Many tourists, locals, students, children, and adults, have seen the beautiful murals that cover the walls of The Mission district in San Francisco. Many know of the stories, histories, memories and legends that the murals portray and many may know an artist or a contributor. However, few are acquainted with the complete history behind Muralismo: where it started, how it came to San Francisco, and where it stands today. Muralismo has had a dynamic history across the Americas; in each of its’ phases, it took a different shape and meaning. This article will show its progression and discuss possibilities of where it is headed in the future to show its importance to the San Francisco community and future generations.
The beginning of Muralismo had its roots in the Mexican Mural movement of the 1920’s. This started as a government-lead project to educate the mostly rural masses. Mexico had just undergone its Revolution from 1910-1917, and the new government wanted to educate their largely illiterate population and portray the vision of a revolutionary Mexico (Cockcroft 5). The most important artists, ‘The Big Three,’ as they were called, Diego Rivera, David Siqueiros, and Jose Orozco held strong political views and were active in politics throughout their lives. They all believed in the role of the worker as an important part of social transformation and also had Marxist tendencies. Their art was informed by the current stylistic currents in Europe, but transformed to create a socially motivated realism. In his first mural, “The Creation,” Diego Rivera used traditional European styles in his application of a symmetrical composition around a recessed area. He also drew on blue semicircles and gold leafing. However, instead of giving the allegorical figures classical features, he converted them into Mexican types from different regions of the country; for example he used faces from his home state, Guanajuato, Mexico. This portrayed the ideology of the Mexican government: to exercise the importance of Mexican education. The muralists provided a basis for a modern mural language that greatly influenced the rest of the world and was the foundation of the Chicano Mural Movement of the 60’s.
When the Chicano Civil Rights movement took hold in the mid-sixties, murals again provided an important organizing tool and a means for the people to reclaim their heritage against the background of a society that wanted to erase Latin/o American cultural legacy. The term ‘Chicano’ was adopted by the socially conscious youth as a form of positive self-identification, and the word transformed into a political statement. The most important groups in California were the United Farm Workers and La Raza Unida. The Chicano movement was most popular in Los Angeles and San Francisco. These new murals celebrated their heritage, but unlike the Mexican Mural movement, they were not sponsored by the government and instead came from the people struggling against the status quo. The main artists in the beginning of the mural movement in San Francisco included: Michael Rios, Anthony Machado, Richard Montez, Chuy Campusano, Patricia Rodriguez, Irene Perez, Consuelo Mendez and Graciela Carillo (Jacoby 68). In 1971, Spain Rodriguez unveiled Horizons Unlimited, one of the first outdoor murals in San Francisco (Jacoby 61). It was a comic-strip inspired piece that portrayed guys playing congas, a landscape with a Paul Bunyan statue, a scene of the Mission, and paintings of faces of the youth who went to the organization from which the mural gets its name.
The Galería de La Raza was founded in 1970 by a group of artists, including many of those listed above, who wanted to provide a space for art and learning in the Chicano context. In 1972 it found a permanent home at 24th and Bryant, where it still resides today. Something that Galeria was able to bring to the people was a forum for community organization. Muralismo had, and still has, a strong community aspect to it. The local community was encouraged to join in the creation of these murals, to discuss the content, and to participate in its painting. Yañez, one of the first directors of Galeria, recalls the importance of community input, “We’d have meetings at Galeria. We’d post flyers telling folks we were going to have murals going up and we were seeking neighborhood input” (Jacoby 75). The element of community participation, the placement of murals on exterior walls in the community itself, and the philosophy of community input, characterized this new Muralismo. This core community element is the basis for another key organization in the Mission, the Precita Eyes Mural Arts Center, which was established in 1977. Precita Eyes also played an integral role in supporting Muralismo and continuing the traditions today. Susan Cervantes and her late husband Luis founded the organization; Cervantes has always loved the community aspect of Muralismo. When asked how this aspect would continue to change, she said that it really is still very much so a community effort, that “Precita Eyes helps by request, people contact us and ask us to realize a mural, so we look at the site, develop a plan, find resources to support and commission it” (Interview).
Throughout the 80’s murals continued to be painted all over the Mission, creating some amazing pieces of art. However, the innovation of these political pieces began to fade with the passing of time. In the 90’s, there was an urban renewal movement and a reviving of the idea of Muralismo. However, as before, the murals took on different messages of contemporary problems and concerns. The group identity was still important, bringing new messages about AIDS and ecological issues into view. One beautiful mural is ‘La Llorona’s Sacred Waters’ by Juana Alicia, on the corner of 24th and York, in which she engages environmental struggles and women’s rights. Alicia does this by showing the traditional Mexican myth of Llorona, a woman who drowned her kids and wept for them for eternity. In an interview with Leticia Hernandez, she contributes, “La Llorona weaves the stories of women in Bolivia, India and at the U.S. border together.” The mural has deep blue tones and is large in scale, invoking the feelings of sorrow and power in its’ viewers.
The new millennium raised several important issues for muralismo: where was it heading? Most traditions had been represented and so many subjects had been exhausted. Galería, as one of the first institutions of Chicano art support continued to be the forerunner of raza pride and art. In the eighties, they started the “The Mural Billboard” project. This was a billboard outside of their establishment that housed temporary murals, allowing the art to change with the times. At the time it was a monumental idea. In 1998, this morphed into the “Digital Mural Project,” “an ongoing public art program, which replaced the painted temporary murals on the Bryant Street billboard with computer-generated images” (Galeria Website). The themes ranged from political statements to party celebrations such as Day of the Dead in November. The murals are only displayed a few months each, allowing the billboard to really stay with contemporary issues. This is one of the new directions and innovative thought in regards to Muralismo. For Cervantes, one of the other exciting things about the changing form was the continued influence of graffiti and muralismo and the roles they play on each other. Cervantes said, “They are merging more and more, in the medium of spray cans, of mixing traditional subjects with spray can art in the context of murals (Interview).” Also, she mentioned that spray can art has come a long way, that it is now “very accomplished, in a pictorial way, that it has broadened a lot.” As muralism continues, Precita Eyes also hopes to continue community building through collaboration, and “to continue to bring people together to create beautiful and representative art for all involved” (Interview).
The importance of Muralismo as a community activity and voice, as a unique art
movement and as a way of expression will continue to develop in the future. It will continue to evolve and take different shape, but everywhere it goes will be informed by its’ past and the concerns of its community. Hopefully, those who understand the movement better can reflect more on themselves and on their connections to San Francisco and the Latino community.
Cervantes, Susan. Personal Interview. March 21, 2012.
Cockcroft, Eva and Holly Barnet-Sanchez. Signs from the Heart: California Chicano Murals. New Mexico: Social and Public Art Resource center, 1990.
“About Galeria de la Raza.” Galeria de la Raza Website. http://www.galeriadelaraza.org/eng/about/index.php
Precita Eyes Muralists. Street Art San Francisco: Mission Muralismo. ed Annice Jacoby. New York: Abrams, 2009.
Untitled Billboard, for porqueoccupy.com (We Are Also the 99%). Neil Rivas, 2012.