Street art is perhaps the last thing that comes to anyone’s mind when one says San Francisco. The Golden Gate Bridge, steep mountainous city roads, the beating heart of cutting edge tech innovation completely sideline what is indeed an underrated tourist draw in the city and reinforces SF’s multicultural ethos.

As I made my way out of the 24th Mission Street BART metro station, I could already hear traditional Mariachi music with its mixture of trumpets, violins and a male Mexican voice singing what seemed like a ballad. The Mission District (referred to Mission from here on) is a Latino hub in San Francisco that also has the densest collection of street murals in all of California. If you are a street art enthusiast, this should be your first stop when you go exploring the city.

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Despite it being a Friday afternoon, the street side markets were thronging with people. A quick walk around the neighbourhood made me realise that the local independent shops, cafes and eateries would be significantly higher than big name brands. A lot of them looked like they were family-owned establishments, like one eatery called La Tacqueria — just shut your eyes and head here for one of the best burritos in the city. It was a much-needed fuel for my body as multiple hours of walking and discovering street art was on the agenda.

But before I jump into the street art gems I came across here, a bit of context to the place is in order.

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The Latino connection

Thanks to its location by a natural water harbour, San Francisco has always been a maritime business hub. But it was the California Gold Rush in the 1850s that really transformed the San Francisco Bay Area and in effect, the make up of the local population.

The Mission district was given its name when the Spanish missionaries landed in San Francisco in the 1770s. Before that, the original residents of the Mission were Native Americans from the Yelamu tribe whose population started to decline once the conversions began. The Spanish pastor, Father Francisco Palou, named the area Mission San Francisco de Asis. There’s a church by the same name, which also happens to be the oldest structure in the city, named after St Francis of Assissi, the founder of the Franciscan Order — so you know how SF got its name as well.

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Mission has always been home to immigrants. It was initially the Polish, German and Irish immigrants, during the Gold Rush and post the 1906 earthquake, who called Mission home. But from the 1980s onwards, Mission was the default location for immigrants from Central and South America to settle down in order to avoid the political upheavals in their home countries. This population is what gives the area its Latino and Chicano vibe. Post the dot-com boom, however, Mission is seeing rent prices shooting up, tech professionals moving in and that dreaded G-word taking over — Gentrification. It’s this churn that is now prominently seen in the street artwork in Mission alongside the old classics.

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A thriving ground for street art culture

Balmy Alley is a tiny lane in the Mission, which is where the street art movement in this neighbourhood took off, back in 1973. Started by an all-women artist group, The Muralist Movement soon spawned off a sub-culture so to speak, within the neighbourhood. Murals were used as a means of self-expression by the local immigrants who were far off from their homes.

The art movement was initially triggered by the human rights violations in the Central and South American countries, which stand out among all the murals seen here. Another common theme that emerges is the homage to the native Indians, who were driven out of their own land.

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While most of the street art here seems like it has been commissioned, it’s heartening to see graffiti artists abiding by the golden rule — you paint over an existing street artwork only if you have something better to create. To that effect, you will rarely find random tagging on elaborate murals here, something that I have seen quite rampantly in London and Berlin street artworks.

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In some alleys that I walked into, it almost seemed as if the house owners themselves had commissioned art murals by local artists, lest their garage doors or gates became a playground for graffiti artists. But since a lot of the artwork reflects the cultural diversity of the local inhabitants (although the Latino population is dropping every year here) it stays on for longer, protected by the community. Some artworks are literally behind bars, like this bourgeoise pig, who could very well be from George Orwell’s Animal Farm (3390, 25th street). Some like La Mujer der Jarron (Outside Walgreens on 23rd Street) take up a major part of a street block showing native Mexican women in all their traditional finery.

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One can easily spend countless hours looking at this open-air art gallery. The artwork isn’t abstract so to speak, but you are left scratching your head if you are not an expert on Central American history. I did appreciate the artwork for just that, but I realised that I would have enjoyed it more if I had someone giving me the context around some them. Some works such as La Rumba no Para that take up entire facades of buildings, done lovingly by multiple artists who make things so layered that you could spend hours just looking at the artwork as though you were reading a book or watching a short film.

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Another unique thing I noticed, which was quite different from the street art in Barcelona, London and Berlin, was that here the artwork was focussed on murals. There wasn’t any yarn bombing, abandoned sculpted work, installations and so on. The only variation I saw was an artwork called The Creation, just as I entered Balmy Alley. It was a woodwork cut in a shape depicting a woman in childbirth. Simple. Powerful.

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Then you have countless examples of artwork focussing on typography. While calligraphic graffiti work is sprinkled throughout every block, typography enthusiasts must look out for works like the Mission mural on the intersection of 24th St and Shotwell St where each alphabet is a frame for layered artwork inside it.

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After six hours of walking and getting saturated with artwork, I just had to call it a day. I ended the evening by lounging around in the glorious Mission Dolores Park with a hot chocolate from an indie store called Dandelion and a pastry to refill the lost calories. The nippy SF was just the right weather for this snack. Mission Dolores park does not have any mural around it, but if you enter it from the intersection of 20th St and Church St, you are treated with a smashing view of the SF downtown skyline, which is as good as any artwork from this vantage point.

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PS: If you are planning to check out Mission and if you are really interested in street art, keep aside at least half a day to really appreciate the neighbourhood. Besides the 24th St, Balmy Alley and its surroundings, there is more artwork to be seen in the Clarion Alley. Be mentally prepared to walk for hours. Want to check out some more art? Then head over to Chinatown which has its own quirky artworks which will make you smile.

— All images by the author.

Nimish Sawant is associate editor — Tech2, and documents his travels on nimsaw.com

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