The Tailor-Made Guide to San Francisco’s Street Art & Murals



Whenever I travel, I always seek out a city’s street art and I knew that I was going to be in for a treat when visiting San Francisco. The city has a great history of public art, from the murals of Diego Rivera in the 1930’s and the paintings of the Works Progress Administration (WPA), through the explosion of street art during the sixties and seventies in the Mission District and the psychedelic Haight-Ashbury area, to today’s massive, professional murals which adorn almost every neighbourhood.

Corner of Franklin and Oak Streets, Civic Center, San Francisco Street Art & Murals
Corner of Franklin and Oak Streets, Civic Center

In this guide, I will take your through many of San Francisco’s vibrant neighbourhoods, with all their explosions of colours and shapes, before showcasing its jewel in the crown, the Mission District, recognised as having the highest concentration of murals in the world.

Osage Alley, Mission District, San Francisco Street Art & Murals
Osage Alley, Mission District


Don’t forget that at Tailor-Made Itineraries we delight in creating bespoke self-guided tours. So, if visiting any of these urban art areas appeals to you, reach out to us by email. We would be more than happy to design a self-guided tour around your requirements incorporating the magnificent street art of San Francisco, or indeed, a general tour of the city.



Outer Sunset


Starting with the base for our San Franciscan trip, the Outer Sunset district, bounded by the Golden Gate Park to the north and ocean to the west, is a laid back, beach-side residential area. The main artery running through this neighbourhood is Judah Street, and it was along this road that we travelled most days on the light rail metro, going past a number of pieces of street art. The area of Judah Street between 47th and 43rd is the best section to spot street art.



The Beach Chalet, near the famous Dutch windmill, is not only an excellent restaurant and brewery, but it also boasts some wonderful murals on the ground floor. All of the murals in the Beach Chalet were painted by the French artist, Lucien Labaudt. He titled these murals "San Francisco Life" and depicted four local tourist spots: the beach, Golden Gate Park, Fisherman's Wharf, and the Marina. Recognisable figures of the time from the arts and politics are shown in the mural scenes, engaging in leisure activities. Since Labaudt painted the murals in 1936-37, during the Great Depression, this type of leisure would have been beyond the average person. Thus showing these high-profile figures, including executives of the Works Progress Administration who had commissioned the murals, enjoying their leisure time, was most likely a political comment on the inequalities of the times.




North Beach & Telegraph Hill


North Beach was an actual beach over 100 years ago and has been heavily influenced over the years by the Italian American immigrants that settled in the area. Sometimes known as Little Italy, the area still has plenty of Italian restaurants, cafes and gelato shops. From the 1950’s, the area saw an influx of Beat Generation of poets, and you can still feel the sway of this movement today.


Jazz Mural, Columbus Avenue, San Francisco Street Art & Murals
Jazz Mural, Columbus Avenue

Take a walk down Columbus Avenue, going past the popular Washington Square, to the famous beat hangout of the City Lights Bookstore and on to the angular Columbus Tower to see some great murals.



The highlight of the area, however, is Jack Kerouac Alley, which nestles between the City Lights Bookstore and the Vesuvio Café. Named after the Beat writer who frequented the area, and transformed into a pedestrian zone in 2007, with a repaved pathway (which has several quotes from Beat writers engraved on the tiles), the alley has an ever-changing collection of murals which tend to promote social change or have Chinese themes (the alley connects to Chinatown).



Coit Tower dominates the neighbouring Telegraph Hill district and, as well as having one of the best views of downtown San Francisco, the tower hides a hidden gem – a series of murals within the circular lobby. A year after the tower was completed in 1933, the murals were painted by a group of artists employed by the Public Works of Art Project, a forerunner to the Works Progress Administration (WPA) and depict life in California during the Depression.


Coit Tower Lobby Murals, San Francisco Street Art & Murals
Coit Tower Lobby Murals

These murals were the precursor to today’s street art scene and along with the visit of Diego Rivera in 1931 and his murals at the City Club and the San Francisco Art Institute, they influenced a whole generation of muralists in the city.



Tailor-Made Top Tip: Take a break from your street art odyssey at the Vesuvio Café and be transported back to the hip days of the Beat Generation. Try their very special cocktail, the Jack Kerouac, a heady mix of tequila, rum, orange juice and cranberry juice and a wee squeeze of lime!



