Back in May, during our rad west coast road trip, my sister and I spent an evening exploring the streets and laneways of San Francisco’s Mission District. What we found was incredible: a huge outdoor art gallery winding through the neighbourhood.
Spending time in The Mission reveals a story of the city that you won’t find in most guidebooks. A story of vivid artworks painted on the facades, fences, walls and sidewalks. As I discovered, these artworks are filled with character, detailing the community’s history and culture, messages of protest as well as hopeful wishes for the future.
The Mission District
The Mission District is one of San Francisco’s oldest neighbourhoods. First settled by the Spanish in the 1770s, it’s the epicentre of the city’s Latino population. Its working class roots also allowed for a strong influx of artists and musicians, and became an area for LGBTQ communities during the 1970s and 80s.
Like many major cities in the USA, San Francisco’s tech boom dealt a strong gentrified hand to The Mission. Over the years, many of the neighbourhood’s early residents have been forced out in search of cheaper living costs and rent, replaced with more urban young professionals. The effects are best seen in the Valencia St area, where hipster cafes, cupcake stores and boutiques abound.
That said, if you leave the main drag and look a little further, the heart of The Mission still beats loudly.
Life, culture and protest through art
The Mission District street art scene really kicked off in the 1970s with the Chicano Art Mural Movement, inspired by the traditional Mexican paintings made famous by Diego Rivera.
Today, it has the highest concentration of street art in San Francisco. Buildings across the neighbourhood are transformed through colour, featuring many different styles and forms from murals and traditional paintings to more modern graffiti pieces.
Themes include a celebration of Central America’s indigenous cultures and spirituality. Protest about immigration, race politics, social injustices and displaced communities. Even a little bit of pop culture.
Balmy Alley was one of my favourite stops. Here I met a woman who lived in the city back in the 1980s. She knew some of the original artists, and happily pointed out many of the artworks that had been repainted or modified over the years.
The murals in Balmy Alley first appeared in the 1980s as an expression of outrage of human rights and political abuse in Central America. It’s since expanded to cover human rights violations, issues of gentrification and a very powerful mural depicting the effects of AIDS on the community. The walls here are an ongoing visual record of the community’s cultural and social developments.
The Maestra Peace Mural on The Women’s Building is another impressive site. Painted across the building’s exterior, this mural is immense and honours the contributions of women around the world.
Here is a snippet of the murals and artworks to be found in The Mission. I urge anyone visiting San Francisco to take the time to see it for yourself – there is so much more to be discovered every day.
How to find Mission District Street Art
I explored the Mission District’s street art using the app GPSmyCity. Its San Francisco City Walks Guide included a self-guided walking tour dedicated to the area’s art, and highlighted the most vibrant streets and alleys to find it. So helpful!
The best way to experience this neighbourhood is certainly on foot. Balmy Alley and Clarion Alley are two great places to start.
For more detailed information on San Francisco’s street art scene, including interviews with the artists themselves, check out this awesome website.
Other things to do in The Mission
While strolling through the neighbourhood Hailee and I stumbled upon Dandelion Chocolates (well, I smelled it from across the street and quickly put our walking tour on hold). It’s definitely worth the visit to try the Chef’s Tasting Platter. Ours included cacao spritzer, S’more, red velvet beet cake and cocoa nib panna cotta – with chocolate sourced from countries around the world!
A few hours of art appreciation later, we enjoyed a cheap dinner at local institution La Taqueria, then headed to Revolution Café for live music and sangria.
Other worthwhile stops in the neighbourhood include Mission Dolores, the oldest building in the city founded in 1776, and Galeria de la Raza, a community based non-profit gallery showcasing contemporary Chicano and Latino art.
The Mission has a huge number of Salvadoran, Guatemalan, and Nicaraguan restaurants, plus plenty of street food vendors. Go hungrily forth and conquer!
What are your favourite cities to explore street art? Have you checked out The Mission street art in San Francisco?
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