Muralist community provides tours of iconic SF art

Mission street offers an array of wall to wall art. The murals offer significant meaning and history to the Mission District. Tours of the mission murals are offered on the weekends by Precita Eyes Muralists. Photo by Erica Marquez / Xpress

There are many ways to immerse yourself in the artistic culture of San Francisco but few of them give you a walking tour of that culture led by the artists themselves.

Precita Eyes is a private nonprofit organization of muralists in San Francisco. Founded in 1977 by artists Susan and Luis Cervantes and other artists, Precita Eyes has been offering walking tours of murals in the Mission for art aficionados, tourists and locals since the 1970s. The tours expose and explain many of the murals found in Balmy Alley, 24th Street, and Precita Park.

Several of the murals visited on their tours were painted by Precita Eyes artists, but the tour does not focus only on those. Patricia Rose, a tour guide and muralist for Precita Eyes, also presents and explains murals painted by fellow artists giving slight detail on their theme and inspiration.

“We’ve never focused exclusively on our own murals on the tour, they’re are all wonderful and the more there are, the more it makes the community so vibrant and so colorful,” Rose said. “And the stories are so rich, too. I want tell those rich stories, whoever painted the mural.”

The organization started at the Precita Valley Community Center as a six-week workshop to design and paint a portable mural on plywood panels for the Bernal Heights Library. After the mural was finished, Rose explained, every participant wanted to continue making community-based, collaborative works of art, so that group became the original charter members of Precita Eyes.

One of Rose’s mural tours includes a painting of the popular Aztec legend and volcanoes, Popocatéptl and Iztaccíhuatl. Rose does more than just retell the legend of the princess and warrior; she delves into the story about the development of the mural.

“I like to start out our tour right here, to give people a sense of how much murals mean to this neighborhood,” Rose said, huddling her small group of five on the corner of 24th and Harrison Streets.

She said the mural started with Gustavo, a neighborhood artist, painting the classic image of Popocatéptl and Iztaccíhuatl on Belmar La Gallinita Meat Market’s exterior wall facing Harrison Street. The mural became such a landmark, that the meat market’s owner sought Gustavo to repaint the faded image.

“People just love that mural so much that it got restored anyway, and the restoration was so wonderful that the kids who painted it were instantly asked to paint another mural,” Rose said. “And I feel that really speaks to our community’s love of these beautiful works of art.”

Since its beginnings, the organization has taken on an artistic ambition in San Francisco, offering art classes and workshops in their studio in the Mission, livening up streets from the Outer Mission to Bayview neighborhoods.

In the Bay Area, many of their murals have included community involvement, including elementary school children, San Francisco General Hospital staff and patients, and even the Google staff.

The tours offered every weekend cost $15 with discounts for SF residents, students, seniors, and children. They last between an hour-and-a-half to two hours, and are the second viable source of income for the organization, mural commissions being the main source of funding, according to tour guide Jorge Morell. Bay Area students and residents often take a tour, but most of the visitors are tourists.

Melayna Lamb, 24, and Gabriel Buine, 26, are from London and heard about Precita Eyes’ tours through Lonely Planet, the traveling guide company.

“I thought it was very interesting. I like the way it was tied into the Latin American history, as well,” Buine said.

Many of the murals throughout the Mission featured in the tour have cultural and political messages, ranging from pre-colonial ideas to current gentrification issues.

Lamb and Buine decided to take the tour because it is run by local artists and gives the opportunity for those artists to provide context to the murals in the Mission.

“Obviously in order to enjoy art, I believe you need to have context in order to actually capture the power and significance of it because it’s the details and the situation that make the paintings incredible, not always just the images themselves,” Buine said.

Other city tour agencies visit the murals in the mission, especially Balmy Alley.

When asked what distinguishes Precita Eyes tours from others, Rose explained that Precita Eyes mural tours are all led by muralists, which is something no one else can offer.

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