Like most cities, San Francisco has its distinguished museums and brilliantly lit galleries, and it also has a healthy supply of what is sometimes described as “low-brow” art: graffiti, skateboard paintings, tattoo art, underground comix and so on.
Spanning the full range of SF’s art spectrum, and blurring the distinctions somewhat, are the murals for which the city is rightly famous. They’re all over town – in the lobbies of government buildings and along alleyways that double as urinals for the homeless. Celebrated treasures (including three by Diego Rivera) are hidden away in the Financial District and on college campuses around town. But murals are at heart a public artform – they are art for the common man. So let’s head out and see some San Francisco Mission District murals, where the spirit of the art is community-based and still very much alive.
Murals in the Mission: Some Context
Firstly, a little background. The Mission has a long history as a Latin American neighborhood, going back to the early 1960s. Murals, in the tradition of Rivera and Jose Orosco, are a natural fit in a politically aware, working-class enclave bustling with tiendas (shops) and taquerias. The Mission also has solid counter-cultural inclinations, which brings a diverse appreciation for public art. These varying approaches coexist and fuse nicely all over the neighborhood, emblazoning buildings with color and character.
I button-holed a friend, John Fadeff, to join me for this walk. John’s a gruff-talking painter who has done a few murals around town, and I’ve always admired his work, as do a number of San Francisco artists. I have a painting by him hanging on my bathroom wall, above the toilet, and I never grow tired of it. I thought I’d let John talk my ear off as we walked the Mission’s tattoo’d alleyways, so we fueled up on grilled-snapper tacos at a clean little joint called Tansitaro Michoacan on 24th Street. We then ducked into a corner liquor store so John could purchase a bottle of tequila, and though there were only two aisles in the store, he promptly disappeared on me. Ten minutes later we found each other out front, where I’d been scanning the street hoping to spot him. John emerged from the shop, cradling a brown paper bag, explaining: “I asked the owner where he keeps the tequila he showed me to the back room. Sorry.”
He laughs through a closed mouth, seemingly pleased with the way things have turned out. John is the kind of guy who generally declines a drink, unless it’s tequila. On his birthday last summer he received three or four bottles of the stuff. One of the bottles was shaped like a Tommy gun. It was the loopiest party I’ve been to in years. Anyway, we finally hit the pavement in earnest, gabbing.
Murals in the Mexican Tradition
We start at Balmy Alley, between 24th and 25th. Solidly walled by garage doors and backyard fences, and seldom attracting auto traffic, it’s the ideal alley for a Sharks vs. Jets knife fight, or a stray cat feast among dented trashcans and discarded fish bones. Local artists have turned it into a block-long, open-air hall of murals. As we enter off 24th St., Susan Cervantes’ mural of a woman dropping a baby from her private parts grabs my attention, and we look at many murals inspired by Aztecan imagery and the political activism revolving around the Central American wars of the 1970s and ’80s.
One depicts campesinas wielding machine guns. (Suddenly John’s Tommy gun tequila bottle makes perfect sense…) Some of the oldest murals on the block were painted in the 1970s by a group of women artists who called themselves Las Mujeres Muralistas. Their left-leaning political messages, florid color schemes, and phantasmagoric compositions mesh fairly easily with the psychedelia and earth mothers favored by West Coast boomers. The weapons are pure Latin revolutionary, however.
Some of the older murals are fading. John says, “That’s the thing about outdoor paintings, they’re exposed to the elements. Or a fence rots and needs to be replaced. A car could crash into a garage door. That’s just part of it. The art’s not so precious.”
Halfway down the alley we stop before a provocative cartoony mural (“Now, who did this one?” John muses, obviously interested) and then another depicting classic Mexican film stars in black and white. Here again the style is not traditional. John points out a portrait of the Mexican comedian Cantinflas, painted by Rigo, who is more prominently represented elsewhere around town. Rigo’s signature South of Market murals (One Tree, Inner City Home) are city landmarks. Here, his work blends in with the work of others, in a collaborative piece.
“That’s another important thing. Murals are often group efforts,” John adds. “There is a communal spirit to it.”
Murals on Barbershops & Corner Markets
We move through the neighborhood, pausing as we reach my parked car so John can stash his bottle, still unopened, beneath the passenger seat. We pause again in front of a barber shop on 23rd Street. It’s completely covered by a mural by Susan Greene that includes contributions by John. As a painter, one of the things he likes about murals is the unpredictable audience. “Certain types of people go to galleries, so the audience is limited. But you never know who might walk by this barber shop.”
Naturally, public art is more vulnerable than something framed and hung in a gallery. In addition to the weather, taggers and self-appointed cultural police always lurk. We reach a corner market where one exterior wall is covered with plywood to protect a controversial mural underneath. The mural was vandalized by people who disagreed with its political message. The art has been saved by the plywood, but essentially is censored.
Murals for Post-Punk Counterculturalistas
Without its continuous murals, Clarion Alley, between Mission and Valencia, would just be a gritty alley inviting illicit activities, but this is not why John seems more at home here. He was on the scene as local artists began its transformation in the early 1990s. According to John, the Clarion Alley Mural Project (CAMP) was born out of an interest in improving a somewhat bleak environment. His friends Rigo, Aaron Noble, and Vince Oresman among a few others lived in a warehouse halfway up the block. “This was a place where you’d see people smoking crack under their T-shirts. Guys would get blow jobs here on their lunch breaks.” It’s not nearly so bad as that now, though an unpleasant smell lingers on warm days.
The murals here reflect the influence of pop art, comic books, outsider art, and graffiti. Some of the art here is pointedly dismissive of the arts establishment, which is not that far from the spirit of the traditional muralists, who preferred the a populist approach. Critics sometimes categorize the Clarion painters, along with other local artists, as the Mission School. Sometimes their styles, which are diverse, are lumped into a catch-all description: “urban rustic.”
We stop before a mural by Brian Tripp, a Native American artist who, John says, represents just one of many cross-cultural connections established by the Clarion Alley painters. A lot of the work, such as Matso’s mural of ghosts emerging from the downtown skyline, are both political and cartoony.
John informs me one of the muralists, Julie Murray, sidelined as a movie set painter. It shows in her Clarion Alley mural, which depicts a lifelike escalator that appears to ascend from a garage door. Towards the Valencia end of the block, John points to a newer building that’s already covered with murals. “Barry McGee – Twist – painted something on a rolltop door on the building that was here before.” By that time, McGee was already among the city’s best known artists. “When he learned they were going to tear down the building, Aaron grinded the mural off the metal door with a crappy little electric grinder. It took him hours. He would rather destroy the painting than let some developer sell it.”
Our next destination was going to be the Redstone Building, on 16th Street. John’s largest mural graces the building’s lobby, along with the works of many other Clarion Alley artists. But John’s girlfriend, a filmmaker, is screening a new documentary later in the evening and we’ve run out of time. He’s talked too much on Clarion Alley. We exchange a hasty goodbye.
John’s tequila bottle rolled around on the floor of my car all the way home. At a Saturday night dinner function, I handed it off to my cousin Chris.
She met up with John’s girlfriend at the YMCA two nights later and, supposedly, handed her the bottle. But something went wrong in the exchange, and the bottle was never seen again. I strongly suspect these two women got home a little later than usual that night, their breath strong enough to kill flies.
Editor’s Note: Tom Downs is the author of numerous guides to San Francisco, including his most recent “Walking San Francisco: 30 Savvy Tours Exploring Steep Streets, Grand Hotels, Dive Bars, and Waterfront Parks“.