WHETHER they be political messages, outpourings of talent or graffiti, murals add colour to a space, and paint a vocabulary that speaks of non-conformism and attitude in San Francisco. The walls are canvases in a constant state of flux depending on which artists have got their brushes or spray cans out, making their point about life in California’s most densely populated city.
On the day that I explored the city, I found a mural near the junction of Folsom and 10th streets, which portrayed a young girl with her expressions of love. A pair of giant eyeballs stared at me from a wall on Market Street in the financial district, while a Mughal palace was perched imperiously on the walls of the top floor of that building.
Elsewhere, graffiti on a collage of news clips pointed out this random statistic: “By the time you finish reading this, five out of 10 people bought something they did not need.”
Not sure if I bought that last piece of advice, since some murals are used to express personal views, while others become platforms for social concerns. While they can be found across the city, Mission District seems to be the mecca for muralists, and is also a tourist draw.
Injecting Colour To Drab
Susan Cervantes, founder of Precita Eyes Muralists Association, an inner city, community-based organisation of muralists in San Francisco, traces it back to the early ’70s when the phenomenon started as a result of the civil rights movement, with Latinos in the neighbourhood rediscovering their indigenous and mural heritage. The results have changed the drab environment with colour and reflection of the cultural diversity in the area. “It has since spread to all regions, nationally and internationally,” she explains.
For Morgan Bricca, another mural artist who mostly does commissioned works, the reason also lies in San Francisco’s liberal image: “The murals capture the plurality of voices, experiences and opinions of the artists that create them.”
Morgan also thinks that many of the public murals in San Francisco are political in nature. “I think this is typical for murals from Mexico, and so much Hispanic influence in California and the Bay area…murals by and for the people that reflect the values of the people.“
Not all murals in the city are individual and spontaneous expressions. Some are commissioned by individuals or communities. The mural of an Ohlone Village, (Native American village) painted on the Main Street Bridge in Las Gatos, a county near San Francisc, was commissioned by the town planners and created by many volunteers.
Painting For Effect
Street art or graffiti is popular in the city since you only need the owners’ approval. “Some of them are of amazing quality, and some others are just tagging and territorial nonsense,” Susan observes. Sometimes it is very difficult to get permission to paint on any wall. A shop owner might allow an artist to paint the side of the building for better aesthetic look.
As not all the works are paid for, the quality might vary. The materials used in these paintings are usually spray paints and acrylic. Precita Eyes’ artists sometimes create their works on mosaic, and combine technics like bronze relief.
For Susan, it is a mission of 40 years. “I started painting murals because they are accessible to everyone, bringing art into the lives of the communities we serve. Involving the community in the process has changed lives, built closer communities and bonded individuals who never would otherwise have mutual respect and tolerance for each other’s ideas.”
This article was originally published in STORM in 2014.