Terry Fowler

Murals: Art, Politics, and Community

Imagine walking through a city district where the walls, garage doors, electrical service boxes, even telephone poles – every available space – have painted murals, or carefully coloured and designed graffiti, or poetry with political messages.

Refugees from Salvadoran civil war, painted on a garage door

This is the Mission District in San Francisco. We had come to our niece’s wedding and were staying at her brother’s apartment. In the alley behind his house, built just after the 1906 earthquake, almost every garage door had a mural. Some were badly faded, some newly restored, some recently painted. Many of them were half-obscured with bougainvillea or other vines or weeds. It was hard to tell if the foliage had been allowed to grow intentionally or not, but to me it added to the atmosphere. It was very moving.

The Mission is a poor district. Although it is becoming gentrified, a majority of its residents are disadvantaged immigrants from Mexico, Central and South America, immigrants with rich cultures and impressive talents. There is a refreshing diversity of nationalities and social classes using the busy sidewalks, but it is hardly paradise. The murals themselves illustrate the serious social and political issues that the area faces: inadequate housing (or no housing) for the poor, obscenely expensive real estate being gobbled up by the rich, immigrants cut off not only from their families at home but also from full participation in the local economy. And the murals reflect these issues right back on to the streets with humour, anger, and thrilling colour.

"Culture contains the seed of resistance"

Not all of the murals are directly political, of course. Some are simply beautiful images, others explosions of anger. But they all contribute an effervescent vitality to the neigbourhood. It is two versions of the world conversing with each other.

“Look around you. Be present. What do you see?” the murals say, some with harsh urgency, some with tender beauty. Some don’t speak to me at all, but then I am just a visitor.

Murals are a significant part of Latin American culture and politics. Some of us may be acquainted with a sliver of this culture through the work in the 1930s of Diego Rivera or José Clemente Orozco, whose large murals were aggressively left wing and who taunted their rich patrons from the United States with harsh images of corporate damage to society and culture. However, these superstars were only the tip of the iceberg. In Buenos Aires during Argentina’s 2001 economic crisis, murals became a vehicle for expressing street artists’ opposition to government policies. Muralists in Chile protesting the US-backed coup of Augusto Pinochet in 1973 were shot to death while they were painting their outrage onto the walls of Santiago.

In the Mission’s thirty blocks there are more than 500 murals from the last 40 years, says Annice Jacoby in her book on Mission muralismo. “The artists range from hip social satirists to activist cadres galvanizing around urgent issues such as war, pesticide poisoning, injustice, and violence.” Others “leave stealth messages on raw concrete – graffiti and cartoons, both angry and playful.” In other cases the process of creating murals is used to heal the community. Children as well as passing adults are sometimes invited to contribute to the project, which increases attachment to and affection for the neighbourhood.

Cesar Chavez school, back wall

In our walks around the area, we went past the Cesar Chavez Elementary School, which has a program for the hearing-impaired. A mural wraps itself around the entire building. “Thirty panels on the school’s façade depict hands signing letters of the alphabet, in English and Spanish, and corresponding symbols.

"Welcome to the Cesar Chavez School" in sign language

The alphabet panels contain Egyptian hieroglyphs, alluding to the beginnings of language, and interwoven branches reveal the letters of many alphabets, including Japanese, Hebrew, Arabic, and Hopi.” There is a three-storey painting of Chavez and other workers in fields of grapes, winding itself between windows and doors and roof lines. The whole effect is both breathtaking and poignant.

The murals share spaces – and sometimes combine – with graffiti, which in the Mission can be movingly beautiful, or simply hilarious. This one is from the Golden Gate Market (not in the Mission District). Commercial billboards, as in other city districts around the world, often dominate public spaces with bold, attention-grabbing images and clever aphorisms. Mission artists challenge these ads not only with examples of exceptionally skillful paintings in primary colours but also with direct modifications to the advertisements themselves. An ad for cigarettes acquires the neon caption, “Dead Yet?” The B in “Buck the system” is easily changed into an F. Even traffic signs are not immune. An all-way STOP sign becomes an all-way SHOP sign.

Making fun of gentrification in the Mission

Many cities, including my own Toronto, have murals all over, but the Mission’s collection, for all its breathtaking diversity, has a coherence that it shares with its equally diverse district. The murals and graffiti are not disconnected decorations. They are another layer of reality.

Annice Jacoby, Street Art San Francisco: Mission Muralismo, Charles Abrams, New York, 2009, especially pp. 23, 26, 30, 76, 159, 187, 230