It’s been a local mystery for the better part of seven years. Who’s been responsible for painting a particular black-and-white cat in various locations all over San Pedro… and why? In a community where secrets are not exactly well kept, the identity of this street artist seems to have remained steadfast in its anonymity.
The popularity of the “San Pedro Cat,” as it’s commonly referred to these days, has only risen over the years, helped by social media and two local gallery exhibitions in 2017 and 2018. Though controversial at first, the community seems to have grown fond of the feline over time, demonstrated by the hundreds of photos on social media of people posing with the various stencils, paintings, posters, and sculptures of the cat, hashtagged with the artist’s only known public name, #ifoundyourcat.
The artist has been called everything from a “community treasure” to a “vandal” to a “Banksy ripoff,” a reference to the famous England-based street artist and activist who gained mainstream notoriety through the 2010 Academy Award-nominated documentary, Exit Through the Gift Shop. Not surprisingly, that film holds special significance in #ifoundyourcat’s origin story.
When a new piece appeared in early August in Park Plaza at the Shell gas station on Western Avenue, the first after a prolonged hiatus, it sparked renewed interest in the “San Pedro Cat,” and I was curious if this mystery artist would be willing to tell their story in the pages of San Pedro Today.
Fortunately, he was.
SETTING THE PARAMETERS
I sent a message to the artist through his Instagram page (instagram.com/ifoundyourcat) in mid-August asking if he’d agree to an interview. I wasn’t sure what to expect. After two days of silence, a reply appeared in the magazine’s inbox, “Wow! Are you serious? I’m on board if I get the cover.” Knowing this was always a cover-worthy story for the magazine, that was a no-brainer.
The only other parameter he requested was to remain anonymous, to which I agreed. The goal was never to “out” him. Instead, I wanted to tell this story in a way that was interesting and honest, but also kept the mystery behind it. The artist’s anonymity is part of the charm about the cat. In many ways, it’s allowed people to appreciate the art in its purest form, without any preconceived ideas that might exist if the identity of the artist was publicly known.
We met twice in person, both times outside Sirens Java & Tea. For each meeting, the artist arrived with his face and head completely covered. The pandemic made it convenient to conduct our interview outside in public without garnering stares, since wearing face masks has become the norm. In our second meeting, he wore dark sunglasses, causing us to not even make eye contact. For the record, after two lengthy in-person interviews, I’ve never seen the artist’s face, nor did he confide to me anything that would reveal his identity, including his real name.
Here’s what I can tell you about #ifoundyourcat. He’s older and taller than I imagined, with broad shoulders and the build of man who did not seem to work behind a desk, though he never revealed what he does for a living. Without telling me his exact age, he says he was “born in the ‘70s” and is a “first generation San Pedran.” Yes, that’s actually his cat. It’s a male that’s a few years old, but he wouldn’t tell me his name. His cat has even been trained to use the toilet. (There’s video evidence of this on his Instagram page.)
While many aspects of his story were impossible to fact-check, given the confidentiality requested and what little in the way of specific information was revealed, there was no reason for me to doubt that I was indeed speaking to the artist known as #ifoundyourcat.
When asked about who knows his real identity, he says that the only people who know are his parents and a “very small” group of friends who apparently all have an amazing ability to keep a good secret.
‘I CAN DO THAT’
The way he tells it, #ifoundyourcat’s artistic journey began in his early teens. Like many kids at that age, he was exploring what interested him, and graffiti art caught his eye.
“That’s when I started getting into graffiti, doing old school lettering and stuff like that,” he says. “When I was going to junior high, these guys would get bussed in from Wilmington. They were hardcore graffiti artists, and they were young, like 13, 14. They were getting up on freeways and stuff like that. When I was driving with my mom on the freeway, I would see them and be like, ‘Man, this is cool.’”
He would learn to replicate what they were doing by sitting next to them in class. “They were artists, and I guess they had family that were artists that were inspiring them to do art,” he says. “I [ended up being] inspired.”
His passion for art lasted all through high school, even though he points out “a lot of my friends weren’t into what I was into.” It wasn’t until college that #ifoundyourcat found his artistic calling.
“When I went to college, I took as many art classes as I could,” he explains. “I went to a four-year university and got my bachelor’s degree. Throughout that period, I took everything – sculpting, painting, illustrating, photography, you name it. I even took extra classes in the summer.”
Armed with a well-rounded arts education, after college he attempted to make a name for himself in the street art scene but couldn’t find a hook, something that people could latch on to and would get him noticed. It wasn’t until a date night in 2013 that #ifoundyourcat found his muse.
“We’re at my house, and I put in the Banksy movie [Exit Through the Gift Shop],” he recalls. “We were watching it, and [my girlfriend at the time] was really intrigued by it, and I told her, ‘Hey, you know I can do this.’ And she looked at me and said, ‘If you can do it, why don’t you do it?’”
It was a challenge he wasn’t expecting but was willing to accept. The only problem was, he wasn’t sure what to paint.
“I was like, ‘What am I going to do? I can’t just do anything,’” he says. “Then I remembered what one of my teachers told me in school. He said, ‘You got to paint what you love.’ I looked down on the ground, I saw my cat. I was like, ‘I’m going to paint my cat.’ It wasn’t the first stencil that I had done, but it was the only one that caught on.”
While most of the cats he’s painted in San Pedro have been removed or painted over through the years, #ifoundyourcat says one of his first early stencils is still around.
“It’s next to Brouwerij West,” he says. “When you go into the parking lot, right there on the corner, it’s on the backside of it. There’s a black cat image that’s at least eight or nine years old.”
