Many visitors pass by the murals in the Coit Tower observation point.

Like the epic bridges straddling the Bay outside, they were federally funded to create jobs in the Great Depression of the ’30s.

But it’s in the trendy Mission District that today’s mural scene thrives.

In this majority Latino neighbourhood two particular streets, Balmy Alley and lesser known Clarion Alley, are densely packed alfresco galleries; an eclectic ensemble of colours and styles reflecting the city’s diverse population and politics.

A pink section of Clarion wall celebrates strong female figures such as Bandit Queen Phoolan Devi, while others blend tattoo-style skulls with the omnipresent hippy era peace sign. Some are sinister, others comical.

The bold tones jump out from under the endless telephone wires draping languidly above SF’s quake-prone streets. 

Art Politic

In Balmy Alley, Joel Bergner’s Un Pasado Que Aún Vive (A Past That Still Lives) is an intense mix of yellow, orange and red.

A woman clutches a baby – her husband has gone to the US to find work – while armed men lurk: “It’s set in modern-day El Salvador, while showing the memories of the bloody civil war of 1980-92,” explains Bergner.

“Balmy Alley was initially created in the 1980s as an outdoor gallery of murals that dealt with the civil wars that were raging across Central America at the time. Many residents of the Mission arrived during the ’80s as refugees from these conflicts.”

‘Materialistic displacement’ is the subject of the mural on the corner wall of Philz Coffee, noted by local caffeine-lovers.

Phil himself says he likes having it on his 24th Street store: “I’m happy it’s there: it’s a part of the San Francisco – and Mission District – culture.”

Murals like this, he says, reflect the attitudes of the people that live there.

This being SF, many images are political.

War, Aids, land rights and even the disappearance of indigenous culture under the Conquistadores are covered.

It’s easy to forget that Indians, Spain and Mexico had called California home before it was finally ceded to the US in 1848.

Indeed, this district gets its name from the historic Spanish mission Dolores Church on 16th Street.

But murals also deal with the everyday, and promote positivity. At the Women’s Building on 18th Street, the exterior walls are brought to life by the massive Maestrapeace.

A celebration of womanhood, it’s the work of a team of muralistas (female mural artists) from different generations.

One of the faces to be found in the artwork is Rigoberta Menchu, a Nobel Prize winner and champion of indigenous people’s rights.

Community Mission

Back on a 24th Street corner, Leyenda Azteca addresses the universal and timeless theme of thwarted love.

According to various legends, this Aztec version of Romeo And Juliet died tragically before they could wed.

The Gods were so moved by this that they turned the pair into the mountains shown in the mural.

Responsible for this mural, and many others, is community-based arts organisation Precita Eyes.

From its building near Balmy Alley, it tries to make “community collaborative art” accessible, involving local people in its projects.

The city still suffers from gang culture, so – with activities such as summer camps for kids – Precita Eyes emphasises values such as co-operation and creativity while nurturing local talent.

Artist Patricia Rose co-ordinates tours of 16th and 24th Streets for Precita Eyes.

“For all of us in Mission District, murals are our tradition,” she says. “When there is something that’s important to us, something we want you to know about, we paint a mural about it.

“There are hundreds of murals in the Mission District, and everyone paints them – children, teens, adults. Some are done by people who never painted a mural before.”

A few hours in her company brings out the stories behind the pictures and is an education in social history.

“Looking at our murals, you get a very full, rich picture of who we are as a community, and what are the things that are most important to us,” she points out.

The murals are in a constant state of flux, and as the colours fade they are often painted over.

But Patricia happily confirms rebirth is part of the cycle: “Murals are lost or destroyed, but many, many new ones are created. The mural scene in the Mission District is more vibrant and vital than ever.”

» Precita Eyes Mural Arts and Visitors Center, 2981 24th Street, at Harrison (415-285-2287). Tours Saturday and Sunday, 11am and 1.30pm. Adults $10-12, students with ID $8


The Rock (, where Al Capone was incarcerated for tax evasion when they couldn’t get him for racketeering. Boats leave from
Pier 39 (

The Golden Gate Bridge
Grab a bike from Fisherman’s Wharf and cycle to, and over, this wonderful 1280m-long bridge (

Hang out in North Beach
When writer Jack Kerouac and his gang hit town in the ’50s, it was the place to be. Pop along to the Beat Museum (, or you might just see septuagenarian Beatnik Lawrence Ferlinghetti in legendary bookstore City Lights (

Take a cable car
Hanging on the outside of a cable car, slowly ascend those famously vertiginous streets, the setting for Steve McQueen’s classic car chase in 1968 thriller Bullitt. Then return by tram on the historic F-line.

Hippies in Haight ashbury
This was once the place to turn on, tune in and drop out. You might still catch a drum circle in the park or see a free performance at Ameoba’s record store (

California Highlights


This stupendous national park is the perfect antidote to the busy city. Bug Bus runs regular backpacker tours from SF, incorporating hikes (

wine country

California is a player in the New World wine league with its Napa and Sonoma Valleys. Good value tours can be booked through hostels and websites like

LA and the coast

The Pacific Coast Highway meanders through Santa Cruz, Big Sur and genteel artist colony Carmel.

Las vegas

The casinos of Vegas are handy for trips to Death Valley, the Hoover Dam and the Grand Canyon.