San Francisco is a colourful city, besides doing all the touristy things, there is a lot of art to be seen along the streets throughout the city. For the street art lovers, here are a couple of spots to visit with a high concentration of murals and graffiti.
As usual, here’s a helpful Google Map if you are going to be walking those streets. You can also use Google street view to check out the lanes even if you aren’t going to be in San Francisco anytime soon – the works may be ever changing but it gives you the sense of the areas to check out. San Francisco Mural Arts is also a pretty good resource to check out.
Haight and Ashbury is apparently the birthplace of San Francisco’s hippie free-spirited culture back in the 70’s. Today, Haight street still retains some of this flair – there are a surprising number of ‘Tibetan’ or shops tinged with some sort of mysticism amidst the increasing number of hipster mainstream shops and food outlets. You can find various artworks in the stretch from the junctions of Stanyan Street to Central Avenue where the shops are – the rest of Haight street from Buena Vista park and beyond is mostly residential with no art work on the walls.
This street cuts right through the Mission district, it does feel like you have suddenly been transported to Latin America because of the very strong Hispanic culture in this area, from shop signs and food options, to all the Spanish you hear spoken around you. Precita Eyes Muralists (PEM) is found along this street (more about them below) and are responsible for a large portion of the murals that you will see in this area. I mostly explored the stretch from Potrero Street to Mission Street – there are several smaller adjacent alleys that are chockfull of art as well listed below.
This little alley is famous for murals and many of these pieces have been there for a long, long time – since the 1970s! The murals are largely painted by PEM and have a social slant to both their message and the execution. It even has its own dedicated webspace here: balmyalley.com
A lot more graffiti style artwork can be found along this quiet alleyway between 24th and 25th street, emblazoned on the back walls of the houses that line this alleyway. It was surprisingly quiet when I was there. Make sure you check out the car park area around the 24th street junction where there are more works as well.
Two streets down from Cypress Alley is Lilac Alley, you’ll find more graffiti style works here too.
Just a bit further down from Lilac Alley – unfortunately I was running low on time so I didn’t have time to check this street out, but from the brief look I got, lots of graffiti style art here too!
El Capitan on Mission Street
I chanced upon this while walking down Mission Street between 19th and 20th streets – what looked like a fancy old movie theatre actually leads to a carpark in the back and its walls are covered with graffiti.
Not far from the Mission Dolores Park and located between Mission Street and Valencia Street is Clarion Alley. The Clarion Alley Mural Project was kickstarted in 1992 and inspired by the success of the murals along Balmy Alley. The art here is a mix of murals and street art, though they all carry very strong social messages. This alley saw quite a lot of tourists!
I saw this on the bus en route to the Golden Gate Bridge area at the junction of Turk Street and Taylor Street. Note that it is near the Tenderloin, which is notoriously quite a dodgy area – I was warned several times online and offline not to go wandering around in there even during the day, so just make sure you exercise a little caution.
I signed up for two walking tours to get a sense of the city’s street art:
Precita Eyes Muralists
They have a long history of creating murals in the Mission district of San Francisco and conduct a mural tour at 130pm on Saturdays and Sundays. The front bit of the tour is quite a long slideshow presentation on various murals in SFO’s history. While I appreciate getting some of that background, I wish that some of the actual mural explanation happened on the tour itself rather than in a dark room right at the beginning and you barely have any context. The second half involves walking around to see the various murals around the area, where you get to see some of these murals in real life, and we even saw artists at work while on the tour.
This group also comes from a very specific point of view of creating sanctioned murals versus unsanctioned graffiti, and there is a lot of focus on social messages, community building and participation – anytime there was some youth participation my tour guide’s face would light up – which is a bit difference from other street art tours I’ve been on that lean more towards the graffiti/street culture.
1am graffiti walking tour
Sadly this was cancelled because of lack of participants on that particular day. I would have liked to have seen how this compared to the muralists point of view!
Looking for more street art? I have guides on where to find street art in Asia, Europe and the Americas.
Fly nonstop from Singapore to San Francisco with United Airlines. Go direct to USA in less than 16 hours on the new Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner – read my review of the flight here. Thanks to United Airlines for sponsoring my trip to San Francisco.