Get a visual history lesson with this San Francisco Mission street art tour. It’s an easy neighborhood to explore on foot and doing so will reward you with a view of the city that you can’t get anywhere else.
History of the San Francisco Mission District
The origins of the Mission are older than San Francisco itself and it’s history tells the story of a revolving door of settlers and immigrants. The Mission’s original residents were the Yelamu people who settled what is now San Francisco 4500 years ago. The neighborhood is called “The Mission” because of the establishment of Mission Dolores by Francisco Palou in 1776.
After the extinction of the Yelamu through the usual scourge of white settlement and disease, the area was then populated by Spanish-Mexican families. During the Gold Rush the area became housing for working-class German, Irish and Italian immigrants.
The population shifted yet again during the ’40-’60s with the influx of a large number of Mexicans and Central American Immigrants.The current wave of settlement includes dot-com workers and gentrification.
A similar cultural phenomena occurred in San Diego, resulting in an explosion of street art in Chicano Park.
All of this history is relevant to the Mission District street art because most of the murals illustrate SF’s immigrant history and political landscape.
Establishment of the Mission’s Street Art
In the ’70’s a scene began to develop in the Mission with the emergence of art spaces, galleries, film festivals and street performances. This creative environment proved fertile ground for the street art movement and murals began springing up.
Precita Eyes, a nonprofit devoted to the development and restoration of community art, rode the wave of interest in street art. They have cataloged one hundred street art pieces, credited to specific artists, scattered throughout the 143 square blocks of the mission. Although, most of it is clustered along 24th street between Mission and Hampshire as well as Balmy, Lilac and Clarion alleys (below).
Latino Culture and Street Art
The Latino immigrant experience is well represented in the street art of San Francisco. There are themes of struggle, religious iconography, creation stories, cries for justice, labor disputes– hope, despair and love in equal measure.
In this lovely Balmy alley piece, immigrant “Chepe” writes a love letter home to his wife and son which she clutches with a look of longing.
“My love–I hope this letter finds you and our son well. I’m still working here in California. I know that life is very very hard, but I think that it is more difficult because of the distance that separates us. I’ve missed you a lot and hope that we can be together soon….with much love– Chepe”
The Campesinos in this Balmy Alley mural struggle against the bondage of their labor.
If you enjoy photography, check out these great Instagrammable spots in SF.
Commissioned Street Art
Many of the murals were commissioned specifically by the property owners for the purpose of beautification, to honor loved ones and to represent their particular constituency.
The Cesar Chavez elementary school shows pride in their special program for deaf students.
And the wrap around affair at St Peter’s Church tells an epic 500 year story of resistance.
Living And Working Among the Murals
Street art is so democratic. It’s not locked away in a glass case or surrounded by 24-hour security. It’s just out in the world. The people of the mission live inside of the art as they go about their daily lives.
This mural above the House ‘o’ Brakes on 24th offers a fun peek into the flashy musical culture of the neighborhood.
This meta-mural represents the city in the city at this bus stop on 24th and Folsom.
San Francisco Street Art in 3D
The Mission street art isn’t just one dimensional. But the neighborhood also has three dimensional pieces that add depth and interest to surrounding art.
This piece in Balmy Alley is a traditional mural with a 3D plywood die cuts arranged over the flat surface of the building.
The 24th Street York Mini Park has the usual murals and playground equipment. But writhing through the center of the park is a huge beautiful tile mosaic sculpture representing the serpent Quetzalcoatl.
Street Art Goes Political
Not all of the art in the Mission reflects cultural history. There is also a fair dollop of the modern in the form of cartoony murals, counter-culture imagery and political edge.
At first glance this mural in Balmy Alley looks like an homage to “Where the Wild Things Are.” But a closer look at the flag reveals a political message: “Don’t waste water and keep it clean because across the water is where we find wild things.”
And while that new wave of dot-commers are loving the Mission. Many others wish that it would retain its traditional character: “This city is not for sale”.
In Argentina, street art is VERY political. Check out this walking tour of street art in Buenos Aires
Your Mission Graffiti Walk
Begin your street art tour of San Francisco at the 24th street BART stop. Start by walking down to Precita Eyes (24th & Harrison). They offer tours but also have tons of information to inform a self-guided tour. They are very passionate about Mission street art so plan to spend some time there having them regale you with stories regarding the more ambitious art pieces. You can also buy maps, mugs, books and other cool stuff in their gallery.
You can also check out Street Art SF for an online map. Wear comfortable shoes and come prepared to spend several hours wandering the neighborhood as there is a LOT to see. You can always take a break at one of the many coffee shops and restaurants around.
Visit coffee shops and bookstores in the Mission
Can’t Get Enough Street Art?
Then check out these other resources for great street art around the world.
- My posts on Los Angeles, Chicago and London’s Brick Lane
- 15 Great Street Art Locations from Make Time to See the World
- Street Art board on Pinterest
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