Capturing hearts with street art: the dichotomy of two Mission alleys As a hub of art and culture, San Francisco holds some of the most impactful and interesting street art in the nation. By transforming the stigma behind street art as “graffiti,” San Francisco, specifically the Mission District is home to Clarion and Balmy Alleys that vocalize issues of gentrified and oppressed communities with mind-blowing murals, while also making social commentary fitting to all audiences. Although the primary aim of the two alleys is one of giving a voice to oppressed communities, the approaches and groups highlighted in the murals of the two alleys are quite different.
While the murals are appreciated by all, the two alleys contain an inherent comparison. With the emergence of an artistic group called Mujeres Muralistas Balmy Alley in 1972, the world of street art was completely changed. The celebration of Latino culture continued in Balmy Alley, later inspiring the beginnings of Clarion Alley, which has taken the issues raised by the Balmy Alley group and expanded them to relate to the city as a whole.
Embracing more aesthetically driven and multi-issue-focused art, Clarion Alley has adopted the roots of Balmy Alley and essentially transformed street art in San Francisco.
Founded by Patricia Rodriquez and Graciela Carillo, Mexican female muralists, Balmy Alley came to life with murals depicting and celebrating the women in Chicano and other Latino communities. Up until this point, there had been no successful female muralists as the opposition to female muralists was quite prevalent.
As stated by one of the Rodriquez, “because [women] were not harassed by police like the men were, and because we had not suffered by having fought in Vietnam, we had a different visual story to tell. We had the freedom to paint whatever we wanted, and we chose the beauty of women and their Mexican and Latino cultures,”(try this road). The group quickly became quite politically involved, inspiring feminists around the world while drawing attention to the injustices faced by their community. They were the first group to ever literally draw a connection between male and female muralists. Though the movement began with local female artists, the Balmy Alley Project was modernized and further developed by Ray Patlan in 1984, when he brought in three dozen mural activists together to continue the project. “They would be linked by dual theme: a celebration of indigenous Central American cultures, and protest of U.S. intervention in Central America,” (Balmy Alley: a Modernist Approach). The art in Balmy Alley draws great attention to Latino issues by celebrating minority identity and anti-militarization, both of which are issues held dear by the Latino community.
The mistreatment of Latinos in the United States and their own home countries became the biggest message of Balmy Alley, and by using emotional murals, such as one of a mother writing a letter to her son in Spanish where she tells him that she is moving to California for work and encourages him to stay strong and that they will be reunited again soon. Sending important messages such as the one in this mural, Balmy Alley to this day stands as a work in progress, evolving from the displays of initial Latino diversity and inequality to the inclusion of various politicized subjects (Atlas Obscura). A cornerstone of street art development in San Francisco, Balmy Alley stands as one of the most impactful collections of political murals in San Francisco.
As it is one of the biggest artistic movements in San Francisco, the murals of Balmy Alley are extremely important to the San Francisco history of gentrification and political activism for underrepresented communities. This alley allowed for a basis for Mission District murals, sparking the initial conversation and movement around the use of art to draw attention to political issues. It is especially important to note the chance presented to women to be active in the artistic community through Balmy Alley. The historical significance and the beginnings of this alley sparked a monumental movement: a conversation about these issues. Thus, the aim of celebrating Latino culture and anti-militarization influenced the emergence of Clarion Alley, which adopted the movement of Balmy Alley but took it to a different level, voicing the struggles of the city as a whole and shedding light on the issues in a new way.
Though Balmy Alley did set the tone for street art in San Francisco and begin the movement, the emergence of Clarion Alley transformed art and its messages in the community as it carries over the values of Balmy Alley by showcasing issues of Latino communities, but takes it a step further and also incorporates issues surrounding other minority groups. Clarion Alley was initially started by a group of volunteers who sought to use the alley to achieve the same purpose as Balmy Alley, but with a different approach and surrounding more city issues. The Clarion Alley Mural Project (CAMP), established in 1992, “was directly inspired by the mural cluster in Balmy Alley focused on Central American social struggles. CAMP did not choose a single theme, however, instead focused on the two goals of social inclusiveness and aesthetic variety,” (Megan Wilson: Projects). Because of this focus, Clarion Alley today contains murals painted by artists of various ethnic groups, ages, experiences, etc. Clarion Alley is a place that allows for all voices to be heard. With the vision of being “a space where culture and dignity speak louder than the rules of private property or a lifestyle that puts profit before compassion,
respect, and social justice,” (Clarion Alley Mural Project) Clarion Alley contains a much more active, inclusive and interesting collection of murals that keeps San Francisco streets socially and politically engaged. By addressing issues of other minority groups through murals, Clarion Alley continues to stand as a political statement in itself. The mural with a poem by Claudia Rankine: “Because white men can’t police their imagination, black men are dying” serves as a prime example of such a display in Clarion Alley. The term ‘police’ used in the poem further points to issues of police brutality and the roots of the Black Lives Matter movement. Through just one mural, several unified issues are brought forward. Other murals, such as the gun and hands pointing and filming painted over an American flag, where the stars are replaced by skulls also make grand political statements that were not previously seen in Balmy Alley. This mural comments again on violence, but this time with an attempt to show how civilians react to Everyone is either pointing fingers or videotaping enough of an incident to gain attention online, but nobody is stepping in, thus the rise of death is depicted through the skulls.
