An Ode to San Francisco Street Art

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When I think of murals and street art, I think automatically of San Francisco.

Partly because it's one of the first cities in which I actively sought out as many murals as I could, but also because street art has been part of the fabric of the Bay Area for decades.

Even if you don't think you're a fan of street art, I urge you to seek some out in San Francisco – it's really difficult to not be impressed by the sheer amount of colorful, evocative murals scattered all around the city. This city, which has been a hotbed of passionate cries for freedom and love for decades, oozes with feeling — much of it expressed through street art.

And we're not talking your ordinary graffiti tags here, either. We're talking real art.

Coit Tower
Mural in Coit Tower

Where to find the best street art and murals in San Francisco

The Mission

If you want to see REAL street art in San Francisco, you have to head down to the Mission District. Here, colorful murals abound around every corner, and almost every piece tells a story. And it's all strong art, too — the weaker works don't last very long.

Below are some of the most popular collections of murals in this area, but there are plenty more to see, too.

Mission

Balmy Alley

Balmy Alley is the location of the most concentrated collection of murals in San Francisco. Located in the south central portion of the Inner Mission District between 24th Street and Garfield Square, some of the murals here date back to 1972. The original project to install murals in Balmy Alley was supposed to give voice to local Chicano/a artists to express their history of displacement and marginalization.

Balmy Alley

Balmy Alley

Balmy Alley

Balmy Alley

Balmy Alley

Balmy Alley

Balmy Alley

Balmy Alley

Clarion Alley

Perhaps some of my favorite murals can be found in Clarion Alley, also located in the Mission between Mission and Valencia and 17th and 18th streets. Inspired by Balmy Alley, the Clarion Alley Mural Project was formed in 1992, and has some of the most colorful murals I saw in all of San Francisco.

Clarion Alley

Clarion Alley

Clarion Alley

Clarion Alley
This one was definitely my favorite.

Clarion Alley

Clarion Alley

Clarion Alley

Women's Building

Located on 18th Street in the Mission, the Women's Building is largely covered by The MaestraPeace Mural, which was painted in 1994 by a group of artistic women. The mural celebrates the healing power and wisdom of women, and the contributions of women throughout history.

Women's Building
Women's Building

Women's Building

RELATED: The Neighborhoods of San Francisco

WPA Murals

Even though San Francisco's street art scene only really dates back to the 1980s, the history of murals in the Bay Area goes back much further.

Back in the 1930s, in the height of the Great Depression, the Works Progress Administration (W.P.A.) was created to help provide economic relief to American citizens who were struggling. FDR's New Deal plan didn't just help factory workers, however — it also helped artists through the Federal Art Project. Inspired by the revitalization of the Italian Renaissance fresco style in the '20s and '30s, Depression-era artists began creating art that the American public could enjoy.

Some of the best examples of this (often-controversial) WPA art can be found in San Francisco.

Coit Tower
WPA Mural in Coit Tower

Rincon Annex Post Office

In 1941, Russian-born painter Anton Refregier won the WPA’s largest commission to depict the history of Northern California in San Francisco. He began painting murals in this post office near the Ferry Building on Spear Street in 1941, but had to put things on hold when WWII broke out. By the time he began again in 1945, he was lobbied by interest groups to present their version of history, and it took three years and 92 changes to make everyone happy.

The 27 murals were accused of being “communist” not long after, but luckily they survived and today are protected as a National Landmark.

Rincon Annex Post Office
The Historic Lobby

Rincon Annex Post Office

Rincon Annex Post Office

Rincon Annex Post Office

Rincon Annex Post Office

Coit Tower

Commissioned in 1933, the WPA mural project at Coit Tower was the result of a collaboration of twenty-six Bay Area artists. The project was supposed to present an optimistic vision of San Francisco as industrially and agriculturally productive. But, of course, the Depression had hardened everyone, including artists, and many of the frescoes here ended up being slightly less morale-boosting that originally intended.

(They're still totally worth seeing though!)

Coit Tower

Coit Tower

Coit Tower

Coit Tower

Coit Tower

Coit Tower

Misc.

And here are some more fun murals found in other neighborhoods around the city:

Jack Kerouac Alley (North Beach)

This alley in the North Beach (Italian) neighborhood is full of colorful pieces. The alley is squeezed in between the famous City Lights beat bookstore and the Vesuvio Cafe.

Jack Kerouac Alley

Jack Kerouac Alley

Jack Kerouac Alley

Castro

And of course, we can't forget the always-colorful Castro neighborhood between the Mission and Haight-Ashbury districts. There's lots of art to be found here, too!

Castro

Castro

Castro

I think it's safe to say that San Francisco has turned me into a junkie — a street art junkie, that is. And I'm okay with that.

San Francisco Street Art Tours

Want to see some of the best street art in San Francisco and learn more about it? Here are some tours to check out:

ANd if you want to learn more about murals in the Mission specifically, check out the walking tours offered by Precita Eyes.

Do YOU like to seek out local street art when you travel? Where have you found the best?

 

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Where to find the best street art and murals in San Francisco

 

"It's a dangerous business, going out your door. You step onto the road, and, if you don't keep your feet, there's no telling where you might get swept off to." - JRR Tolkien

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42 Comments on “An Ode to San Francisco Street Art

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  1. Not only great pictures, but very thorough context to go with them. I underestimated the diversity of SF!

