San Francisco has a markedly different geography depending on whether you’re a resident or a visitor. To the rest of the country, the landmarks that say “San Francisco” are things like the Golden Gate Bridge, the Transamerica Pyramid, Coit Tower, or the Haight-Ashbury street sign. After you’ve lived here a few years, those things become not only invisible most of the time, but practically irrelevant to thinking about the city.
To residents, the landmarks that stand out as ours are the quirkier, more eccentric aspects of San Francisco. Sometimes they’re people, such as Frank Chu; since the late 1990s, Chu has paraded through the downtown area with a sign declaring that various presidents are going to be impeached by a coalition of 12 galaxies. There are more stationary landmarks, such as the windmills in Golden Gate Park, or the hauntingly strange ruins of the Sutro Baths at the Pacific shore.
And then, there’s the Doggie Diner Heads.
The Doggie Diner Heads are San Francisco culture through and through. Remnants of a long-defunct fast food chain, they are, in their way, as iconic as the Golden Gate Bridge. They’re recognizable enough that in 2005, one of the heads was placed on a pole on a street median and declared a landmark.
In part, their popularity is because of the fact that, even in commercial art, you just don’t see that many images of a grinning Daschund wearing a chef’s toque and a polka-dot bow tie. The slightly manic grin and bulging eyes are somewhere between adorable and nightmarish, and that ambivalent response means that once you’ve seen a Doggie Diner Head, it cannot be unseen. Famous underground cartoonist Bill Griffith used that ambivalent response to good effect in his strip Zippy the Pinhead, in which the title character would often go to a diner and receive wisdom from one of the heads. In Griffith’s strip, the Doggie Heads went from being slightly odd pieces of commercial art to Dadaist Buddhas.
When the diners went out of business in the late 1980s, the heads started to get trashed. Three of them were rescued by artist John Law and his fellow members of the San Francisco Cacophony Society. Law and his fellow devotees have shown off the heads at parades, art shows, and charity events across the country, and in 2008, they released Head Trip, a documentary about taking the heads on the road to New York. Last year we wrote about a yarn artist outfitting the heads with colorful covers.
But the heads have been in circulation for a long time, and like everything else, they’re starting to show their age. So as of today, Law has launched a Kickstarter project to restore them to their former glory. The fiberglass surfaces have started to crack, and the internal structures, Law says, “Are completely rusted out.” Law is looking for $48,000 through Kickstarter. With that, he wants to reinforce the fiberglass’s weak spots, replace the steel frames, and give them new paint jobs. In addition, the trailer that Law uses to take them around to events has also seen better days. Law describes it as “beyond repair,” and says that it’s time to get a new one. Some of the money raised will also go to making repairs on the truck itself.
If $48,000 seems like a lot of money to spend on three disembodied dog heads, Law points out that the city and county of San Francisco spent $55,000 to restore one Doggie Head.
Already, the Doggie Diner Heads have survived far longer than anyone ever thought they would. They were made as disposable commercial art, but they’ve persevered through wind, rain, sunshine, salt air, and bad economies to become something more. We think it would be nice to see them make it through another 50 years, and we wish John Law luck on his Kickstarter.
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