The Mission District, the historic Latinx neighborhood in San Francisco, is home to officially 99 (but arguably many more) murals. Murals are part of the literal and figurative color of The Mission community. Wednesday morning, joined by Kat’s parents, Phil and Wendy, and sister Liz, Oakland natives and our generous hosts, we began our mural learning with a guided tour. Artist Carla Wojczuk, a Precita Eyes muralist, led us down 24th Street to Balmy Alley, which, Carla says “is the grandmother to the mural alleys in the Mission.”
Carla began by pointing out a blank wall and saying that it all began with the children’s mural, which is now hidden under layers of paint. The story goes that the first mural was painted by kids who came to 24th Street Place, a community center for neighborhood children. The mural that they painted has since been painted over, but that mural, that history, still exists under the new layers of paint. The history is part of the art. Carla’s knowledge of the murals in Balmy Alley and the larger neighborhood refined and directed our process of looking for the day, and probably will for the rest of our study.
The looking can be difficult. How far away is the viewer standing? From which direction does she approach? What does he see first? How does her personal experience inform her viewing?
What We Learned About Looking: Where to Start
Some murals unfold their stories from one end to the other. The mural Enrique’s Journey (2009), painted by Josue Rojas who was assisted by Maria E. Garcia, is read from right to left. It depicts the story of a young boy’s journey from Honduras to the US (also chronicled in a biography/memoir of the same name by Sonia Nazario). At the far right, a train–La Bestia–steams downward through the rolling hills. In the foreground on the right, Enrique stretches his arms out as if he is flying toward the US. La Bestia, otherwise known as el tren de la muerte, is infamous for horrors such as robbery, injury, police encounter, and death that migrants experience on their trip northward. On the left is Enrique’s mother, who he imagines will be waiting for him as soon as he arrives, arms wide open. The heart outlined on Enrique’s mother’s chest is echoed by the heart over the Honduran countryside (top right). Between Enrique and his mother are the very real obstacles labeled “ICE,” “La Migra,” “Fear,” and “Unjust Immigration Policies.”
In contrast, some mural themes radiate from the center. Victorion: El Defensor de la Mision (2007), created by Sirron Norris, does just that. The strength of the transformer-esque figure in the foreground draws the eye first. With each step closer, the viewer uncovers new evil that Victorion (composed of Victorian houses historic to the neighborhood) must guard against. For example, the building at the bottom left appears so overcrowded that arms and legs burst from the windows. Meanwhile, the “Organic, Fair-Trade Condos” above do not have the same problem. On the street corner behind the pink bunny are two stores, The Cornerstore Classroom, advertising beer, wine, candy, pain, revista, lotto, and soda, and Hipster Unique Together. In front of the stores are two newspaper holders labeled “Lies” and “More Lies” and a trash can with an arrow pointing towards it indicating “Blanco Basura.” Carla told us that the man on the skateboard holding the dog is the artist himself, a part of the community. His image, in relation to the people at the bus stop, is huge. Carla reminded us that the choices artists make about scale are all intentional, reflecting the message of the overall mural.
What We Learned About Looking: Seeing the “Trapdoor” Images
Norris’s mural, located toward the start of Balmy Alley, is one example of the ways in which mural artists communicate an obvious message with many subtle secondary messages embedded in the scape. Often, the viewer needs both context and a good eye to notice these embedded symbols and coded messages.
As we continued down the alley, we talked about the details in these murals that connected to our personal experiences and knowledge. In Carla’s introduction to The Mission: Photographs by Dick Evans, they write “Within each mural, there are myriad ‘trapdoor’ images –hidden visual details that lead the viewer down secret pathways of local and ancestral knowledge.” These conversations made us wonder what other viewers notice when they see these murals, and the intentions of the artists. Who are the details for? Are they for the artists themselves? Are they to affirm the experiences and knowledge of the community members? Are they to shock or humor outsiders? These are questions we will continue to explore along our journey.
We found this to be particularly true for a mural located a little further down Balmy Alley called Mission Makeover (2012) by Lucia Ippolito and Tirso Araiza. At first glance, the theme of this mural is gentrification; however, a closer look reveals the specific agents responsible for the forced displacement of this Mission residents. At the top right, the muralist has included logos of Google and Facebook, and a lightly penciled in Twitter logo on the riot gear of the officers forcing Adam and Eve out of Eden. The tech industry has raised the cost of housing in the Bay Area to a level that squeezes long-time locals out of the city or into homelessness. Featured in the lower right panel are logos such as “Starsucks,” Wealth Foods,” and “Trader Foes,” establishments that pop up as neighborhoods gentrify. A white cop and a well-dressed white woman share a cup of coffee, oblivious to the man sleeping on the sidewalk to their left.
In contrast to the mainly white figures on the right panel of the mural and the signature businesses of gentrification, the left panel features businesses and landmarks native to The Mission, such as Discolandia, papel picado and a piragua cart. The house behind the bus on the left panel reads “Eviction.” A family exit, holding heavy bags and boxes. Most prominent, police hold two young Latino men in handcuffs in the foreground. The officer’s hat has Mickey Mouse ears on it, signifying “Mickey Mouse Cops,” and his nameplate reads “Rentacop.” The cop’s crossed out eyes and the graffiti on the bus were added by members of the community. An additional piece of political significance in this mural is the bag of Skittles falling from the jacket of the young man on the bench. This mural was painted right after Trayvon Martin was murdered and the Skittles are a marker of the danger all young men of color face. These details make a viewer stop to look a 4th, 5th, 12th time.
What We Learned About Looking: Finding the Links
Near the end of the alley, we spent a long time looking at Culture Contains the Seed of Resistance, Which Blossoms into the Flower of Liberation (1984 and 2014) by Miranda Bergman and O’Brien Thiele. We will discuss this mural more in an upcoming post. However it is an example of the awareness these muralists have about the work surrounding their spaces. Featured prominently on the right panel is a sweeping rainbow connecting the hard-won resources in the woman’s basket to the joyful music of the man’s guitarra. The rainbow extends, appearing in the mural directly to the right, called Lu/The Wanderer (2011) and painted by our guide Carla Wojczuk (!!!!) and Julian Roward. Traces of the rainbow can be seen up and down Balmy Alley. The ways in which artists connect their pieces to those of other artists are subtle, but speak loudly of the respect that the artists hold for one another and the power of many united voices.
As we approached the end of Balmy Alley, we heard a camp counselor shouting “If you need to use the bathroom, use it now,” in the park across the street. Carla told us that in the early 1970’s, when kids were making their way to 24th Street Place from the housing projects behind the park, they were often warned that the alley was unsafe. Despite the warnings, kids continued to take the alley as opposed to longer routes. Carla told us architects refer to this phenomenon as the “desire path,” a path created as a consequence of human foot traffic. As the desire path leads to a more responsive architectural layout, the art in Balmy Alley is about embracing and responding to the beauty that is The Mission.
A HUGE thank you to our guide, Carla Wojczuk. At the end of our tour, Carla told us that the more a community loves a mural, the more likely it will be protected. After spending time with Carla, we can tell how deeply loved and protected these murals are by Precita Eyes and The Mission community.
Kat + Alice