7 Must-See Institutions of the Mission
Light + Sidewalk: A Photowalk of the Mission’s Murals - 24th Street
San Francisco has an amazing selection of museums and I’ve been lucky enough to visit most of them: SFMOMA, de Young, Asian Art, Contemporary Jewish, Beat, California Academy of Sciences, hell I’ve even been to the LSD Museum (a remarkable collection of blotter art that adorns over 30k hits of acid, so watch where you lick). Each of these museums has opened doorways of insight into the destruction and creation, heartbreak and romance, frustration and triumph, that represent different cultures, eras, and artistic interpretations. However, there is one San Francisco museum that is always-rotating, always-free, and has always been my favorite: the outdoor mural gallery of the Mission.
We teamed up with Light to take you on a photowalk along 24th Street. The walk shares tips from Sean Custer (professional photographer and Photo Manager at Light) on how to photograph your own art, and it explores the historical context, cultural relevance of the art, and street art slang - you’ll even get a taste of some of the neighborhood’s finest flavors.
In this post we will give you some bite-sized highlights of this self-guided photowalk of the Mission’s murals of 24th street.
To appreciate the motifs and themes within the Mission's art it’s important understand the constant flow of settlers and immigrants who carved their respective marks into the neighborhood's culture.
The original residents, the Yelamu tribe, settled the area over 2,000 years ago. When the Catholic Mission (for which the neighborhood is named) was established, the Yelamu were pushed out by Spanish-Mexican families and disease. Next came the working-class German, Irish and Italian immigrants in search of fortune in the 1850s Gold Rush craze.
The population shifted again between the 1940-1960s with the influx of Mexicans and Central American immigrants. This group was one of the first to begin to experience the friction between tenant and landlord in San Francisco - a lot of the art in the Mission depicts protests surrounding unfair tenant evictions.
Today, a new wave of immigrants is changing the neighborhood again: tech workers. The gentrification of the neighborhood is a major source of strain, a theme that frequently features in the Mission’s murals.
Guide Point #1 - Balmy Alley
This block-long alley features the most concentrated collection of murals in San Francisco. The murals began appearing on Balmy in the mid-80's as an expression of artists' outrage over political and human rights abuses in Central America.
The tradition of political messages continues today in the 37 works that decorate the garage doors, fences, and walls of Balmy. You’ll notice a scope of topics from human rights to local gentrification. Some of the murals were painted with aerosol cans, but much of Balmy's art is made with old-fashioned paint and brushstrokes.
- Learn with Light
Sometimes, the perfect shot isn’t about an entire piece, but rather the details hidden within the artwork itself. When it comes to close-ups, you don’t want to be too close to your subject - for street art close-ups, 3 feet is a good rule of thumb. This way, you have freedom to crop the image closer while editing.
Guide Point #2 - Philz Coffee (The Original)
Philz Coffee is San Francisco's favorite way to get caffeinated. The founder, Phil Jaber, was born in Palestine in the '60’s and found passion for coffee in his youth when he’d steal sips of the dark potion at family gatherings. With his love for people and a desire to foster a sense of community around coffee, Jaber devoted 25 years to perfecting recipes of unique coffee blends, each with an untraditional name. Jaber also developed a method to dissolve the acid out of coffee, providing a new type of smoother coffee. The rest is history.
Guide Point #3 - Carnaval Mural (above the House of Brakes)
Considered one of the most important public art projects in the neighborhood, the Carnival Mural was originally painted in 1983 by Oakland artist, Daniel Galvez. Throughout the years, the mural came to symbolize the Mission's history, culture, artistic expression, and pride. For some residents it reflects “the Golden Dreams of La Mission” and for others it is “the joy of life coming into the streets.” Fun fact: when the mural was restored 31 years after it was originally painted, Galvez came out of retirement to join the restoration team. In the pictures below, he is the one celebrating.
- Learn with Light
What you decide not to include in the frame of a shot is more important than what you decide to include inside it. So when you’re shooting a piece of street art, think to yourself, “What is superfluous? What is a distraction at the edges of my frame? What should I decide to keep, and what to ditch?” Keep subtracting from your frame until no distractions remain and you are left with the essence of your image.
