A Man Was Ordered to Build a Fence to Hide His Boat. He Asked an Artist to Paint the Boat on the Fence

There’s a new high water mark for passive aggressiveness in the visual arts—and the pun is intended. 

When the town of Seaside, California ordered homeowner Etienne Constable to build a fence to conceal the boat in his driveway, he erected the fence all right. And then he hired his neighbor, artist Hanif Panni, to paint a mural on the fence—realistically depicting the boat itself. Call it passive-aggressive, call it malicious compliance, but in any event, call it hilarious. 

“I’m not a rule-breaker but I like to make a political statement as necessary as well as a humorous statement and a creative statement,” Constable told NBC affiliate KSBW of Monterey Bay. The city had threatened a $100 fine if Constable didn’t comply, but, ironically, he ended up paying for more than that for the artist’s fee alone. 

“It was his idea,” Hanif said in a phone interview. “There were Home Improvement-kind of moments, where we were chatting and joking about it, a ‘Wouldn’t that be hilarious?’ kind of thing. I think the more he got it ingrained in his head and brought it up a lot, the more I thought, ‘Yeah, that sounds great.’”

Detail of the painted fence by Hanif Panni. Courtesy Hanif Panni, @hanifwondir.

The story has gone wildly viral, reported in news outlets and catching fire on social media. 

“To be the number one Google result for ‘boat fence painting,’ that is a trophy that I never knew that I needed,” Hanif said.

“He’s the quintessentially good neighbor,” he said about Constable. “We’re pals, we talk, we share a backyard fence, so we’ll be working in our respective gardens and chatting. His boat has always been a friend of mine. I’ve never been on it but he invites me. He brings vacuum-sealed fresh salmon for me and the family.”

“Everybody loves it,” said Constable in a phone interview. “It’s amazing to not have the controversy that can come up from random things on the Internet. I love the fact that people appreciate my zany idea.”

Why does Constable think it has caught fire the way it has?

“I think the reason is because it’s absolutely in your face and it’s absolutely not offensive,” he said. “It was done very elegantly, it’s got a statement, it’s artwork so it’s open to interpretation, as is the political statement, and it all comes together in a perfect picture.”

The mural is painstakingly done; the result looks exactly like Constable’s 19-foot Arima Sea Ranger. Not only that: the shrubs on one side of the driveway as well as Constable’s house on the other side are also faithfully depicted in Hanif’s fence painting.

“This struck me as the right way to go, and something that makes my house unique,” the homeowner told USA Today. At least one local official is on Team Constable: “I applaud the constituent’s creative approach, which not only addresses compliance but also showcases a community-driven solution,” city council member Alexis García-Arrazola told the news outlet.

Hanif studied art and art history at the University of Oregon and is a working multidisciplinary artist in a wide range of formats. He has worked with clients as varied as Lexus and the Pharcyde, as well as for Google (for whom he has done DJ work) and the Wu-Tang Clan (the Staten Island rap titans have displayed his banners onstage at their performances). 

Two men at work painting a boat on a fence

The painting in progress. Courtesy Hanif Panni, @hanifwondir.

The artist is being invited to paint other boat murals for other homeowners, he said. While he’s grateful for the offers of work, he’s a bit hesitant to be typecast. “I do some wild stuff and I’ve been at it for a long time,” he said.

When asked what kind of wild, he responded: “Demigod head explosion introspective yet cosmic nature mixed with mechanical moving parts, you know? And a lot of multimedia. I pride myself on learning new technologies and approaching them with an analog hand. And yet it’s the boat, the realistic boat on my neighbor’s fence, that’s the one…”

A fence hiding a boat in a driveway has a boat painted on it by artist Hanif Panni

The completed fence, painted by Hanif Panni. Courtesy Hanif Panni, @hanifwondir.

As makes sense for someone with an art background, Hanif’s work fits nicely into art-historical traditions. One, it is an example of trompe-l’oeil painting (French for “to fool the eye”), a tradition that stretches as far back as classical Greece. The tale goes that one artist, Zeuxis, painted a still life so convincing that birds came to peck at the grapes; his rival, Parrhasius, then invited Zeuxis to his studio to look at a painting hanging behind a curtain, but when Zeuxis went to pull it back, it was revealed to be a trick, and Parrhasius won the contest.

Hanif’s work also echoes the great tradition of nautical painting, which also stretches back to ancient times and includes works by artists like Winslow Homer, Fitz Hugh Lane, and J.M.W. Turner. On top of it all, there’s the fact that Etienne Constable shares a surname with English painter John Constable. If the latter had painted nautical scenes or trompe-l’oeil works, well, that would have been a hat trick for art history nerds.

“There are a lot of Easter eggs,” Hanif acknowledged.

“I appreciate the conversations this thing is spawning,” he said. “It’s the reason I do public art—to get people to have these conversations and have it branch into something that it wasn’t before.”

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