Wall Flowers: Concrete Canvases Reflect Hispanic Culture
San Francisco's colorful murals are stories of grace and struggle writ large.
Indigenous Eyes: War or Peace, located on Balmy Way in San Francisco's Mission District.
Credit: Precita Eyes Mural Arts and Visitors Center
The term "public art" often brings to mind large pieces of sculpture expensively commissioned from famous artists -- Picasso in Chicago, for instance, Richard Serra in Paris, and Claes Oldenburg just about everywhere. But public art can be less intimidating and far more locally intimate, speaking with a voice that carries the distinctive accent of the neighborhood where it appears.
San Francisco's Mission District, a traditionally Hispanic part of the famously diverse town, offers a remarkable collection of murals, inspired by the great twentieth-century Mexican muralists Diego Rivera, José Clemente Orozco, and David Alfaro Siqueiros. Scattered randomly throughout an area from 16th Street to Cesar Chavez Street, roughly between Valencia and Bryant streets, adorning the exteriors of taquerias, coffee shops, homes, churches, and community centers, the murals represent a gallery with a floor plan guaranteed to catch you pleasantly by surprise.
Some of the murals are political, others are lighthearted, and many carry the collective stories of South American and Latin American immigrants who reside in this part of the city. Portraits of Hispanic icons are the focus of several murals, such as the one at 21st and Bartlett streets, which pays homage to 1992 Nobel laureate Rigoberta Menchú and Cesar Chavez, champion of migrant workers' rights. Others are full of intricate symbolism and artistic detail, telling the tale of the two distinct worlds immigrants straddle.
El Immigrante, at 23rd and Shotwell streets, completed in 2005 by local artist Joel Bergner, shows two worlds merging uneasily. One side of the mural portrays a Latin American village with dirt streets and old cars, while the other side shows a technologically advanced society where nameless, faceless beings stare at large screens on tall buildings. Caught between the two realities is a young couple fleeing the old world for the new one. A passerby drawn to the work by its bright colors and contrast between detail and abstraction will no doubt wonder how the family will fare. The chilly depiction of the advanced society also raises questions about loss and gain when people move from one life to another.
One of the Mission's most impressive murals appears on the north and east sides of the San Francisco Women's Building, at the corner of 18th and Lapidge streets. Created by a group of seven women working under the collective name Maestrapeace Art Works, the four-story mural, titled Maestrapeace, was completed in 1994 with the help of a hundred additional female painters. Like most of the murals in the neighborhood, the brightly colored work simultaneously conveys hope for the future and reverence for the past.
Nearby, a concentrated collection of murals decorates Balmy Alley, a one-block lane that runs between 24th and 25th streets. Nearly the entire alley is covered with art, creating a public space that entices visitors down a stretch of pavement they would otherwise have no reason to walk on.
Culture of the Crossroads, located at 24th and Mission streets in San Francisco.
Credit: Precita Eyes Mural Arts Visitors Center
Around the corner, on 24th Street, is the Precita Eyes Mural Arts and Visitors Center. Established in 1977, Precita Eyes is a nonprofit community arts organization dedicated to murals, arts education, and cultural heritage. Josh Stevenson, coordinator of the Precita Eyes Urban Youth Arts program, says the focus of any Precita Eyes project should be on the community it serves, because public art created by, and for, the community improves neighborhoods visually and socially.
"Public murals add color and make the neighborhood look better," Stevenson says. "And with collaborative works, you can have a number of people represented. It shows people working together. You can tell it's not one artist working; there's something there for everyone to relate to. It builds a sense of community. It's like democracy -- everybody's ideas are up there together."