Murals at the Mission District in San Francisco

San Francisco has a wonderful array of murals that grace the walls of buildings throughout the city. The first major murals to grace the city were a group of 35 monumental murals that took up 76 blocks to commemorate the 1915 Panama Pacific International Exposition. In the 1930s, Diego Rivera was the major influence on the muralists of San Francisco when he made three extended visits to create murals for the city. The development of bright weather resistant acrylic paint in the 1960s aided in the Chicano movement’s embrace of murals as a way of celebrating Hispanic culture. The Las Mujeres Muralists, a group of women muralists, created life affirming murals for San Francisco in the 1970s. Learning about all of these great murals, my wife and I went on a mural walk with two friends this May in the Mission District, where public murals first started in San Francisco.

The first mural that we went to see was the Mural MaestraPeace (http://womensbuilding.org/content/index.php/about-us/the-maestrapeace-mural) on the face of the Women’s Building. Painted as a testament to the contributions of women in history and in the world today, the mural was painted in 1994 by Juana Alicia, Miranda Bergman, Edythe Boone, Susan Kelk Cervantes, Meera Desai, Yvonne Littleton and Irene Perez, and many helpers. As the walking group caught sight of the building, we were instantly struck by the sheer size of the murals and the bright eye catching colors. The women figures dwarfed us, and each woman was portrayed with a lot of strength and character. Famous women, like Angela Davis, Maxine Hong Kingston, Alice Walker, Audre Lorde, Georgia O’Keefe, and Rigoberta Menchu, are portrayed in the walls. The women snake their way between the windows and doorways of the building, depicting scenes of women as doctors, artists, activists, healers, and as mothers of nature. Some of the figures are solemn, but many depict women in celebration or in dance. The overall impression of the elements put together is one of liberation.

Clarion Alley (http://www.meganwilson.com/related/clarion.php) was the next stop that we went to after Mural MaestraPeace. Clarion Alley was established in October 1992 by a volunteer collective of six North Mission residents: Aaron Noble, Michael O’Connor, Sebastiana Pastor, Rigo 92, Mary Gail Snyder, and Aracely Soriano. This collective, known as the Clarion Alley Mural Project, drew its inspiration from the murals of Balmy Alley a few blocks away. Unlike the Balmy Alley murals, however, the Clarion Alley murals chose not to focus only on Central American social struggles. Instead they broadened the themes of the artwork to that of social inclusiveness as well as of artistic variety. Latino, Caucasian, African-American, Native American, Asian, Indian, gay and disabled artists have contributed to the murals that have graced Clarion Alley.

I noticed that the politics of the murals are leftist, but the critiques of capitalism come a progressive Catholic point of view and not so much from Marxist viewpoint. In one mural, the quotation "The lack of safe affordable housing will not be solved by making people without homes into criminals" was written in Tagalog, English and Spanish. A few murals have workers marching with the La Raza bird symbol raised in a flag. There are no figures of Marx or Lenin or Che Guevera, but of disembodied cartoon heads floating over a toppled cityscape, or of an odd cartoon figure in front of a globe with wings. These murals have a message, but these messages are laced with humor. One of the sad things about the murals of Clarion Alley is that several of the murals were either faded from exposure to the sun or vandalized by graffiti. Though the murals were great, certain parts of the alley smelled of urine.

The longest mural that we saw was behind a Safeway, in front of the Duboce bike path at Church and Duboce. It is a huge panamorama of the length of San Francisco, from the eastern part of the city, through Market Street, past the Golden Gate Park, to the beach at the west end of the city. We see cars in traffic, people riding the streetcar, and bicyclists riding down the street and beach sand. As with the murals of Clarion Alley, this mural had a lot of humor.

As we walked through the city, we would encounter murals in garage doors, in restaurant walls, in laundromats, on parking lot walls. It was a visual feast. Some celebrated the social history of San Francisco, some were social commentary on the historic exploitation of European colonizers of the Native American populations, some extolled the mythic figure of Native American religion. Some offered a critique on the exploitative nature of the capitalist system. Other murals were a paen to the environment. Some of the muralists who created great public art in the Mission District neighborhoods are Joel Bergner  (http://www.joelsmurals.com/gallery.htm), Joel Bregman, Brad K. Alder, Antonio, Andrew Schoultz, Ricardo Richey, Jet Martinez, Alvaro, Mary Scott, Erin Ruch, Tauba Auerbach, Daniel Doherty, Ethan Allen Davis, Chad Savage, as well as the artists in the Precita Eyes Community Mural Workshop (http://www.precitaeyes.org/about.html)and the artists of the gallery Creativity Explored (http://www.creativityexplored.org/).

In the Cesar Chavez Elementary School (http://sanfrancisco.about.com/od/sfattractionslandmarks/ig/missiondistrictmurals/missionmural7500.htm)are murals on the face of the building painted by Susan Cervantes and Juana Alicia (http://www.juanaalicia.com/). The building depicts several students learning and studying. Dotting the walls of the school are little vignettes of sign language of the alphabet with a corresponding picture. We didn’t see the front of the school, but a big picture of Cesar Chavez frames the front entrance.

Our last destination for the day was Balmy Alley (http://www.balmyalley.com/). Unlike Clarion Alley, Balmy Alley was a lot cleaner and the murals weren’t deface with graffiti. The first mural was created in 1971 by children from a local tutoring center. In the 1980s, a group of artists collaborated on 26 murals calling attention to the struggles of peasants for land and dignity. I noticed images of Oscar Romero , the late bishop of El Salvador in the 1970s who protested the violation of human rights of the poor in the Salvadoran civil war and was assasinated by right wing groups in 1980. Like the Clarion Alley murals, there is a strong Progressive Catholic point of view in the murals, as Catholic figures like Romero are extolled.

The San Francisco Chronicle had an article by Tyche Hendricks in their May 5, 2009 issue on the most prominent murals in the Mission District. As the day ended, I had a greater appreciation on the role that public art can play in the community, and the ability of murals to act as both a venue to uplift culture and to comment on social injustice.

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