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Going, Going

The city is letting its outdoor murals fade away and doesn’t give a damn.
By Barbara Tannenbaum

SOURCE: San Francisco Magazine Online

On the streets of every neighborhood in San Francisco, you’ll find the only art museums that are always open, always free, that welcome everyone and seem pretty nonchalant about the dress code. This city has far more painted public artworks than the 70 community murals in the Mission. Those fairly well-known treasures barely hint at the beguiling surprises on outdoor walls from the financial district to the Marina, some 800 and counting. They are just as important as any artworks in the Legion of Honor or SFMOMA.

Why? Because there should be something grand and monumental in the public sphere other than billboards—something that alters our mood and thoughts in subtle ways yet doesn’t ask us to be consumers. Whether an expression of ethnic pride, identity politics, spiritual themes, or simple aesthetics, a neighborhood mural makes visible the layers of history in a community. Murals are a form of social engagement. When you come upon them, they tend to make you smile.

A few weeks ago, my dog was leading me down Market Street to Church. We crossed over to the newly paved bike path behind the giant Safeway shopping complex. I emphasize the serendipitous nature of this stroll: The dog was leading me to the grassy field where canines romp at the Harvey Milk Recreational Center, in Duboce Park. On the way there, we passed two stunning murals offering starkly different possibilities for this casual and unchampioned art form.

On the wall behind Safeway, towering as high as a movie screen, unfurling longer than the widest wide-screen Cinerama, and blazing with color, was the 1998 Duboce Bikeway Mural. Designed by San Francisco artist Mona Caron and painted with volunteers, the mural has a bird’s-eye point of view, as, to the left, hang glider–powered cyclists soar above the financial district. Ribbons of yellow flow from their contraptions and resolve into the streets and intersections of the Duboce triangle. So many exquisite details, such as the N-Judah streetcar renamed “Desire.” A yellow snake on one street becomes the tracks of a bicycle tire on a marshy sand dune. The mural ends with the cyclists heading out to the blue Pacific.

Meanwhile, on the south wall of the Harvey Milk rec center is a mural honoring the slain San Francisco supervisor and gay-rights activist, painted by Oakland muralist Johanna Poethig in 1988. The central image is of an ebullient Milk, holding a bouquet and wearing a lei, carried aloft by a smiling clown against the background of a giant dahlia whose petals once waved like fuchsia, red, and yellow flames. The image of Milk came from newsreel footage of his last appearance in a gay pride parade. Transferred to a mural overlooking the Castro, it comforted and inspired a community in the grip of the AIDS epidemic.

Today you’d never know what Milk was holding or wearing unless you were already familiar with the image. It’s an important document and artwork that’s literally fading from sight.

San Francisco has no budget, process, or law in place to maintain these murals. Unlike sculpture, another public art form, most of the murals are not part of the city’s art collection—because whatever the city collects, it must maintain. Murals, according to some officials, are inherently ephemeral: Attacked by sunlight, weather, and pollution, they’re simply not going to be there forever. Others excuse their lack of concern by saying that with a limited number of walls, you’ve got to make room for the next generation of murals. Given that philosophy, you’d better hurry to see the Duboce Bikeway Mural and say good-bye to Harvey Milk.

As it turns out, Johanna Poethig got a phone call recently from Debra Lehane, program director of the Civic Art Collection. In an ad hoc way, Lehane had opened a discussion about the Milk mural’s historic and aesthetic value. Now someone is combing the budget to find money to pay Poethig to restore the vivid brilliance of her landmark piece of work.

But what about all the others? I say take a hint from Los Angeles. Yes, Los Angeles—a city famed for disregarding its own past. Some consider it the mural capital of the world. This city, which has its own budget problems, inventoried its collection of 3,000 outdoor murals years ago. Now it’s paying art conservators and muralists to restore more than 40 outdoor murals in locations ranging from public-housing projects to the concrete walls lining L.A.’s downtown freeways.

But here in cultured San Francisco, mural artists are treated like sign painters. When a mural goes up, the city requires the artist and the building owner to sign an agreement that the work is not expected to last more than five years, and the city is not expected to provide any maintenance. After five years, the owner can do whatever he or she wants with the building. Muralists waive their state and federal copyright protection against mutilation or destruction of their work without 90 days’ prior notice.

The city does have a thorough slide inventory of its murals, but what good is it without the desire to save them? We have a tremendous artistic heritage here. We should find the money to assess each mural’s physical condition and decide which ones need help first. These artworks tell us who we have been, what we believed in, how we endured during difficult times. In this one way, can’t San Francisco be more like L.A.?

Barbara Tannenbaum is a San Rafael–based writer whose work has appeared in the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times.

Precita Eyes tours of mission district murals, on foot or by bus or bike, (415) 285-2287, Lillian Sizemore’s walking tour of the castro’s murals and tile-mosaic installations, (415) 647-0347,