The “San Pedro Cat” has evolved over time. It started off as a plain black stencil, which then graduated to a multicolored one, giving the cat the black-and-white look with a red collar, which was more in line with what his cat actually looks like. He’s since moved on to gluing pre-made posters of the cat using wheat paste, a popular method used by many street artists, which he still uses today. He’s also experimented with hard foam and cement statues of the cat that were placed in various locations, including Point Fermin Park and Cabrillo Beach. Those statues have since been removed.
The artist’s moniker also serves a dual purpose. Aside from being an alias, the hashtag also helps organize the many photographs and mentions of the cat on social media. A recent search of the hashtag on Instagram shows more than a thousand mentions.
The cat wasn’t greeted in San Pedro with open arms at first. In the early days, arguments over whether the cat was considered art or vandalism were plentiful in the comments section in local social media groups. The buzz about #ifoundyourcat’s work was so heated that a story about the cat and the controversy ended up on the front page of the Daily Breeze in September 2013.
“All I did was paint a couple of cats, and next thing I knew [the cat] was on the front page of the local paper. Then it was on the six o’clock news, and then Telemundo,” he recalls. “My head was spinning. It was crazy.”
At one point, after the cat appeared in the newspaper, there was a small yet concerted effort to paint over any cat as soon as it was found. It got so bad that #ifoundyourcat asked his social media followers to post photos but not identify the art’s location for fear of it being removed too quickly.
“There was this one person that would go around and spray tan spray paint over my cats,” he recalls. “It was happening for a while, every time I painted a cat, someone would [post its location], then the next day, it would be painted over with tan spray paint. So I started painting over the tan spray paint with my cats again. I was doing that with a bunch of people that were painting over my cat.”
Fortunately for #ifoundyourcat, as time has moved on, the controversy has died down and the community, for the most part, seems to have embraced the image. It’s lasted long enough to become a part of San Pedro’s ever-evolving cultural and artistic history. So much so that someone (not the artist, he says) even made a tile for it on the 25th Street Mosaic wall.
“I love it,” he exclaims. “This is my community, and my community likes me. You know what I mean? I’ve gone through so much in my life that making other people happy [with my art] isn’t a crime in my eyes. It’s just a little cat. People seem to connect with it.”
INVISIBLE IN PUBLIC
Without revealing any of his methods, when asked how he’s been able to remain anonymous and not get caught, he says it’s not as hard as people think. He claims to have had a few close calls, but says he’s never been arrested or even ticketed as a result of his art.
“Doing it in open space when people are walking around, it’s just great,” he says laughing. “It’s so quick, you really have to catch me in the act. I pretty much stick to myself, and nobody bothers me. I was talking to my dad once and he asked me, ‘How fast can you do these stencils?’ I’m like, ‘I can do them in about five seconds.’ He was so impressed by it. I’ve evolved to pasting now, so it’s a little easier, a little faster, and I can get more intricate with the pieces that are put on the wall.”
Riding the popularity of the “San Pedro Cat,” the artist decided to try and capitalize on his work by putting together a gallery exhibition at Machine Studio in Downtown San Pedro in 2017.
“For about three years, I was putting all my work into [the cat],” he recalls. “Then I met Mike Machin [at Machine Studio], and we just clicked. He’s a great guy. He said he’d keep my anonymity and handle the sales. The show got such a huge response that we did another one the following year. It was a huge steppingstone for me.”
In addition to prints of the black-and-white cat, for his first show, he also produced large paintings of the cat as various pop culture characters, like Battle Cat from He-Man and the Masters of the Universe and Lion-O from ThunderCats, thinking those could be sold at a premium. Unfortunately, his audience had other plans.
“Those were my treasures.” he says. “I was like, ‘Yeah, I’m going to put these paintings in the show, that’s going to be awesome!’ So, I put them in, and no one cared about them. Everybody just cared about the little stencil of the cat. I put all this time and effort into these illustrative paintings, and no one even looked twice at [them].”
The shows did well for #ifoundyourcat financially. He invested his profits into producing merchandise, like stickers, pins, prints, and t-shirts. “All that money I just put back into the stickers, the equipment, the paint,” he says. “My art studio now is just a wall full of spray cans. It’s really great.”
FUTURE OF THE FELINE
San Pedro isn’t the only place where the cat has appeared. It’s been seen as far north as San Jose and as far south as San Diego, but he says the port town will always be its home.
“I love this community,” he says. “If the cat could be as popular as the Three-Eyed Fish, that’d be dope. It’s an honor to be a part of this town.”
The evolution of the “San Pedro Cat” continues. In preparation for the publication of this issue, #ifoundyourcat mentioned he may be extra active in the coming weeks and hit some new locations. Three new cats have appeared across town since our last interview, as documented on his Instagram page. More will undoubtedly follow.
So, what’s next? The artist says the cat may appear in ceramic tile form soon, like that of the popular European street artist Invader, who’s known for creating ceramic mosaics modeled on the pixelated art of early 1980s 8-bit video games.
“I’ve already done something similar to that with the foam releases,” he says. “I made a 3D foam cat that I put on the Vincent Thomas Bridge. I wanted something to say, ‘Hey, I’m here, you got to pay attention to me.’”
San Pedrans are definitely paying attention these days. Ideally, #ifoundyourcat says he’d love to be able to support himself financially through his art, but until that day happens, he still has to keep a day job.
“There are a lot of talented people in San Pedro, but they just have to get up off their [butts] and do it,” he says. “I did it. I had a little bit of motivation. I had to wake up at three or four in the morning, go hit up a wall, then go back home, take a shower, and go to work.”
He adds, “[San Pedro] is a working man’s town. Even the graffiti artist has to do a nine-to-five.” spt
For more info on #ifoundyourcat, you can find him on Instagram at @ifoundyourcat. For art inquiries, he can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.