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Chinatown


Centred on Grant Avenue and Stockton Street, just minutes from North Beach, Chinatown is the oldest Chinatown in North America and the largest Chinese enclave outside Asia. It was established in 1848 and now draws more visitors annually than the Golden Gate Bridge.

The bustling streets of Chinatown, especially where they spur off Grant Avenue, are abuzz with Asian inspired art works.



Tailor-Made Top Tip: Make a visit to the Chinese Historical Society Museum. Their exhibitions are always interesting and often feature contemporary art. The Bruce Lee exhibition was being held during my visit, and I got to enjoy some excellent pieces of artwork while there.



Market Street and the city centre


Market Street dissects the very heart of San Francisco and stretches around three miles, from the Ferry Building, all the way south-west across to Twin Peaks. The concentration of street art is a little less dense here, but you don’t have to veer too far off this street to see some impressive mural examples.


Howard and 4th Streets, San Francisco Street Art & Murals
Howard and 4th Streets

First stop, near the beginning of Market Street, is the Rincon Center, on the corner of Mission and Steuart Streets. This ornate, former post office houses an impressive set of murals painted by Anton Refregier between 1941 and 1948. There are 27 murals in the lobby depicting historical scenes, some with a social slant to them.



It wasn’t long before controversy surrounded the murals, with U.S. Representative Hubert B. Scudder opening a Congressional hearing in 1953 to determine whether the murals should be removed for themes "inconsistent with American ideals and principles". Thankfully, they were retained, but the episode sheds focus on the often-controversial nature of murals and street art, especially when focussing on social conflict. A theme that I will explore further when presenting some of the Mission District works of art.



Further along Market Street, around the Civic Center area, are several splendid murals.



Another hotspot for street art is the Duboce Triangle neighbourhood, especially where Duboce Avenue and Church Street crosses Market Street.



Read on to discover more impressive street art.


Umbrella Alley


Umbrella Alley is an Interactive mural & art installation near Fisherman’s Wharf. In truth, the murals are more fun and focused more on offering the perfect backdrop for Instagram, but who says all street art has to be considered seriously!


Tailor-Made Top Tip: Ghirardelli Square is just round the corner from Umbrella Alley and well worth a visit.




Haight-Ashbury


Haight-Ashbury is a neighbourhood famed as being the centre of the 1960s hippie movement. Starting as an overspill for bohemians of the beat movement that couldn’t access accommodation in North Beach, the relatively cheap Haight-Ashbury soon became home to a slew of psychedelic rock stars and colourful characters. Acts like Jefferson Airplane and the Grateful Dead, as well as rockers like Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin all lived in the neighbourhood.


Haight-Ashbury, San Francisco Street Art & Murals
Haight-Ashbury

Street art quickly took root after the Summer of Love, becoming an expression of social and political activism. However, this edgy side of street art seems to be on the decline in Haight-Ashbury, and the art now tends to pay homage to its popular hippie past. I wouldn’t say that the neighbourhood’s street art has become a parody of itself, but it does seem a little more contrived than other areas in San Francisco. That minor criticism aside, the murals are still well worth seeing and do add something to the special atmosphere of this vibrant community.



Tailor-Made Top Tip: If you are looking for some great food and amazing craft beer, grab a table at the centrally located Magnolia Brewing.


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Mission District


The Mission District is San Francisco’s oldest neighbourhood and was named after the Mission Dolores, which can still be visited. The neighbourhood has some of its hottest new restaurants and galleries and has strong Mexican and artistic influences. The neighbourhood boasts some of the best weather in the city and often manages to avoid the fog.


Described as a laboratory for cutting edge art and alternative culture, the Mission District can boast of more street art within its thirty blocks than any other neighbourhood in the world, with literally hundreds of murals in an ever-changing conveyor belt of artistic brilliance.


Lilac Alley, Mission District, San Francisco Street Art & Murals
Lilac Alley, Mission District

The public art movement has flourished in the district since the 1970s and has been heavily influenced by the Mexican mural painting scene, social activism and surrealism. The movement has also looked to include the community, with approval asked for many of the designs and even letting the locals help the artist paint some of the murals.


Orange Alley, Mission District, San Francisco Street Art & Murals
Orange Alley, Mission District

The Mission District has had a history of attracting radicals, leading to the hosting of many activist groups such as the San Francisco Mime Troupe, the Precita Eyes Muralists, the Billboard Liberation Group and Burning Man. Over the years, the artists have never been worried about mixing art with politics.


