The city that was a museum

When I visit a new city somewhere in the world, top of my agenda is to visit the art museums and explore the world view of that local culture. Over the past couple of years, I’ve not been able to travel due to health risk. So I’ve been exploring my city in depth. San Francisco has several amazing art museums. But there is more urban art on the streets than there is art in our museums. So ironically, it’s been a luxurious place to explore and photograph over the last two years.

There are a lot of hot spots for urban art in San Francisco. For the sake of my non-local friends, I’d like to share some of the highlights over the coming months so you can enjoy the treasure hunt when you visit this amazing city sometime in the future. Sadly, art vandalism has been an increasing issue in the city as people grow restless and angry recently. So where I see a mural defaced, I’ll try to go back in time in my collection since moving here in 1998 to find what the art used to look like.

My brother and I used to love collecting comic books when we were young. We liked tales of rightfully protected justice, magical and mystical powers, curses that were a burden to heroes who then turned their burdens into a way to contribute to society. You may squint your eyes at the other-worldly brightness of palette that San Francisco artists resort to. It may seem gauche to use such bright colors like they are shouting at a dinner party. But remember that San Francisco is a foggy city. And there are quiet voices that want to ring out against the grey to bring their message forth. So there is a lot of protest and complaint that happens through the brush.

Urban art as individual expression can be found in subtle ways, a small emblem or airbrush on sidewalks of fish swimming in circles, or spontaneous acts of stencil work adorning boarded up buildings that were closed during the pandemic lock-down. But much of the art in public spaces is coordinated with city planners or created specifically through grants paid for by the city’s citizens through urban renewal and beautification grants by the city’s board of supervisors.

Much like the comics of yore, the urban artists of today integrate themes of their heroes and cultural icons. Like a Dia de los Muertos commemoration of the people who’ve passed but who shaped the cultural trends of our town and our times.

One of the most active muralist groups got started in the Mission district near Cesar Chavez Street. The Precita Eyes Muralists are a group of volunteers who coordinate large works of urban art. For many years I’ve studied their most iconic projects near public transit stops. What better thing to do in 5-10 minutes you have waiting for a bus than to dive into the vision of an artist.

Near my home on the 24th street route of bus 48, is another Precita Eyes store where you can buy replicas of some of the works, and orient yourself near the epicenter of the Mission District’s densest cluster of painted alleyways and buildings. At the Precita Eyes visitors center, you can buy a map of the city which lists the artists and locations of some of the major works.

You can start your tour at my favorite cafe, Philz, an old grocery store where Phil Jaber would give his visiting customers coffee during their visit to his market. He eventually cleared out the grocery store and moved in a bunch of couches for people to luxuriate while enjoying his brew. And of course being in the heart of the mission, he invited artisans to ornately paint the interior of his cafe.

Strolling down 24th Avenue east of Philz, you come to the ornately narrative Saint Peters Church with themes ranging from the Central American invasion of the Spanish conquistadors facing the heroes and activists from Olmec, Maya, Nazca and Aztecs to the modern day.

One of the grandest scale projects is the Mission District is the Women’s Building with a gigantic portrait of Human Rights Nobel Laureate, Rigoberta Menchú holding open hands with emblems of spirits and goddesses from many world religions adorning the walls along with historic women artists and activists. (3543 18th Street)

My neighborhood for the fourteen years of living in the city has several works that have been dear to me like old friends. The first, led by Marta Ayala, is a landscape of word spoken by a narrator at left who is uttering words of many languages as if the incantations have force to become life. Under a crescent moon, a landscape pours out in the green shadow of a mountain peak resembling the one looming over Antigua, Guatemala, Volcán de Agua. In a verdant landscape, a woman sculpts a pottery dish with the double-helix of dna over her shoulder and an odd emblem in the sky of the quetzal bird atop a pyramid, which may be a reference to the Maya creation myth of the Popul Vuh.

Another brilliant mural, Culture of the Crossroads, led by Susan Cervantes, can be seen at the exit of the 24th Avenue BART station, where the artists hid a vibrant painting of a seed-bearing masculine image behind a tree with various natural force elements emanating all around him.

Approaching nearer, one encounters a dialog of particular elements of the painting. The male figure seems like the sacrificial seed of the world tree of Maya lore or the Christian sacrificial image of the lamb of god. Whatever it actually means, I enjoyed the concept that the thrust of the painters’ narrative remained hidden behind a tree, inviting us to walk up to the mural face to experience the work in depth.

Of course the urban landscape is constantly changing in cities. So some art is short lived on the sides of walls shortly thereafter covered by construction. This hidden painting existed for a time on market street prior to the erection of a building immediately adjacent. I wonder sometimes how many hundreds of years will pass before it is seen again. The theme of this piece seemed to be the narrative of the worlds to be found within books, with a spectating dreamer at left and the contents of the books at right.

At the intersection of Harrison and 18th is a massive mural of festive themes. Images of steel drummers of Trinidad accompany dancing figures of Carnival celebration at either end while invoking the image of manual labor of city plumbing and echoes of daily work of commuters at the center of the mural.

Another of the large scale murals from Precita Eyes is the sequentially narrative story painted along the bike path leading west from Duboce Avenue at the Market Street intersection. The course of this mural starts in the east with depictions of downtown San Francisco’s architectural landscape and pans over dozens of meters to the dunes of the ocean with snakes, birds, beetles and lizards scampering over the sand in the trail of a receding biker.

California became a US state by act of a treaty signed at Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848 between the US and Mexican government. It has a highly diverse population of migrant and immigrant populations from former US colonies, South America and Asia, making it one of the most ethnically varied cities in the US. Many of the murals across the city reflect the story of migrants who’ve made this journey. Several stirring depictions by Joel Bergner depict this narrative, such as in El Inmigrante where a man is seen walking away from a land of sun and love to a destination of cold blues dominated by echoing screens and towering buildings. His work on Balmy Alley echoes this theme of the call of distant lands where migrants are driven away from their homes seeking escape from violence, while feeling torn by the sense of personal identity left behind.

There are a few concentrated street-galleries established on back alleys you can navigate just down the street from Precita Eyes Visitor Center. Balmy Alley’s murals are painted on garage doors and fences of the private homes of residents in the neighborhood.

Meandering along Mission and Valencia streets to the north and south you stumble on new murals every few blocks until you get to Clarion Alley, another densely ornamented gallery-like street.

Heading up 24th Street west of Mission, there are a few scattered murals up into Noe Valley, next to the parking lot used for the farmers market on weekends.

Heading further west to Forest Hill Muni Station, you can find an intricate mural along the 7th Avenue strip on the western hillside of Laguna Honda Hospital. This long strip of wall has several themes painted over the years under grants from San Francisco general fund along with Precita Eyes donors and artists. (https://www.precitaeyes.org/laguna-honda-hospital-mural-7-20.html)

We always benefit by poking a little deeper behind the normal landscapes we traverse. We are so lucky to have artists narrate their vision onto the canvas of our town like this. The art of my city has given me repeated experiences of being transfixed, like I’m stuck temporarily in amber, as I thought to stroll past a place and end up captivated by a dream vision. Now it has become somewhat of an obsession to seek out new stories of the street corner each visit.