A walking tour of the city of murals, street art and Beat poets
San Francisco is a city of murals. The oldest dates back to 1791. It was painted by Ohlone Indians in Mission Dolores. Hidden for centuries, this mural, painted by enslaved native Americans, was uncovered in 2004, revealing the oldest extant public artwork of the City.
Living only 30 miles south of San Francisco, the City by the Bay, I find every excuse to visit, like when my sister, Selma stops over to spend a couple of weeks with me.
“A walking tour”, I tell her, “our own personalised one. We’ll walk up the steep brick Greenwich Steps – four hundred of them winding through quaint gardens with unique art pieces. We’ll catch a panoramic view of the Bay Bridge and Yerba Buena Island in San Francisco Bay.”
“I’m breathless already,” Selma cuts me off.
There is no need to persuade her for the trip but I also want her to join me in my excitement about the trip.
I continue, “a walk up to Coit Tower, filled with magnificent murals funded by the government in the 1930s supporting local artists. We’ll walk down the other side of the hill to North Beach for a cappuccino at Cafe Trieste, one of the oldest coffee houses here, a regular hangout for Beat poets. The grand finale will be City Lights Book Store.”
“The steps were all I needed,” she tells me. For Selma, a long walk, a cup of coffee, and a bookstore are all it takes. And, of course, a longwinded conversation while ascending the nearly thirty-three flights.
Later, we will marvel at the founding of City Lights by poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti in 1953 and its “legacy of anti-authoritarian politics and unconstrained intellectual curiosity”. Having grown up in Pakistan during the Zia-era, City Lights is more than a bookstore to me.
This one is the first of our many walking tours. Others will follow. If she were to visit in 2022, I would plan a mural tour. It would begin at the beginning, at the Mission Dolores – at the mural that was created by Native Americans, forced to convert to a religion that was not kind to them, forced to draw images that were foreign to them.
We’d then go to one of the most recent murals of the City, painted in April 2022 in Haight-Ashbury commemorating the passing of actor Bob Saget, the father of the Full House TV series. In the lighter times of our adolescence, we awaited that unique family with no mother, only a father, and two uncles. And three little girls growing up in San Francisco – continents away from our own city. There, in Faisalabad, four sisters and their brother were surrounded by generations of extended family, aunts, uncles and cousins. The city was re-named from Lyallpur to honour King Faisal of the House of Saud.
In the mural, we’d see Sagot smiling and wearing a 49ers jacket, the San Francisco football team. In the newly named Faisalabad, we saw a saintly looking king with a sombre face, wearing a keffiyeh.
Like the subjects being commemorated, some murals are short-lived. The peace dove mural painted in response to the Russian attack on Ukraine near the waterfront will have been washed away by the time Selma visits again. Based on Ukrainian artist Maria Pryimachenko’s work, this mural will only live on through photos.
One mural that seems to have outlived its intended life was painted in 2019 by BiP, an anonymous San Francisco-based muralist. It’s an eight-storey work showing a baby dressed in police blue uniform in Hayes Valley. The mural was expected to be covered by adjacent buildings in a couple of years, but three years on, the baby police officer still looks out over the parking lot.
As I weave our way through the streets of San Francisco, Selma asks me to park in a side street for a minute. “I want to capture this last photo,” she says, pointing towards a wall that says, And the Beat Goes On. So it does.
A mural depicting the terror of out-of-control policing or the brutality of the Russian-Ukraine war is like a visual scream; it cannot be ignored. Such murals remind us of the ugliness of humanity.
Since we seek a balance, Selma and I would look for aspiring murals as well. In this tour of ours, we would walk a few blocks south of the baby police officer to the Mission District. There, one of the city’s most magnificent five-storey murals, MaestraPeace, wraps around the Women’s Building – a safe place for women and girls. It represents the power of women. The mural, painted in 1994, by Juana Alicia, Miranda Bergman, Edythe Boone, Susan Kelk Cervantes, Meera Desai, Yvonne Littleton and Irene Perez, represents all that is good in humanity. Created by community activists, organisers and teachers, who served “diverse communities and arts organisations from Harlem to the fields of the United Farm Workers, from Nicaragua to India, from Palestine to Native America”, this wrap-around art shows all that is going well in the world.
Our mural tour would end at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, with Rivera’s The Pan American mural. It is with this mural that I understood the impact of public murals when I first came across it in 2002. The college where I had just started teaching was seeking ways to unite the campus across disciplines. The committee responsible for the initiative was in search of a common theme for the year. The theme would be studied across humanities, art, social sciences and STEM disciplines and would bring the small campus together on a regular basis. The college library planned to host monthly events in the theatre for professors and guests to engage the college community.
