Walking through Mission streets, you are greeted by murals adorning storefronts, doorways, schools, and entire alleys. They are playful, confrontational, political, tongue-in-cheek. Some are painted with brushes and acrylics, some done with spraycans, still others look like children’s drawings. Behind many of these works of public art stands Precita Eyes, a mural arts organization keeping the Mission’s muralismo tradition thriving since 1977.
The Precita Eyes Mural Arts & Visitors Center, located in the heart of the Mission on 24th St., is hard to miss. The bright blue building with its yellow sign evokes the vibrant hues of local murals. The walls of the colorfully cluttered visitors’ center are decked out with art by Precita muralists; a larger-than-life Frida Kahlo looks down from a wall mural over the racks of postcards, books, and shelves of paint. Precita Eyes is a hub for both public art and education, and leads mural tours in the neighborhood. I chose their Sunday Classic Mural Tour as a starting off point.
Our tour group – some locals, a recent transplant to San Francisco, and a couple of high school students on assignment – was greeted by Patricia Rose, a muralist with Precita Eyes since 1980, who intimately knows the painters and the behind-the-scenes stories of the murals. Walking through a storage area brimming with half-finished mosaics, brushes, and paint cans, we start our tour with a slideshow overview of the mural movement’s history. Although “painting on walls” has existed as a concept since prehistory, it was during the ‘Golden Age’ in 1920’s Mexico that the mural as social commentary really took off. After new paint innovations, murals started appearing outdoors and became at once more accessible to the public and more rooted in populist themes. Taking this democratization one step further, the Mujeres Muralistas shifted the focus of the murals away from the ‘masculine’ themes of struggle and war to instead celebrate life affirming themes like community, heritage and family – themes very visible in the Mission today.
After the dark room and faded slides, it was a relief to get outside and see the murals in person. Although murals crop up in the neighborhood as often as taquerías, nowhere are they denser than Balmy Alley, with 40 murals on walls and garages along a 1-block stretch. The oldest of these are 40 years old; the peeling paint and faded color gives away the murals’ age. Old murals are never painted over or destroyed. In one case, a damaged garage door had to be replaced, taking a section of a mural with it. The new garage door was repainted in the spirit of the older mural still framing it, and now depicts a close-up of a young girl’s eyes: a soldier is reflected in one, a dove in the other.
The neighborhood’s murals are deeply rooted in the heritage and culture of the Mission. A utility box on Harrison and 24th is painted with portraits of actual Mission residents: a bakery owner, a flower vendor. Alongside murals representing the Nicaraguan and El Salvadoran revolutions, the most recent Balmy Alley mural portrays more immediate and local issues, such as foreclosures and gentrification in this traditionally Hispanic and immigrant neighborhood. The mural is bright, almost cartoonish, but doesn’t shy from heavy themes; for example, there is a reference to the Trayvon Martin shooting in the foreground.
In addition to community collaborations and private commissions, Precita muralists partner with StreetSmARTS, a San Francisco initiative that seeks to replace graffiti-prone blank walls with art. Precita also works with with local organizations and communities to help them design and paint their own murals. One such mural in Balmy Alley, titled “Those We Love, We Remember,” was done in collaboration with Children’s HOPE Project for children affected by HIV/AIDS; it is all the more poignant to see the clearly childlike lines in the mural’s figures.
At the heart of it, Precita Eyes is about community, with art as the medium. You can support Precita by volunteering, taking a class, or going on an educational mural tour – though Balmy Alley is the most well known, the intricate mural on St. Peter’s Church and the mosaics in the 24th Street Mini Park should not be overlooked.
Visit Precita Eyes
Precita Eyes offers the following tours: the Classic Mural Tour on Sat. & Sun. at 1:30pm; the Mission Trail Mural Walk on Sat. at 11:00 am; and the Precita Park Tour on Sun. at 11:00 am. For more information, stop by 2981 24th Street, San Francisco, CA 94110, call (415) 285-2287 or visit their website.