In the heart of the Mission District lies the most concentrated collection of murals in San Francisco. Renowned for their political import and reverential maintenance, Balmy Alley has become a destination for appreciators of street art and political culture alike.
Springing from an area of the city with a well-founded history of political activism, the murals were first painted in 1972 by a two-woman mural team who referred to themselves as the Mujeres Muralistas. Their original murals formed the foundation for Balmy Alley’s present-day incarnation, including referencing multiple Latin American countries and cultures within a single, unified visual aesthetic.
In the mid-1980s, the Balmy Alley murals morphed into a more organized and actively managed purpose. Ray Patlan convened a troupe of mural activists in 1984 to cover all the garage doors and fences running the length of the block with visual meditations on two interconnected themes: praise of indigenous Central American cultural heritage, and protest against the United States’ intervention in Central American affairs.
The group of muralists set about convincing (the mainly Latino) property owners of the viability of the idea, seeking permission to paint on pieces of their private property. After a few residents conceded the use of their back fences and gates allowing the community to experience what the finished project would resemble, Balmy Alley quickly gained momentum in the summer of 1985, during which time 27 murals were completed.
The experience of engaging with the murals in Balmy Alley is emblematic of their greater political purpose; as each mural seems more powerful for its proximity to the others than it would in isolation, the murals have the effect of mirroring a successful force of community activists.
These days Balmy Alley is a constant work in progress, with repairs from weather-related damages taking place at the same time as fresh murals are being painted atop the old. Further diversification of the topics represented in the murals has taken place, making any politicized subject fair game in addition to the original tropes of Latin American human rights.