Not long after the death of Motörhead frontman Lemmy Kilmister on December 28th, 2015, a mural to the metal god began to circulate across the internet baring his face, middle finger and the words "HEAVY METAL." Painted by Minneapolis-based graphic artist Wes Winship on a wall at Ocean Beach, San Francisco, the 60-foot-wide graffiti tribute became something of a local heavy-metal landmark that attracted fans who would pose in front of it for photos.
When Winship was in San Fran visiting his mother last Christmas, he noticed the mural had started to show signs of wear and tear, and he decided it was time to give it a touch-up. So on December 27th, 2017, the 40-year-old artist and his buddy hit the beach to retouch the mural. But just as Winship broke out his spray paint the National Park Service police rolled up.
"I don't even know if [the officer] fully identified himself but he was like, 'Halt, get on your knees!'" Winship says of the initial arrest. "He handcuffed both of us, didn't ask us any questions."
The artist and his friend, Cory Weisskirk (also of Minneapolis), soon found themselves locked up in San Francisco County Jail, charged with felony vandalism and possession of graffiti equipment. The men were released on bail, thanks to help from Winship's mother, but had to return to San Francisco where they ultimately struck a deal with prosecutors, which requires the two men to pay nearly $3,000 in restitution to the city.
In the following interview, Winship walks us through the night of his arrest, and why he would do it all again.
So a little over two years ago, on the night of Lemmy’s death, I painted a tribute to him on the heavily graffitied sea wall at Ocean Beach in San Francisco. To my surprise it’s lasted although it faded heavily and been encroached by other graffiti. When I attempt to fix it up over this past holiday, I was arrested. Initially charged with a felony and a misdemeanor, the case was dismissed with the agreement to pay restitution (which has already been paid). Read the whole story via the link in my bio. I’m putting together a show on April 28th at @modistbrewing about the whole thing, kind of a benefit/party. Stay tuned for more details.
TAKE ME THROUGH THE NIGHT YOU ORIGINALLY THREW THE LEMMY PIECE UP.
WES WINSHIP I was hanging out with a friend of mine, and we were trying to figure out what to do that night. I got an alert on my phone saying, "Lemmy Kilmister dead at 69." And we both looked at each other, "Oh jeez, I guess we're doing a tribute to that dude tonight." And it just sort of turned into a thing, and Ocean Beach is just always there as a place, just a lot of space and is considered generally a chill place. A lot of people paint there, sometimes during the day even. I just kind of Googled a bunch of images of him, found two different things ... He flips off the camera a lot. [Laughs] Had to include that, and another picture with him and the intense eyes. I pretty much had the photos on my phone and would look at them for reference while I painted the thing. The night of, it took a while to [paint] it. We were there all evening to the point where my friend that was with me had to go to Oakland, and BART [Bay Area Rapid Transit] was going to stop running. So I had to drive him all the way to Oakland and drive back to finish it myself.
NOW, WHAT EXACTLY HAPPENED THE NIGHT YOU WERE ARRESTED?
I didn't expect it to last that long, just the way things get gone over and messed with. I just figured they'd painted over it by this point, but it made it over a year. I went out there for Christmas and saw it lasted this long, people scribbling around. It had, for the most part, respected it. [I thought I] might as well fix it up, it'll be easy. It actually wasn't — even without the arrest part of it. [Laughs]
I actually went down there a couple of nights before, and the sand had been moved from the wall, so I lost about two feet from what was originally there. I got a little bit done but it was mostly just a pain in the ass. Decided to hit up a different friend who was in town, went back a different night to wrap it up and all the shit happened.
DID SOMEONE CALL THE COPS ON YOU?
Alright, so the first cop showed up, I think just on a random check. People kept going by us on the beach, people kept running around down there who had flashlights and stuff, so I think he was checking on them, but then noticed us and walked over. He was a really young cop. I don't think he'd been on the force for more than a year. I don't think he knew what to do with the situation so he called in more people. He was way serious, trying to do everything by the book. I don't even know if he fully identified himself but he was like, "Halt, get on your knees!" He handcuffed both of us, didn't ask us any questions. Another cop showed up and they started talking to us.
