Street Art in San Francisco's Mission District.

Street Art in San Francisco's Mission District.

By Vivienne Mackie

The Mission District, an eclectic neighborhood in San Francisco, is one of our favorite areas for street murals anywhere we've been so far.

To get here, catch a bus No. 49 from the city, which conveniently goes along Mission Street.

It's a very interesting area with a different atmosphere to most other U.S. city streets — in some parts you could imagine that you were in a Mexican city, with narrow leafy streets, small crowded shops opening right onto the sidewalk; lots of music, people and noise; ads in Spanish splashed over buildings; and an explosion of bright color.

Besides the delis and small shops, the main draw is the colorful murals, the chief source of the bright local color, along with blooming bougainvilleas and flowering trees. Another draw is the Mission Dolores.

San Francisco has more than 500 murals and a large proportion of them are here in this area. Almost all streets have at least one mural, while many streets have huge concentrations, such as the area around Balmy Alley off 24th Street. Some murals are small, some enormous, all fascinating. Many tell a story or have a message — social, political, historical — and some serve as an ad, such as the one for a lavandaria (laundry) or a nursery school. Some of the murals are religious, and many have an old Aztec/Mayan theme, which we recognized from our trips to Mexico.

Most of them are signed and dated, so we can tell who painted them. Some artists are famous (Diego Rivera), most not, but they are all talented, and many are locals.

We were fascinated and loved wandering the streets and turning a corner, wondering what we'd find next. Some of the murals are pretty graphic — a woman giving birth or a bloody battle — but others are softer and very pretty with flowers and birds or butterflies. It's very exciting, as they are all so vividly colored and grab one's attention.

A whole building (Women's Building) is covered with themes related to women, some poignant, one a very graphic depiction of a pregnant belly; another wall is covered with numerous political activists, many names unknown to us, but we did recognize Nelson Mandela and Malcolm X. Amazing that Mandela made it onto a wall here. There are also schools with murals done by the pupils and other walls painted by children.

It's easy enough to wander around on your own, perhaps following a guidebook such as Frommers (we did), but there are also organized tours.

You can get more information on all the murals and find out about tours of the murals at Precita Eyes Mural Art Center, 2981 24th St. (near Harrison). Their website is excellent, precitaeyes.org. Here you can also find out about exciting new mural arts projects.

We had way too many photos to include here, so I've made a simple photo essay of some of our pictures. You can see it at viviennemackie.com/USAarticles/Mission_Murals.html.

On the edge of the mural district, at 3321 Sixteenth St., is the Mission Dolores, built in a very distinctive style (colonial, white-washed, tall towers, very ornate doorways). The local high school, two blocks away on 18th/Dolores, is done in the same style and it would be easy to think at first that you'd found the Mission Church.

The actual name is Mission San Francisco de Asis (after St. Francis of Assisi) and was founded in June 1776 under the direction of Father Junipero Serra. It soon became known as Mission Dolores because of a nearby creek called Arroyo do los Dolores, or Creek of Sorrows. It is the oldest original intact mission in California (of the chain of 21 established by Father Serra) and the oldest building in San Francisco. These missions are an important part of Californian history and show the strong link to Mexico at that time.

Visiting the mission is a good way to spend a couple of hours and find out about some of the local history. Entrance is $5 per adult, $3 for seniors and kids. Open daily, 9-4, except Thanksgiving, Christmas New Year's Day, Easter, and closes early on Good Friday.

You go first into the chapel of the old mission, which survived many earthquakes, including 1906. It's lovely, in a way that's so different to the cathedrals in Europe. Note the painted wooden ceiling, gravestones set in the floor and side altars that seem to have marble columns that are actually painted wood, as is the gorgeous front altar.

The basilica next door was rebuilt after the 1906 earthquake and has pretty stained-glass windows of the saints associated with the various missions in California and a wood carving of Mater Dolorosa.

This is an important basilica because Pope John Paul 11 visited (see papal signs on sides of front altar), a fact of which they are very proud, as the walkway outside has many photos from his visit. One small room off the walkway has a tiny museum, telling the history of this mission, including the story of Father Junipero Serra, the local Indians and their way of life then, and a section of the original adobe wall.

Just outside the museum note the statue of Junipero Serra, plus one in the cemetery, which is a peaceful place, pretty with flowers and blooming bushes, replanted with traditional plants from the 1790s. It has the burial places of many notable early/first San Franciscans.

A great place nearby for lunch is Dolores Park Caf (corner 18th/Dolores, opposite the high school). You can sit outside if it's sunny, and the food is great. The soup of the day may be chicken tortilla and they offer very nice salads.

Vivienne Mackie, an Urbana freelance travel writer, loves art in all its forms and always has fun tracking down outdoor art. See her blog at viviennemackie.wordpress.com.

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