San Francisco’s Murals on the Walls
San Francisco’s Mission District has more than 600 murals along the walls of buildings and residential houses, full of color and beauty, as well as social and political narratives.
Some of the most famous murals in the city, date back to 1940 when Diego Rivera was commissioned for pieces that are still up at the Art Institute of San Francisco at 800 Chestnut Street (“The Making of a Fresco Showing the Building of a City”), and at San Francisco City College (“Pan American Unity”). The latter, which has the full title of “Unión de la Expresión Artistica del Norte y Sur de este Continente” (and translates as “The Marriage of the Artistic Expression of the North and of the South on this Continent”), is considered one of the most important murals in the San Francisco Bay Area, if not also of its time.
On its five panels are featured an intricate schema of cultural symbolism and allegorical narrative, uniting the histories and cultures of North and South America, as its title suggests, and including characters of the Mexican Revolution, presented as Hidalgo, Bolivar and Morelos, as well as Presidents Washington, Jefferson and Lincoln, and John Brown. Elements of the Industrial Revolution figure prominently as well, presented strikingly in the metamorphosis of a serpent with the resemblance of Coatlicue, the Aztec Goddess of Earth and Death, into a stamping machine.
And more recently, a ten-panel historic fresco created at The 1940 Golden Gate International Exposition and temporarily housed at the SFMOMA is on display at the museum’s free-to-visit gallery.
The influence and spirit of Rivera’s legacy is evident in many murals that followed over the past several decades, flourishing on many walls in the Mission: Clarion Alley and Balmy Alley, Cesar Chavez Elementary School, at the Women’s Building at 18th Street and Mission Street, and at 24th Street between Potrero Street and Valencia Street.
Since the 1970’s the murals in the Mission District have had a rich history, serving as vehicles for social and political activism during the Chicano Art Movement, and later in the 1980’s as expressions of outrage over human rights and political abuses in Central America. The murals continue to vibrantly express a myriad of styles and themes, with relevance to change both local and political and an awareness to the city, the neighborhood and the world at large.