Muralism – something that has been demonised as graffiti, vandalism and criminal damage in the UK- has a long and joyous history in other parts of the globe. Long before the graffiti-inspired forms of Basquiat and Keith Haring became absorbed, valued and commodified by the New York art-market, Muralism/graffiti/what you will was already an accepted and sophisticated folk art-form.
To return to the roots of contemporary Muralism, we need to journey to Mexico. In modern day Mexico the eye-catching prevalence of painted walls is astonishing. Every available exterior surface of homes, local shops, community buildings and schools glows with blobs and smears and images, turquoise orange green and cobalt blue. Adverts, public announcements and political slogans, which we have on billboards here, are painted directly onto the stone of the building. This is not as you might think a severe case of the “Proliferation of product placement”, although some Murals may centre around a coca cola logo. The stunning colourful beauty of Mexican towns goes back further than consumerism: even before the Europeans plundered the Americas for the mythical ‘golden city’ of Eldorado – ‘The gilded one’, the Mexicans were decorating every available surface with natural pigments found in their environment. There is evidence that the great pyramids of the sun and the moon at Teotihucan were once glowing golden cones of colour. It is possible that the intricate stone mosaics covering almost the whole of the Mitla site in Oaxaca (pronounced Wa-Ha-Ka) were all individually re-coloured each year after the rainy season. In this way wall painting may be seen to be part of Mexican culture, in much the same way as Morris dancing would be seen by a raver in Britain.
Given Muralism’s long history in Mexico it is small wonder that experienced artesans with searing social insight would eventually emerge. From the end of the nineteenth century on recognised artesans were commissioned by local departments to paint inside public buildings, governmental palaces, libraries and cathedrals. Here Muralists were given a public and political voice. The most well-known wave of public Muralism was during the 20s and 30s. This became known internationally as the Social Realist school: the style was realistic panoramas across history, the content was socially critical.
One of the leading exponents of Mexican Social Realism was Diego Rivera. Rivera’s vast 3 storey high gallery long Murals of Mexican history from the Aztecs through the Conquest on past revolutions into the twentieth century and political enlightenment are open for viewing by the public every day at no charge, in the National Palace on the Zocalo town square in Mexico D.F. These paintings are awesome in their scale and subject range. Diego Rivera’s personal reputation was of much the same scope. He was, for instance, a personal friend of Leon Trotsky, and housed Trotsky in Coyacan, Mexico D.F during his exile from the Soviet Union.
Rivera was the husband of the inspired ‘Retrato’ painter Frida Kahlo, whose famous Blue House, also in Coyacan, is now home to the Frida Kahlo Museum, which has the most complete collection of her work in the world.
In The States
Rivera has also painted Social Realist Murals in the United States, One of the most well-known being that on the Rockefeller Building in New York. This was white-washed over before any member of the public ever saw it. One may suspect that the Mural depicted a political vision not compatible with the social climate of the States at the time. A form of censorship?
Rivera also painted some Murals in San Francisco, three of which survive. Two of these remaining Murals are in academic institutions. The one in The San Francisco Art Institute on Russian Hill, covers a wall at one end of an exhibition gallery. The Institute is open to the public, it’s free. You can look around the other galleries and exhibition halls there and get cheap coffee and vegan food in their student canteen. Kathy Acker taught creative writing at this chilled out campus just a few years ago.
The second Rivera Mural is much larger, covering a 2 storey back wall in the foyer of the Diego Rivera Theatre on City College Campus way out in the Glen Park / Ingleside suburbs of SF. This Mural is typically vast and encompassing, crowded with huge familiar historical and political figures jostling for space.
Unfortunately the building is kept locked when not in use. We tried peering in through the glass doors, but it’s best to contact the college before setting out to find out when it is open – they’re very friendly.
The third Rivera Mural in San Francisco is locked away at the top of the Pacific Coast Stock Exchange in ‘a private club’. The public are forbidden entry into this building, and even hanging around looking gormless on the street seems to make the security nervous. Applications to view the Mural are taken on the first Wednesday of any month. Another kind of censorship.
The Coit Tower on Telegraph Hill is a white dildo shaped tower visible across most of the north City. Interestingly Telegraph Hill is one ‘eye of the East Bay Area Dragon’ according to one Feng Shui practitioner. The other eye is said to be Russian Hill, where the San Francisco Art Institute is situated. The head and mind of the Dragon lies in North Beach and Chinatown, in the valley between these two hills.
From the top of the Coit Tower you can see most of the Chinatown, North Beach and Russian Hill areas; on a clear day you can see both bridges, The Golden Gate Bridge – spanning the Pacific Ocean inlet in two easy strides- and the Bay Bridge – which chugs out to Yerba Buena Island and on across the Bay to Oakland and Berkley suburbs.
The inside of the Coit Tower is painted with Murals by some 26 American Muralists in the Social Realist style. These Murals were completed in 1936, and many of the artists involved were funded by a government aid scheme under the New Deal. With the New Deal grants were given to community based collective projects, which were then run as public works. Projects receiving grants included many artistic collectives- painters, photographers, Muralists, printers and writers. It is said that Roosevelt (FDR) implemented the New Deal in order to alleviate the economic depression of the 30s.
The Coit Tower Murals depict row upon row of sturdy workers, artesans, writers and artists; they depict the grand diversity of races, cultures, interests and philosophies which show the USA as microcosm of the known universe. The official opening of the Tower was delayed by six months as public employees were ordered to whitewash over a hammer and sickle and the slogan “workers of the world unite”. Disgruntled Muralists looked on helpless, muttering of censorship.
Of the remaining Murals one panel shows the workers and process of newspaper and information distribution, showing all aspects of the trade from journalism, printing, distribution and dissemination. It includes a sly reference to the censoring of Diego Rivera’s Mural at the Rockefeller Building. Another panel shows manual workers standing tall and square in a Mayday parade, another shows a Muralist and his team preparing the walls, applying plaster, pricking outlines and applying the first broad sweeps of pigment in the traditional artesan method. Other walls depict rural utopias, fruit orchards stretched as far as the eye could see. Utopias long dead and past dreaming in the car-culture excesses of the suburban sprawl of Silicon Valley.
The Current Scene
For the past twenty years the Precita Eyes Mural Arts Centre has been running a grant funded community-based regeneration project in the Mission district of S.F. The Mission district is one of the oldest in the City, being the site of the earliest urban settlement in the Bay, an eighteenth century Catholic Mission dedicated to Saint Francis, which gives the city its name. The neighbourhood is still largely Mexican and the Muralist tradition thrives.
Around Mission and 16th Streets you’ll likely stumble across quiet seemingly deserted alleyways and streets to be confronted with images painted in gorgeous glowing orange turquoise green and cobalt blue. Many of these bursts of colour will have been commissioned by the Precita Eyes project and may be by well-known Mexican, Cuban or Nicaraguan artists, others are by the project’s local Youth Group or by students apprenticed and trained by the project. Precita Eyes has a strong art education and folk history emphasis.
In one side street I spotted a lovingly painted Social Realist style Mural, flowing across a back wall in an alleyway. An image of Father Junipero Serra, one of the founding Mission Priests of San Francisco, leans forward, his arms wide open, a happy and caring expression on his face, psychedelic tropical nature scenes burst like halos around him, the Spanish text beneath his feet reads:
“The people need not obey any law that is immoral”
Pixie-inc. pamphlet 1999