Balmy Alley, Mission District, San Francisco Street Art & Murals
Balmy Alley, Mission District

A marked reverence for a native past is also prevalent throughout the district with Aztec warriors, Mayan pyramids, and the Virgin of Guadalupe being regular subjects for the artists.

Another theme that can be discerned throughout the art of the Mission District is the influence of the Chicano movement. This was social and political movement in the US inspired by prior acts of resistance among people of Mexican descent. The Chicano culture was more prevalent in the street art of the 1970’s, but there are still many strong iconoclastic images, historical depictions and political protests, expressed in a significantly masculine way, being produced.


Lilac Alley, Mission District, San Francisco Street Art & Murals
Lilac Alley, Mission District

The antithesis of the Chicano-inspired art was the more feminine works of the Las Mujeres Muralists, which developed as a reaction to this male-dominated artform. As women street-artists started to come more to the fore, themes of familia, love and children started to spread through the district during the 80’s & 90’s and are still prevalent today.


Lilac Alley, Mission District, San Francisco Street Art & Murals
Lilac Alley, Mission District

Balmy Alley


Perhaps the best-known collection of murals in the Mission District are those in Balmy Alley, being a hive of activity with tours, individual travellers and an artist or two frequenting the alley on a daily basis. The murals began in the mid-80's as an expression of artists' outrage over human rights and political abuses in Central America. This theme can still be seen, but today it is really lost in a myriad of styles and topics.



Amazing Alleys


What is often not realised by visitors to San Francisco is that Balmy Alley is not the only alley in this area that has great examples of street art. The short, narrow alleys hemmed in between Valencia Street & Harrison Street and 24th & 26th Street are an absolute treasure trove of great artwork.


Orange Alley



Osage Alley




Lilac Street



Cypress Street



Horace Street



Lucky Street


24th Street


The buzzing 24th Street is an exciting mix of taquerias, panaderias and barbershops, and its colourful murals act as guardians to Balmy Alley and the neighbouring backstreets.



Valencia Street


One of the main arteries of the Mission District, Valencia Street has many murals dotted along its highway.



Women’s Building


Getting its own entry in my guide is the historic Women’s Building, which is just off Valencia Street, on 18th Street. The murals were painted by seven women artists including, Juana Alicia, Miranda Bergman, Edythe Boone, Susan Kelk Cervantes, Meera Desai, Yvonne Littleton and Irene Perez in 1994. The mural titled MaestraPeace covers both the outside of the building as well as the interior entrance hall and stairway. It features images of feminine icons from history and fiction, and the names of more than 600 women written in calligraphy. The Women's Building is a women-led non-profit arts and education community centre which advocates self-determination, gender equality and social justice.



Clarion Alley


Clarion Alley is a one-block long space filled with murals, with over 700 murals having been created since 1992. As with much of the art around the Mission District, it is colourful, edgy and political. Most of the art production is coordiated by the Clarion Alley Mural Project, with their stated aim being:


"to support and produce socially engaged and aesthetically innovative public art, locally and globally as a grassroots artist-run organization based in San Francisco’s Mission District. CAMP is a community, a public space, and an organizing force that uses public art (murals, street art, performance art, dance, poster projects, literary events) as a means for supporting social, economic, racial, and environmental justice messaging and storytelling."




Conclusion


During our exploration of the electrifying street art scene of San Francisco, we were constantly amazed by the skills and the stories being told by the city’s talented artists. Even having seen hundreds of murals, tags, poster art and graffiti, I feel that we only scratched the surface to what San Francisco can offer the street art lover. Combined with the changing nature of street art, I can’t wait to visit the City by the Bay again to see what I missed and what is new.



Comment below and let us know what your favourite area was to find street art.


Don’t forget that at Tailor-Made Itineraries we delight in creating bespoke self-guided tours. So, if visiting any of these urban art areas appeals to you, reach out to us by email. We would be more than happy to design a self-guided tour around your requirements incorporating the magnificent street art of San Francisco, or indeed, a general tour of the city.


Join us next time on our family adventures when we discover the delicious desserts of San Francisco. We post every two weeks, and you can subscribe to our latest blog and newsletter here. Until then, happy reading and safe travels.

Barry

Contact Us: tailoritineraries@gmail.com


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