Another mural below is the one regarding capitalism that states “Capitalism is over (if you want it)”. This mural targets corporations and empowers the general public to realize they have a voice in stopping phenomena that negatively affect almost all of society. Murals like this speak to a much larger community, like this o, in particular, ar is something that all members of society can relate to. They make audiences reflect on themselves and the creation of art with an impact that reaches almost any bystander is one of the most unique and phenomenal traits of Clarion Alley.
The murals of Clarion Alley are like nothing the city has seen before. They have been inspired by murals of Balmy Alley, but the further step taken by the artists and organizations of CAMP abide by no stylistic consistency, no unified perspective, and no agreement on what issues are important. Instead, the alley celebrates several issues, and although in the past it was said that “Clarion is notable (at least compared with earlier murals) in its lack of issue-oriented murals,” (Clarion Alley and Postmodernism), nowadays, there is only a lack of prioritization in the issues depicted in the murals as they are ever-changing and constantly inclusive. Not only does the alley draw attention to issues and honor different groups, but “Clarion celebrates (by providing a forum) individual sensitivities, expressions of self and (pomo) style…commodified culture as do the earlier styles,” (Clarion Alley and Postmodernism). The colors, abstract designs, and symbolic murals are a crucial part of Clarion Alley’s uniqueness. The aesthetic of the art in Clarion Alley is a big part of what set it apart from Balmy Alley, and the artists of CAMP continue to embrace this in their new works. The ever-changing murals in the alley are metaphorical for San Francisco’s culture and people. As seen below, CAMP draws attention to new issues arising, such as political propositions around this crucial time of the election, but leaves intact murals about inclusion, equality, and the celebration of different communities that are always necessary for a diverse community like San Francisco as it celebrates all kinds of people with a statement about how everyone deserves a healthy and safe community and adds to the relevancy to larger audiences.
Furthermore, The use of murals to display propositions is extremely unique and special to Clarion Alley as it not only shows the constant evolution of the alley but also relates to the inclusiveness of larger audiences and makes the art relevant to anyone living in the city. The roots of any movement surely play an important role in it, as Balmy Alley does in the acceptance and emergence of politically motivated street art in San Francisco. Even the nature of how the art stands in Balmy Alley does contain just as much abstract and uniqueness. As stated by Alejandro Murguia in Street Art: Mission Muralismo, “There are many issues spoken in the murals as there are painting styles, mixing church art and anime, revolution and reverence” (Jacoby 98). However, the evolved nature and strong, multi-cultural messages depicted by Clarion Alley are much more relevant in today’s society to the different communities of people living in San Francisco, or even visitors who can reflect on themselves by merely looking at some of the murals. Clarion Alley has not dismissed the initial sentiment of Balmy Alley and still stresses important Latino issues. Both alleys play a huge role in commenting on the increasing rates of gentrification in the city. The story of Jose Luis Gongora’s brutal murder by the SFPD is one example of the necessity of murals such as the one portraying gentrification in Clarion Alley. Gongora did not speak English, and though the police officers claimed he was threatening them with a knife, no witnesses saw this occur, and thus, the tragic story of this evicted Latino man serves as a centerpiece of gentrification (Anti-Eviction Mapping Project – Eviction Surge, San Francisco).
Street art is a significant part of San Francisco culture, and the Mission District, both in Balmy and Clarion Alleys depicts the roots and issues surrounding the city and its people. As Balmy Alley stands now, in the middle of a Latino-heavy area of the district, will continue to showcase issues important to the Latino community. The roots of a celebration around started in Balmy Alley, and have grown through Clarion Alley in new forms and with new messages. The nature of Clarion Alley will continue to grow and evolve as issues facing our community change. Despite their differences, however, both alleys will remain remremarkableeces of San Francisco history, and provoke the thoughts of all their audiences.