I spent much of this weekend helping to paint a giant mural on a new building at the corner of Cesar Chavez and Mission Street. I did it as volunteer work for Precita Eyes, a San Francisco community mural arts organization that has been such a strong presence in the Mission District for so long you can hardly turn a corner without seeing their work brightening the streets. When I moved to the city almost nine years ago, one of the reasons I came was for the murals. My favorite project in college was delivering a lecture on Mexican Muralists, and in researching the likes of Orozco, Siqueiros and Rivera, I fell in love with the medium, in particular its ability to tell a story. The messages murals convey can be political, historical or simply beautiful, but whatever the artist’s intent, it becomes art for the people. It is not hidden away in a museum or a private collection, it is meant to be seen by the masses. Murals invite and incite reaction. They are difficult to ignore.
Since coming to the city and giddily roaming the streets trying to discover all the murals in the Mission, I have jumped around living in one neighborhood after another and working on many mural projects with students and on my own, but I’ve finally come full circle and moved back to my old ‘hood. Working on this project with Precita Eyes feels like coming home. Its content is a celebration of all things “Mission” – Carnaval, mariachis, low-riders, the Mexican bus, the actual Mission Dolores, and the now iconic Cesar Chavez (appropriate since the mural is located on Cesar Chavez Street). At such a busy intersection, we had tons of traffic (both foot and car) while we worked and everyone had an opinion. Most were positive; people honked and yelled “Great job!”, “It’s beautiful!” or stood and admired close up. One woman walked by muttering loudly about “tired old subject matter…can’t they paint anything else”, which I have to admit I thought when I first saw the design. The building we are painting contains a bunch of condos and a new Walgreen’s, about one step above a Starbucks on the gentrification scale, and here we are painting a mural about the old, authentic Mission, the things people come here wanting to see. It made me think of this great KQED Forum discussion on Mission murals, where a man named Oscar called in to complain about how murals cheapened buildings and they would never do this in the Marina. All I have to say about that is that’s one of the many reasons why I prefer not to live in the Marina. But Oscar is entitled to his opinion. No matter what you think about murals, you think something when you see one, and that’s what I like about them. Nobody can tell you your opinion is wrong.
The mural we painted today is for you. Go check it out. It’s not done yet, so maybe you’ll see us out there still working on it. Whether you think we’re beautifying or cheapening the place, it felt good to be leaving my mark on the Mission in such a traditional way (I mainly worked on the mustachioed maraca man in the parade and the red-orange background). It has been a practice since primitive people made drawings on the walls of their caves, and there’s nothing like it to satisfy my urge to create.