Every mural in San Francisco’s Mission tells a story

November 13, 2017
Emma Caldwell

Stepping into the Mission District instantly feels like stepping into the heart of San Francisco. I get an immediate sense that this is the engine room that keeps this city progressive, unique and vibrant. Mexican grocery stores pump out empanadas, brightly coloured murals decorate laneways and buildings, and a distinct sense of the social conscience that makes San Francisco so desirable all exist in this little region of the city. It’s evident just from walking out of the subway station that this, the oldest patch of San Francisco, is special.

Today I get to walk the streets of the Mission like a local with Urban Adventures. Starting at Dynamo Donut & Coffee on 24th, the surroundings are old with a suburban feel and the donut flavours are wackier (and tastier) than anything found in any standard pastry shop. Chocolate rose, caramel apple, candied orange blossom and hibiscus heart beet are just a few of the crazy combinations that these guys serve up to the Mission. With an iced chocolate rose in hand, the morning stroll through this vibrant area kicks off.

mural on a garage door in San Francisco

Everywhere is a canvas for art in the Mission | Photo by Emma Caldwell

Anything is fair game to become a work of art in this neighbourhood. Parks, storefronts, houses and laneways — all of these carry murals and other designs that are both impressive for their artistry and for the messages contained in the artwork. See, the murals of the Mission are not just there to look pretty. Each carefully crafted artwork has something to say.

Themes of belonging, culture, identity, gender and even the gentrification of the Mission itself are present here. It’s evident that the residents of the Mission and the artists painting these works are highly attuned to world issues as well as local issues. It’s also obvious that locals are concerned about the popularising of this area as a “cool” place to hang out, with some murals making fun of the “hipster lines” snaking around the corner of people queuing for a trendy café.

street mural of the Mexican community

Every mural in the Mission tells a story | Photo by Emma Caldwell

Our Urban Adventures guide, Linda, walks the group up Balmy Alley, all the while pointing out the quirks and historic stores of the Mission. A quick stop for a ricotta pastry at La Victoria Mexican Bakery & Café goes down very nicely — the Mexican-style pastry is a much denser texture than the ones I am used to, but the ricotta makes it nice and fluffy still.

Meandering further through the Mission, I marvel at the beautiful Victorian homes, painted to perfection and suddenly we’re stopping for more food! Mission Pie is apparently an institution in these parts, and it is here that I am treated to my first ever slice of pumpkin pie. The texture is soft and squishy and it’s nothing like I’ve ever tasted before — in Australia we only eat pumpkins as a savoury food. In short, it’s delicious and I make a mental note to try to work out how to make this amazing creation when I arrive back down under.

slice of pumpkin pie

The sweet taste of Mission Pie | Photo by Emma Caldwell

The second of the Mission’s dynamic mural alleys is Clarion Alley, which is getting ready for a street party as I wander through. Again, these murals are deep with social conscience. They are worldly, they are works of art and they provide a voice to the community. My favourite work is not found in the alleys, however, but is on the women’s centre. This huge white building has been covered in images depicting the stories of women and girls as part of the MaestraPeace Mural and it is as impressive as it is moving.

A final stop in the Mission wouldn’t be complete without a taco, right? Since we are in the Mexican area of San Francisco, it would be rude not to. Linda orders an array of tacos for us, and let me just say that the chicken taco I had rivals any taco I have ever eaten before. They are so fresh, so juicy and have just the right balance of flavours. I suppose that’s what happens when they’re made by an expert.

white building with a mural of women along the side

The stunning MaestraPeace Mural | Photo by Emma Caldwell

At the end of the tour I feel like not only did I experience the flavours and murals of the Mission District, but I like I got the privilege of being let into the heart and soul of San Francisco. The Mission may not appear in as many tourist guides as the Golden Gate, Alcatraz or the cable cars, but in my mind, it gives a greater insight into this amazing city than any of those other bucketlist items.

William Saroyan once wrote, “If you’re not alive, San Francisco will bring you to life.” Well, no truer words have ever been said about the Mission District.