San Francisco is famous for its colourful and provocative street art. You can find it everywhere, with a thousand or more murals across the city. But the greatest concentration is in the Mission District, with whole streets full of vibrant murals and mosaics.
Balmy Alley and the Mission District Murals
The Mission District is based around the Mission Dolores, established in 1776 and the oldest building in San Francisco. This was one of 21 Catholic missions in California, set up by Spanish colonists from Mexico. Today the area is home to a vibrant Mexican and Latin American community.
The first murals appeared in 1973. Two artists painted an extravagant jungle scene on the back of their apartment in Balmy Alley (between 24th and 25th Streets). It wasn’t long before other residents followed their example. Eventually almost every house and garage in Balmy Alley had its own artwork.
The Precita Eyes Muralist Association
By the 1980s the idea had spread, and today you will see murals all around the Mission District. Apart from Balmy Alley and 24th Street, look out for Clarion Alley, and the neighbouring Sycamore Street (between Mission and Valencia Streets). And don’t miss the Women’s Building on 18th Street – the gigantic MaestraPeace, covering the exterior and interior walls, features more than 600 influential women.
The murals are not entirely random. Since 1977 the Precita Eyes Muralist Association has acted as co-ordinator, bringing together artists with property owners. As well as private houses, they often receive requests for murals on shops, businesses and public buildings. The overall effect is to add colour and vibrancy to an already lively area. However, the pictures are not just decorative: look closely and you’ll see that many of them carry political or social messages, with subjects such as drugs, civil rights or police brutality. At one end of Clarion Alley I spotted a cartoon representation of Donald Trump: the Mission District murals are very much a living tradition.