Ninth streets on Friday, Feb. 26, 2016.
A mural of Rick Hernstedt, a longtime homeless man who died in September, is seen on J Street between 10th and Ninth streets on Friday, Feb. 26, 2016. jwestberg@modbee.com

Among the purposes of art are to reflect society and spur discussion. There’s no question that a prominent mural on the J Street side of a 10th Street restaurant has done that.

The black, white and gray painting is of a 54-year-old homeless man, Rick Hernstedt, who died in September after being hit by a car. It was completed early this year on the wall of Ralston’s Goat, a restaurant that opened in December.

Shortly after it went up, Ralston’s Goat co-owner Chelsea Addison-Torres said the response has been positive and the mural is important because it gives a face to the plight of the homeless.

“Sometimes this is something that is seen as a group situation,” she told The Modesto Bee in early January, “and we don’t see the individual.”

But some people see this particular individual all too clearly, and don’t like it. The mural was brought up at the Jan. 20 meeting of the Downtown Improvement District’s board of directors. The minutes of the meeting state: “Some people are not happy with the poster child being Ricky, one of our regular downtown homeless. Ricky would be mean and nasty sometimes and would take people’s food off their plates when they were eating on the patios of our downtown restaurants.

The things people are taking about, him being nasty – I heard things but never personally witnessed that. He was very kind to me. I don’t think it should be negated that when he was in lucid moments, he suffered from things that were not treated.

Chelsea Addison-Torres of Ralston’s Goat

“Staff will speak with the owners of Ralston’s Goat to let them know that this unhappiness could affect their business. Customers might choose to dine elsewhere.”

A commentary by Modesto businessman and onetime Mayor Carmen Sabatino on his website The Back Story, at www.backstorynews.com, called the statement “veiled threats of possible ruination of their business,” but two DID directors said the district wants the business owners to succeed and to be fully aware that Hernstedt “inflicted grief” on a lot of people.

The mural was not on the DID agenda for any action to be taken, board Chairman David Boring said Friday. The Jan. 20 board meeting was the first after the painting was done, he said, and some board members simply were sharing concerns about it.

Several businesspeople on the board had unpleasant encounters with Hernstedt, who struggled with mental illness and substance abuse and would sometimes spit on people, call them obscene names and threaten them, Boring said. When they saw the painting, “they swallowed hard and took a backward step and said, ‘Wow, there’s a mural of that guy.’ 

He said there never was an intent by the DID to tell the owners of Ralston’s Goat they were in the wrong or ask that they paint over the mural.

Everybody has a right to put up whatever they want. The issue was basically: Did the owners of Ralston’s Goat understand that the person depicted in the mural caused a lot of problems in downtown and inflicted a lot of grief on people?

Bart Barringer, Downtown Improvement District board member

“We want every business in downtown to prosper,” added DID board member Bart Barringer, an attorney with the Law Offices of Mayol & Barringer. “We didn’t know if they knew the character of the person” depicted.

“There were members on the board with genuine concerns that it would hurt them,” he said, “that there are some people who might take a step back (from the business) when they see someone like him canonized or memorialized.”

A co-owner of Ralston’s Goat and one of the muralists who painted Hernstedt said they knew him and were well aware of the meanness and kindness of which he was capable.

“In my opinion, especially if you didn’t like him and who he was, then having his face to raise awareness of that aspect of society is important,” said Addison-Torres. Having Hernstedt’s face is a powerful reminder of the need to deal with the issues that result in people becoming and remaining homeless, she said. “We’re not saying this is the most outstanding person. He’s someone who could be kind and could be volatile.”

If it was Jesus, people wouldn’t like it. If it was Gandhi, people would complain. Can people just run their own businesses and let others run theirs?

Martin Baker, muralist and attorney

Addison-Torres said she doesn’t hear much about the mural anymore and has no reason to think it’s affected business. When it first went up, she said, a lot of people asked about it, and she found it was a catalyst for people to open up and talk about homelessness in their own families. In one emotional conversation, a man said he learned from his mother that his grandfather died homeless, she said.

Defense attorney Martin Baker, who created the mural with the help of friends Phil Murillo and Karrie Bullock, said the painting is a reminder of a problem that will remain long after memories about Hernstedt fade.

“The mural is not about Rick,” Baker said. “We made a conscious decision not to put his name on it. It’s about who we are.”

“... Any number of other people could have been painted. You could draw up a list and rank them morally as one being better than the other, see who’s No.1 and if everyone agrees with you that person is morally unblemished. That would be ridiculous.”

Baker added that DID members didn’t need to make an issue of the mural at a meeting. Those who had a genuine concern for Ralston’s Goat’s success simply could have spoken with the owners, he said.

As for any harm the mural could do? “Rick’s dead,” Baker said. “His ghost is not going to feel empowered by a mural so much that he can reach out from the grave ... and snatch a french fry off someone’s plate.”

Deke Farrow: 209-578-2327

What’s ahead?

Ralston’s Goat co-owner Chelsea Addison-Torres said she envisions the mural of Rick Hernstedt remaining up for 2016 and then making way for a new painting in the new year. “We provide an art space that should and will be a rotating space,” she said.

Paintings may not necessarily reflect the beliefs of the restaurant owners. The homeless mural was not approved on the basis of “Oh, this is a thing we believe in,” Addison-Torres said. It and each future mural will be approved for being “a well-done concept and an interesting piece.”

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