San Francisco has always welcomed those who crave an outlet for free expression, and its tradition of public art—both officially sanctioned and otherwise—has made the city a grand canvas with works that adorn facades, plazas, alleyways and even the exterior walls of burrito joints. The Mission District is as vibrantly illustrated as many of the tattooed residents that live and work among over 90 documented murals and hundreds of others.
Chockablock with billboards, business signage and the detritus of a bustling, hardworking neighborhood, the streets and alleyways surrounding the Precita Eyes Mural Arts and Visitors Center (24th St between Alabama and Harrison Sts) constitute nothing less than an open-air museum where world-class painters have created staggeringly complex pieces at a scale (sometimes covering entire three-story buildings) that is meant to be both examined in detail and admired from afar. For almost four decades Precita Eyes has been both the caretaker and instigator of the Mission’s mural movement. While some works have existed as long, and been maintained and restored over decades, the proximity to urban life (not least the scourge of taggers) means others are transient.
To take a mural and food tour of The Mission District, click here.
La Llorona’s Sacred Waters, Taqueria San Francisco, corner of 24th and York Sts
Conceived and executed by muralist, teacher and activist Juana Alicia, the spectacular work is based on the legend of La Llorona, the Weeping Woman, doomed to roam the earth searching for her lost children. Alicia ties this tale to the plight of women and children the world over: Bolivian women in Cochabamba fight Bechtel’s gambit to buy water rights, Indian farm workers protest the flooding of their homes resulting from dam projects, and women in mourning veils protest the unsolved murders of hundreds of female maquiladora workers along the U.S.–Mexican border near the Rio Bravo in Juarez, Mexico.
500 Years of Resistance, St. Peter’s Church, corner of 24th and Florida Sts
Conceived and commissioned in 1992 by the late Father Jack Isaacs, pastor of the St. Peter’s Church, the mural marks the 500th anniversary of the Spanish conquest and depicts its history through the experience of the indigenous peoples of the region and the “victims of empire, then and now.” Executed by muralist Isaias Mata, it is also meant to “honor the faith and resilience of the people and their descendants in the face of overwhelming violence.”
Although its message and impact never faded, its colors did. In 2013, Mata returned from El Salvador to restore the mural to its original intensity. Five scenarios transport viewers through history, beginning with “Creation,” in which the bodies of the ancestors nourish the earth, through “Conquest, War, and Empires,” before culminating in “The Power of Organizing & People’s Movements” and the the struggle for peace and human rights.
Balmy Alley, between 24th and 25th Sts
Not just one mural, but a collection of works covering virtually every available space on either side of the alley (garage doors, fences, walls), Balmy Alley epitomizes the open-air-gallery feel of the Mission’s murals. Approximately 37 works by more than three-dozen artists line the space. The seed for the alley’s initial paintings germinated in the 1980s as U.S. foreign policy in Central America provoked widespread outrage. Works in the alley now include tributes to Frida Kahlo, Georgia O’Keeffe and Salvadoran activist Archbishop Oscar Romero, and up-to-the-minute commentaries on themes including the challenges of gentrification in the neighborhood.
Naya Bihana, Balmy Alley
Naya Bihana or A New Dawn depicts three generations of Nepalese women toiling in the fields beneath the Himalayas and breaking the chains of oppression. London-born artist Martin Travers painted the mural in 2002 in response to the political upheaval taking place in Tibet at the turn of the millennium. Inspired by the photographs of journalist Li Onesto, Travers felt the rebellion in Nepal was particularly significant, showing “it is possible for people in the bottom of society to break those chains and take that power, seize the power.” To convey the power of Onesto’s photography, Travers employed techniques gleaned from his study of Mexico’s revolutionary artists, including Orozco, Siqueiros and Rivera. As Travers later recounted, the mural was executed in a predominantly Latin-American neighborhood in San Francisco, but it was embraced by the people there as much as the Asian community or people from the Nepali diaspora, breaking national boundaries.
Indigenous Eyes: War or Peace, Balmy Alley
Completed in 1991 by Susan Cervantes, the striking mural literally stares down the viewer. In the right pupil is reflected a skeletal soldier, the left a dove in flight. Cervantes, a founding director of the Precita Eyes Muralists, has had a hand—and brush—in more 400 murals over a span of 50 years, including many of the most striking works found throughout San Francisco. She was also among the core artists who created the MaestraPeace mural.
MaestraPeace, the Women’s Building, 3543 18th St, between Valencia and Guererro Sts
The culmination of almost two years of work, the MaestraPeace mural is one of the most ambitious pieces of contemporary public art not only in San Francisco, but arguably the world. Seven women (including Susan Cervantes, Miranda Bergman and Juana Alicia) with over 100 years of combined experience as muralists and a team of more than 50 volunteers labored atop seven-and-a-half stories of scaffolding. A work of monumental scope, the mural covers some 12,000 square feet, spanning two 65’ x 80’ walls, and incorporates figures, iconography and images representing cultures, accomplishments and belief systems of women throughout the world. From Yemayah, the Yoruba goddess of rivers and oceans, and Coyolxauhqui, the Aztec moon goddess to Georgia O’Keeffe and Jocelyn Elders, the mural celebrates the power of women and their ability to forge their own destinies. To truly appreciate the depth of its conception, stop into the lobby gift store for a copy of a printed key, detailing the individual images and historical figures represented.
Untitled, Kevin’s Auto Mechanics, corner of Shotwell and 14th Sts
Although generally overshadowed by the “official” works of the Precita Eyes muralists, San Francisco’s street art scene is vibrant and diverse, attracting a range of international artists whose work has been found everywhere from the Venice Biennale to the biker’s biceps. Born in Rio de Janiero, noted San Francisco tattoo artist Lango Oliveira of Skull & Sword often trades his tattoo gun for a spray can. His wildly colorful representations of mythical figures, mysterious women and ferocious beasts can be found on walls throughout the city from the Haight to the Tenderloin. The owners of the auto body shop at 4 Shotwell Street commissioned this mural of a gypsy who averts her eyes to avoid the examining eyes of onlookers.
Gazing Seaward, Zheng’s Cleaners, corner of 24th and Hampshire Sts
The wall of a dry cleaner has featured multiple works by Brooklyn-based artist Caledonia Curry, who adopted the tag Swoon following a dream of her then-boyfriend who recounted her writing “Swoon” on buildings as they fled from police. Her medium, paper adhered to brick with wheatpaste, means that her works are temporary. Gradually eroding and flaking away, they exist in varying states of glorious decay. Gazing Seaward is her recreation of the central figure of Thalassa, the eponymous installation she assembled in 2011 in the Great Hall at the New Orleans Museum of Art. Here, Thalassa, Greek goddess of the sea and mother of Aphrodite, appears to burst from the pavement of the sidewalk, soaring skyward, trailing a gown of sea creatures.