After a while they were like, "Alright, here's what we're probably going to do. We'll take your paint, give you a citation and cut you loose. We were thinking this is not a big deal, like, "Do you really have to take the paint?" And he said, "Well if we bust a drug dealer, are we going to give them back their drugs?" [Laughs] And then the commanding officer showed up who was the one who turned this thing haywire. He comes up and gives the whole, "Obviously you have some talent, I don't know why you're doing this," talk, and then asks me about my sweatshirt — my mom used to work at the San Francisco Juvenile Center and got the sweatshirt.
HOW WERE YOU FEELING THROUGHOUT THE ORDEAL? IT'S KIND OF SCARY BUT ALSO KIND OF RIDICULOUS AND FUNNY.
I don't even know, both of us were trying to be super calm and not be smart asses. Just answering the questions that were asked but not trying to get way into it. I was hoping one of them would recognize it was Lemmy, but I didn't want to say, "This is a tribute to a really important metal guy!" We put it together the guy was the commanding officer, and he told us, "Alright, you're going to call your mom, or you're going to jail." I was stunned, like does he know I'm 40 and does he know that means my mom is a bit older? But yeah, it was like, "Sir I'd rather not, is there a third option, can I just paint over it now?" And he went, "No they use a special kind of paint!" He wandered off I guess to calculate how much it would cost, came back and based on the square footage said the fine came out to $2,560 and was basically like, "Book them, that's felony vandalism." All the other cops were confused, and pretty much told both of us, "We can't believe we have to do this." The other cops were nice enough, really thorough through everything.
They take us to 850 Bryant, waited forever before they were ready for us. They told us, "Don't worry, the judge will probably throw this out, you'll get let go real soon." Then our bail was set at $15,000 a piece. And a minute later, "Oh it's $25,000 a piece." We had to pretty much sit there and have to bond out, otherwise, we'd get processed to the main jail. I was trying to call my lawyer in Minneapolis and get him to wake up, and then I sucked it up and called mom. She was pretty alright about the whole thing. Before it seemed like such not a big deal that she wanted to come. She went through the whole process and bailed us out, we went to the place across the street and just went home.
The DA threw an extra charge of misdemeanor graffiti tools or something like that. We came back for the arraignment and they were surprised we showed up for that. The judge looked at the whole thing, and we ended up with public defenders and he said, "There are no prior records on either of them, this whole thing is ridiculous let's just figure out what the restitution is with the parks, you guys pay that and we'll throw away this whole thing." And that overall process took us a few months to finish out.
DO YOU THINK THEY TRIED TO MAKE AN EXAMPLE OUT OF YOU?
I think so, he was just really irritated to be disturbed from whatever he was doing to be out there. I think in his head, he must've been thinking, "I wonder if this dude actually has connections to juvenile probation or what, but if he does I'm fucked and might get calls about it."
WOULD YOU DO IT AGAIN?
I would do it differently. [Laughs] We pretty much just stood there seeing this flashlight heading towards us and didn't go anywhere. I'll say this, I think in my life in trying to do what I think is right or interesting or worthwhile, I know sometimes that doesn't always equate to where the law stands. In this society, that's something you just have to deal with.
DO YOU THINK IT'S IMPORTANT TO PAY TRIBUTE TO METAL THROUGH STREET ART? OBVIOUSLY THERE'S A HIP-HOP CONNECTION, BUT IT'S STILL BIG FOR METAL.
I'm into both, and I feel like graffiti's connection to hip-hop is arguable, both things grew out of a New York environment at that time and other cities. It's not limited to rap, if you look at that early stuff there's references to "Hand of Doom," those dudes were wearing Van Halen shirts. People have been writing on walls and making markers as a form of remembrance of many years, and will always happen. Doesn't matter if the medium is spray paint or a red clay.
Winship will be holding a show in Minneapolis at Modist Brewery on April 28th. Follow his Instagram for more updates.