      San Francisco is INCREDIBLY diverse! I’m eventually going to do a post on some of the different SF neighborhoods I visited – each one is like its own little city!

    Great stuff Amanda…Now I am really getting excited for our first trip to San Fran in July. Definitely going to add these spots to the list! Looking forward to more posts to keep my excitement going!:)

      I have plenty more posts in the line-up! SF is such a fun city to explore. But yes, all these sites are definitely worth a visit!

    Wow, I had no idea Sf had such amazing street art! I think the Castro neighbourhood is my favourite 🙂

    I’m a big fan of street art, or all art for that matter, and the elaborate images and bright colours in these are gorgeous 🙂

      I’m all about bright colors, so I think that’s why I loved most of these, too!

    This is so awesome. When I visited San Francisco, I saw the ones in North Beach. I haven’t been to Coif Tower or the Mission district. Hopefully, I will get back this year to have another look at the city.

      You MUST go to the Mission!! Not only does it have some of the best street art, but ask any San Franciscan, and they will probably tell you that it also has the best food!

    Beautiful photos. I love how diverse the street art is. I’ve never been to San Francisco but I’ll have to look out for the street art whenever I go there.

      Yes, it’s quite diverse – even just within some of the mural alleys!

    I think your fave is my fave 🙂 I remember an insane mural on a house in the Mission. It was a 3d birdhouse that winded around the entire building. Can’t remember where exactly, but not far from dolores park.

      Awesome! I must have missed the birdhouse house… bummer, because it sounds awesome!!

    I think you already know I’m one of those bloggers who is crazy about street art 🙂

    I didn’t realize there was such great street art in San Francisco. My trip there was before I paid attention to it.

      Yes I know you’re also a fan, Stephanie! I think it would be easy to miss a lot of the good stuff in SF, though, if you didn’t know where to look (or if you never wandered down into the Mission!).

    Such amazing talent is on display in San Francisco, and your pictures do them justice. I left my heart in San Francisco years ago. I need to go back and get it. Great job, Amanda.

      I’m glad you think my photos do these amazing murals justice! I can easily understand how lots of people have left their hearts in San Francisco…

    Wow! I’ve been to the Mission a lot to visit friends but I haven’t seen all of these! I need to go take a closer look, or even check out that tour. And one of my favorite city for street art is Lisbon. It’s everywhere, vivid, modern, eclectic–you can tell much of it has been done in recent years. Even the municipal stuff (in the metro and public parks) is really good! I think the city has made a push to encourage it.

      I’ve heard that Lisbon is great for street art! I’ve also heard that Lisbon is really similar to San Francisco… so that’s not surprising!

      And yes, have a poke around the Mission next time you go! If you haven’t seen Balmy and Clarion alleys yet, they are a great place to start!

    Aw. You made me miss San Francisco.

      I feel like it’s an easy place to miss! I had so much fun there.

    I love street art. Hard to pick my favourite spot, but Berlin was pretty darn awesome!

      I’ve heard awesome things about Berlin street art! I have a feeling SF will hold a special place in my heart now though…

    You got some beautiful shots! I still can’t believe we were walking in your footsteps a day (or so) after you snapped these!

      You guys went to Yosemite, too? Awesome! And yes, so weird we were only a day or so off!

    Great shots!! San Francisco has some of the best street art I’ve ever seen, and I loved all the murals there. Happy to hear that San Fran turned you into a street art lover 🙂

      Thanks, Dani! I’m glad I’ve been so validated in saying that SF has fantastic street art! After all, I’m no expert. But yes, I was VERY impressed, and am definitely a fan now!

    And B-T-W…if you are a registered voter in SF and care about the priceless murals within Coit Tower, please remember to Vote Yes on Prop B on June 5, 2012. This is a non-binding ballot measure that requests the City of San Francisco (and specifically the SF Dept. of Recreation and Parks in conjunction with the SF Art Commission) to allocate more funds already taken in each year to restore and maintain the murals. I am submitting this post from Berlin where I noticed from an earlier post, someone loves the art here. I can honestly say that Berlin rocks in art, food, culture and especially music. I happen to be a native of San Francisco, born and raised in the Haight Ashbury. Good times! Also a good book about Coit Tower called “Coit Tower San Francisco: Its History and Art” — I am a grandson of one of the artists there…

      Thanks for the info! I of course am not from California, but I hope enough people vote yes on that issue next month!!

    Wow! These are impressive. I like checking out street art on my travels – Montreal and Buenos Aires are two of my favourite cities for street art. 😀 I clearly wasn’t looking hard enough when I passed through SF!

      Montreal, eh? No one has mentioned that yet – I’ll have to make sure to pay attention if/when I ever get back there!

        Montreal is filled with street art! Definitely check it out. And of course, my hometown of NYC shouldn’t be missed 🙂

    I love the murals in San Fran! Such a great city for street art 🙂

      Agreed!! Every time I would put my camera away while walking around, I’d come along another great one that I wanted to take a photo of!

    […] My “blue” entry, taken in the Mission District of San Francisco, fits the category for more than one reason — it both showcases the color blue, as well as a blue mood. This mural was one of my favorites in San Francisco, which is saying something in a city with so much amazing street art! […]

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