360° Analysis

The Mission District: San Francisco’s Street Art


December 16, 2012 08:14 EDT

For many decades, street artists have made San Francisco’s Mission District one of the most colourful and fascinating places to see, mirroring the city’s vibrant multiculturalism and diversity.

We are walking through some of the stinkiest alleys in San Francisco, yet still tourists from all over the world come here to take pictures and admire the street art gallery surrounding them. Whether huge murals, stickers on the floor or graffiti: art is all around in this area of the city.

Our tour guide Russell Howze, who offers street art tours through the Mission District, has been walking through these alleys for 15 years, and still he discovers new pieces. “Once you train your eyes, it’s everywhere” is what he tells us as he points at a street light covered with almost torn off stickers and scribbled words, which would normally never catch someone’s eyes as art.

The Higher, the Better

Walking through Mission and Valencia Street we come across walls with both illegal and legal graffiti, stencils and other street art styles. Comics as well as posters and abstract pieces look down on us from the left as we try to read a graffiti on the right. Unlike in European metropolises, in San Francisco trains are no major hotspots for graffiti. The sprayers here prefer trucks instead and almost every truck we pass during the tour wears at least a small graffiti tag.

The trend to spray on trucks has become one way to earn respect amongst other graffiti artists, which is generally very important in the scene. The pieces of respected artists are much less likely to get vandalised or destroyed. This urge for respect has produced unusual and extraordinary works in spiralling heights or dangerous places and street artists compete in doing the craziest move to spread their name. Therefore, a picture of Ronald McDonald smiles at us from a wall 10 meters above the ground and we are all amazed and wonder how on earth the artist climbed up the roof. Other than painting pieces on roofs, ways to earn respect in the scene are also trespassing onto private propertyand – of course – exceptional quality.

Between Inordinateness and Respect

Although street art generally does not have any particular rules, there seems to be a code of honour. A certain hierarchy is respected, which means that throw-ups (basic two colour graffiti) can be painted over with a piece, except if the throw-up is from a famous artist. Also, Russell observes that schools, churches and Victorians are normally excluded from illegal graffiti and vandalism. Another accepted rule is that graffiti and street art are not supposed to last forever – which leads to ever-changing walls in the district. This rule seems to be changing with murals, which increasingly last for many years and have several curators to maintain them.

Needless to say, also vandalism exists in the district. The reasons for it may be obsession, search for fame, pure destruction or political. The generally left-minded artist community of the Mission District is quick when it comes to destroying racist pieces.

From Diego Rivera to Banksy

Internationally renowned artists have left their mark in the streets of San Francisco, amongst them Frida Kahlo’s husband Diego Rivera. His murals in the 1930’s inspired many artists in the street art boom in San Francisco and paved the way for a great mural tradition from the 60’s and 70’s onwards that was yet again greatly influenced by the Latin community in the city. Today still, there are murals painted in the Mexican tradition, a style that often picks up work-related and political topicsand is much more literal than other styles.

In the 80’s stencils became popular, with French street artist Blek Le Rat as a leading figure, who at the same time helped define street art. Nowadays, artists like the famous British Banksy and Scott Williams use the the Mission District as a platform for their creativity.

The district has had a magic attraction on artists ever since, meanwhile offering the highest concentration of public painting. Certainly, San Francisco’s revolutionary nature has contributed to the urge for cultural activism and social criticism which appears in many of the works. As the birthplace of the Hippie movement, San Francisco offers a very tolerant society, comparatively left-minded political tendencies and an exciting melting pot of Asians, Latin Americans, Africans, Whites and Native Americans, who all contribute to the incredible street art scene.

Several museums, art galleries and especially the non-profit organisation Precita Eyes provide help for young street artists and engage in finding legal walls to paint on. Also, they organise events regularly and offer mural tours through the district.

New Trends in a Dynamic Environment

San Francisco’s multiculturalism is mainly responsible for the diversity of its street art. Men and women of every generation and from different backgrounds find together in this district. “The picture people have in mind of a street artist is a black high-school gangster. This is a huge misconception” says Russell pointing to over 50-year-old Blek le Rat and female artist Amandalynn.

Besides diverse artists also a variety of techniques and street art styles are disposed: murals, graffiti, stencils and even “shoefiti”. This new trend consists of bundles of tagged shoes hanging on wires or from roofs. Plain shoes have an urban myth related to drug dealing and gang activities, which was the reason for the Spanish artist Ana Rivero Rossi to come up with a counter idea. Instead of shoes, she throws hearts in the air and waits for them to get stuck in the cables. “Aquí love” is what she calls the idea, and her hearts are meanwhile popping up all over the city.

This example shows how responsive and dynamic street art is. Artists take over topics they encountered in other murals, tags or parts of paintings and create their own new piece, which makes street art a huge conversation between artists. Sometimes this happens due to respect, other times to ridicule something or someone. Also, some artists continue pieces of other artists or work together on one.

Although the government still sees illegal graffiti as a problem, San Francisco has managed to keep up its vibrant art scene and meanwhile, Balmy and Clarion Alley have become one of the major tourist attractions in the city and will continue to do so thanks to the great support from organisations and museums.

Graffiti has always been a way for people to leave their marks behind and Russell is convinced that even though of course it is not the main driver for public art “wherever there’s alcohol, there’s gonna be graffiti”.

View the photo feature on San Francisco’s street art here.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.


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