Every city tells a story through its architecture, museums and galleries. But its street art—whether murals, decals or graffiti—often reflects deeper emotions that invite conversation and galvanize communities.
When wandering down Valencia Street in San Francisco’s Mission District after stopping to see the vibrant MaestraPeace Mural that wraps the front and sides of the four-storey Women’s Building, we stumbled on an alleyway lined with similarly striking artwork.
What I didn’t recognize at the time was that we were strolling through the Clarion Alley Mural Project. Wedged between Mission and Valencia streets and 17th and 18th streets, the in-your-face artwork showcases compelling messages on racism, democracy, capitalism, drugs, poverty, gender and more.
A mural by Emory Douglass features a stern-faced woman standing, arms akimbo, with two buttons pinned to her dress bearing the words, “Defend Freddie Gray” and “Save Mumia.” Behind her stands a man with his fists clenched, his brimmed hat pulled down over his expressionless face. Musical notes and golden rays of light fan out behind the pair, interspersed with words that spell the sentence, “We want: freedom, housing, justice, peace, bread, land, respect.”
Steps away is a glorious mural of a two girlish unicorns (one wearing a halter dress and the other in thigh-bearing shorts—both in high heels) holding hands and kissing in front of rainbow motif. Above them the word “Demoncracy” stretches across the width of the mural.
At first glance, not all murals are politically charged. “Rest in purple,” is the simple sentiment inscribed on a profile of Prince, whose sudden death in April shocked and saddened the world. The artist and iconoclast is an apt symbol of some of the struggles embodied in the alleyway. Farther down a utopian (or perhaps dystopian) world composed of geometric shapes practically sucks you in with its patterns. On another mural a woman shrouded with eye motifs asks, “Tell me my love what have you seen today.”
The simplest and perhaps most powerful mural requires little interpretation. It offers just one word rendered in black letters on an orange backdrop: respect. Φ