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.
Where to find the best street art and murals in San Francisco
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.
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.
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.
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.
RELATED: The Neighborhoods of San Francisco
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.
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.
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!)
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.
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!
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:
- Flavors and Murals of the Mission District of San Francisco
- Street Art Tour of San Francisco (Mission District)
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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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!