Of all the ideas committee members discussed, one kept returning – the muralist, Diego Rivera. He stood out for the range of the subject of his murals: history, sociology, and art. He covered the gamut. His murals tell stories of colonialism, socialism, communism, feminism, progress, movies, art, and culture.
From there, it didn’t take us long to home in on the Pan American Unity mural, earlier known as The Marriage of the Artistic Expression of the North and of the South on This Continent. Rivera was commissioned to paint this 22 by 74 ft. fresco on plaster for the Art in Action exhibition at Treasure Island’s Golden Gate International Exposition in San Francisco, in 1940. It was commissioned by The City College of San Francisco.
The proximity of our college to San Francisco made it convenient to visit the mural in its home space. Because of the interest in it, a replica was made to create a travelling display of this piece of art. The ten-panel mural covers centuries of the continent of America. Rivera wrote in a letter, “For years I have felt that the real art of the Americas must come as a result of the fusion of the mechanism and new creative power of the North with the tradition rooted in the soil of the South, the Toltecs, Tarascans, Mayas, Incas, etc, and would like to choose that as the subject of my mural.”
The mural that Rivera created is huge and cannot be appreciated in one sitting. When I first saw it, I focused on the woman in the centre wearing a red, white, and yellow Huipil – a traditional Mexican blouse. She holds a paintbrush and palette in one hand and prepares to paint on a blank canvas. Her joined eyebrows and magnificent headdress confirm her identity – Frida Kahlo, Rivera’s wife; currently more celebrated than her muralist husband. Behind her, her husband, Rivera himself, sits with his first wife, Guadalupe Marín, planting the tree of life.
Above them are the celebrated workers of San Francisco, building the city around them. The panels of the mural reveal a rich history of Mexico. Indigenous Americans are creating the foundations of Mexican civilisation which is the foundation of California. The figures of George Washington, Simon Bolivar and Abraham Lincoln are shaking hands. Near the centre, a modern San Francisco, with an ancient Aztec figurehead beside it, represents the coming together of these cultures. In the same mural, Rivera pays homage to another of his passions – movies. One of the scenes is from Charlie Chaplin’s film, The Great Dictator.
As we pull ourselves up the last hundred Greenwich Steps, I share my memory of Rivera’s mural with Selma. She is not a muralist, but as an artist, I want to know her perspective on public art and murals.
“What”, I ask her, “would be a commemorative mural of the city in Pakistan in which we grew up?”
Before she can answer, I tell her my own vision of nomadic cattle grazers being replaced by the Chenab canal colonies in the late 1880s. Maybe a Union Jack at the centre with a clock tower in the middle. Maybe some Rais, a few sufaidposh and some abadkars. Of the historical figures, we’d see Sir James Broadwood Lyall, the lieutenant governor of the Punjab (1887-1892). For more current figures, we might see the famous singer Naheed Akhtar or the internationally renowned Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. We’d definitely see Shah Faisal.
I stop to catch my breath. This gives Selma a chance to join in the plan for the mural.
“It has to be audacious”, she says. Flamboyant, rich, more vivacious than reality, because that’s the feeling of the Punjab and of Faisalabad. Bright pinks, blues, lots of green.”
I agree. And I am taken back to hot summer afternoons in the ’70s driving down Samundari Road in our sky blue Cortina. On our way back from school, we glance through sweaty eyes at cinema boards featuring Heer Ranjha and Maula Jatt, Asiya dancing sensually in front of Sultan Rahi and Mustafa Qureshi with their twirling moustaches. Cinema billboards shouting at us.
By the time we get to Coit Tower, Selma wants to know more about the college project. As we relax in front of Rinaldo Cuneo’s oil-on-canvas panels entitled Bay Area Hills, she asks me, “How did it go?”
It’s one of my clearest memories of over twenty years. For me it worked really well. I imagine for my colleagues and students there must have been a similar impact.
After viewing some other murals, we head down for our coffee and the bookstore.
Later, As Selma and I walk toward our parked car, we slow down as we pass a homeless woman who’s made her bed at the entrance of an unused building.
“I wonder about her story”, says Selma, once we’re out of earshot.
If Selma returns to the City by the bay, I will take her to the exhibit dedicated to the homeless, Facing Homelessness Together, a photography installation project by Dr Eduardo Pena Dolhun.
Exhausted but enriched, we find our parked car and head home. As I weave our way through the streets of San Francisco, Selma asks me to park in a side street for a minute.
“I want to capture this last photo,” she says, pointing towards a wall that says, “And the Beat Goes On”.
So it does.
The writer is the executive director of The Writers Grotto, San Francisco and author of Wild Boar in the Canfield. She blogs at Tillism.com