Wedged conveniently between Mission and Valencia streets, Clarion Alley has long been the street-art center of San Francisco. Its tenth-of-a-mile stretch is narrow and one-way; only one car at a time can squeeze between its paint-covered walls. At one end, a six-foot-tall, comic-book-style panel describes how Narcan reverses overdoses. At the other, two young teenage lovers who died in each other arms in the Ghost Ship fire are immortalized in paint.
The rotating series of work always manages to be politically or socially relevant to the times, with a touch of whimsy thrown in. Stop by any summer afternoon, and it’s sure to be full of throngs of tourists, taking selfies and slowly wandering its length. Clarion Alley, over the years, has become one of San Francisco’s most beloved treasures, a mouthpiece for the disenfranchised, a barometer of our city’s issues. (See our November 2016 profile here.)
But it’s not the first mural alley in the Mission District. Long before artists taped off panels for carefully curated murals on Clarion Alley, they were letting loose a little more than a mile away, on Balmy Alley near 24th Street.
Depending on who you ask, Balmy Alley got its start as a destination for political artists to showcase their work in the early 1970s. As the story goes, an underwater jungle scene was one of the first pieces to appear, after artists Patricia Rodriguez and Graciela Carillo rented an apartment off the alley, and used a blank wall as a canvas. The project was so fun that they opened up their group, calling it Las Mujeres Muralistas. In 1973, member Irene Perez christened the alley with one of her own pieces, of two back-to-back figures painting flutes.
That early work, created at the rise of the Chicano/a movement, set the stage for Balmy to become a canvas for Latinx artists to share their mythology, stories of immigration, and cultural backstories.
The second wave of murals to hit Balmy Alley happened in the mid-1980s, as part of a coordinated art project to celebrate indigenous Central-American culture. In that period, Balmy Alley saw several murals go up depicting the Nicaraguan revolution and the Guatemalan civil war. The alley began to fill up with work, and people began to take notice.
In 1993, Clarion alley residents Aaron Noble and Rigo 93 were frustrated with their street. Back then, it was not a great place to hang out.
“The alley itself was narrow and had a slight hill, and since it fell under the maintenance of heaven-knows-who, it was host to the typical misadventures one might expect,” wrote artist Julie Murray, who was one of the first artists to paint Clarion. “It also had the smelliest run-off I have ever encountered, which left oddly hued stains in great swaths spilling out at the Mission Street exit following any rainfall. It had perhaps more than the usual amount of shady activity since not only was it open at both ends.”
In an attempt to revive the street, Noble and Rigo 93 recruited 40 artists to fill it with work. They held their noses and got to work, and Clarion Alley hasn’t had a blank wall since.
Although it was no doubt inspired by Balmy Alley, Clarion’s popularity has taken off. It’s in guidebooks and tourist websites, and it’s a popular stop for walking tours. Two years ago, a large internet archive was created at clarionalleymuralproject.org, documenting the work that’s appeared on the walls throughout the decades.
Meanwhile, Balmy Alley has stayed true to its origins. Less diverse in subject matter than Clarion, it continues to lift up the voices of Latinx people fighting for acceptance in a country that still doesn’t accept them.
But within that there is still room for controversy.
“We weren’t doing soldiers with guns, weren’t doing revolutionary figures,” artist Rodriguez said in an interview several years ago. “We were painting women. Women in the marketplace, women breastfeeding, women doing art. People got really angry that we were doing that. ‘How could you do this when there’s so much going on?’ but we were saying that being a woman is a revolution in society.”
Today, everywhere one turns in Balmy Alley is full of women, painted on garage doors, small pieces of fence posts, or wheat-pasted onto brick walls. Whether or not it was intentional, the artists of Balmy Alley have continued to pay tribute to the early days of Mujeres Muralistas.
See more of SF Weekly‘s alleys issue:
San Francisco Is a City of Alleys — But What Qualifies, Exactly?
Staunchly opposed to highways and relatively free of grand boulevards, San Francisco is a city of narrow streets.
The Comprehensive Guide to San Francisco’s Alleys
From the gorgeous to the hideous to the absolutely inexplicable, we scoured the city by foot and on bikes to document hundreds of alleys, side streets, and lanes.