One way to eliminate an obstruction is to use a foreground subject to hide it. For example, if there is an undesired sign in front of a piece of art, look for a flower, a tree, or a person passing by that you can incorporate into the foreground of the image and hide the obstruction. It can take some practice and timing, but when it works, it is amazing.
Guide Point #4 - Cypress Alley
The street art murals on Cypress and Lilac Streets came into existence largely through the efforts of Lisa Brewer and Randolph Bowes. In the mid-2000s, these alleyways were riddled with drug and gang activity. Brewer and Bowes thought that if they could transform the alleys into public art galleries and beautify the spaces, it would drive out crime. Practically overnight, these alleyways became brighter, safer and more welcoming. It’s not unusual to find local artists socializing and painting somewhere in these alleys on any given day, doing their part to help the neighborhood.
- Learn with Light
There is a lighting effect called “bounce” that is worth looking out for when walking the north-south alleys of the Mission. Bounce is when you get a reflection of light from a building window that illuminates a particular subject. The art is in the peculiar shadows and illuminated focal points.
Finding find street art with bounced light reflecting on it offers a great opportunity to experiment. Try underexposing the photo so the non-bounced region is really dark. To do this, speed up your shutter speed or lower your ISO sensitivity value.
Guide Point #5 - Lilac Alley
Similar to Cypress, the art movement on Lilac Alley has Lisa Brewer and Randolph Bowes to thank. All these years later, the murals are operated with a well-coordinated precision. There is even a "curator" of each alley who is responsible for vetting artists and coordinating with the property owners for permission to paint on their property, and ensuring quality results.
- Learn with Light
Look for ways to incorporate scenery and objects into your street art photography; surrounding elements can add mood to your imagery. Look for complementary or contrasting features that support the story you want to tell.
For example, a blooming bougainvillea vine could perfectly frame a hulking futuristic monster. A Victorian-style house might contrast nicely with a Golden Gate Bridge painting in the foreground. A chain link fence could imprison the subject of a piece. These all add to the narrative of the street art and makes the photographer as much an active participant in the work as the original artist.
Guide Point #6 - Mission Art 415
With all of her experience of working with artists to paint the murals along Lilac and Balmy Alleys, Lisa Brewer opened her own art gallery to feature their in-home works. After walking the alleys of Lilac and Cypress, many of the pieces in this gallery will look familiar.
Mission Art 415 frequently displays artwork by Mark Bode, Night Owl and dozens of other artists featured in the Mission. You won’t find these artists in many other galleries; Brewer has the inside track and relationships to source them.
If Mission Art 415, Brewer herself will most likely greet you. Be sure to strike up a conversation with her; she has a wealth of knowledge about the local art and the stories behind them.
Guide Point #7 - Mission Pie
Before opening Mission Pie, Karen Heisler enjoyed a 15-year career in environmental and agricultural policy and regulation - not the typical recipe for a restaurant owner. After several years of advocating for sustainability in farming, Heisler decided she wanted to work closer to end consumers - she opened Mission Pie in 2007.
True to her roots, Heisler sources the ingredients from nearby farms where crops are raised with care for land, people, freshness and flavor.
The menu is ever-changing with the season. Stick with the classics like Banana Cream or the Mixed Berry. Dollop of whipped cream? Yes, of course you should.
Mission Pie also offers a great selection of beers - the porter & pie combo is a winner.
Street art is not locked away in a gallery for the select few to appreciate. It is there to be admired, questioned and analyzed by everyone. Walls are typically built to separate us, but when an artist puts a piece on a wall, it tends to bring us together.
By empathizing with the artists' stories told through their work, we achieve a level of understanding that can be a small step towards connecting with each other. This weekend, go explore the street art of the Mission. Its the perfect idea for a date, a detour en route to Dolores Park, or way to walk off that La Taqueria carnitas burrito.
If exploring and shooting the Golden Gate Bridge is in your wheelhouse, check out another photowalk collaboration with Light called, Light Presents: 5 Ways to Photograph the Golden Gate Bridge.