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Street of Dreams 

Balmy Alley continuously reinvents itself with murals

Wednesday, Jun 5 1996
Rigo slides a ladder against the rear wall of the house. The ladder, like his faded sweat shirt, pants, and shoes, is spattered with paint. A native of Portugal, Rigo immigrated to San Francisco in 1985 and quickly established himself as an innovative artist through bold street-sign murals. He signs his work "Rigo 96," his surname, like his art, changing with the new year.

For this mural, Rigo is collaborating with Ray Patlan and Caroline Castano. Patlan stands beside Rigo holding a glass of red wine and his squirming dachshund. He has lived in the Bay Area since 1975, when he taught Chicano studies at the University of California at Berkeley. His 1984 mural of three women strolling to the market, Camino al Mercado, is a few feet behind them on the fence of another house.

Castano, a student at the San Francisco Art Institute, sits on the damp sidewalk, watching Rigo measure the wall. A sketch pad balanced against her knees reveals a scaled-down rendering of the mural the three artists are creating: a celebration of the 100-year anniversary of Mexican cinema, replete with posturing actors, pink ballerinas, cocky comedians, and unraveling strips of film.

Just another mural in the making on Balmy Alley.
Tucked away in the heart of the Mission District, Balmy Alley is a narrow, garbage-strewn street that maintains one of the most concentrated collections of murals anywhere in the city. Serpents spit fire and Muni buses soar above brilliant rainbows. The alley splashes across fences, garages, and houses, bouncing wildly under the sun.

"I had never seen anything like it," Rigo says. "I was just cruising the Mission and there it was. A street claimed totally by art. It was amazing."

Squeezed between Harrison and Folsom at 24th Street, Balmy Alley initiated the muralist movement in San Francisco in 1971, when the Galleria de la Raza organized a mural project for children there. Local artists assisted the children and contributed work of their own.

"It was incredibly challenging," recalls Irene Perez, one of the participating muralists. "I had never painted from a ladder before. We had no scaffolding to sit on. I had to work around a mechanic and a garage door that was constantly opening and closing."

But, Perez says, the result was worth the effort.
"Murals are for everybody," she says. "They are out in the open for all to see, a real collaboration of artist and community. There is nothing like it."

Or, as Rigo says, "Murals re-create the character of a small town in the heart of the city."

The alley really took off in 1984 when 36 local artists coordinated the painting of 25 murals protesting U.S. intervention in Central America. Known as the Placa -- a slang expression meaning "the people's sign" -- these worn and splintered murals dominate the alley to this day.

One of the most powerful is on a red garage door in the center of the street. Two white hands appear beneath a GUARDIA NACIONAL sign; they are frightening reminders of right-wing Salvadoran death squads that left their marks on homes they had raided.

Tragic images, however, are offset by vibrant expressions of resistance and celebration: women learning to read, shimmering beaches, baskets of corn, colorful blankets, and tropical forests.

A mural pitting the wind against the sun captures the spirit of the Placa. The wind challenges the sun: Which can get a man's coat off first? The wind blows and blows, trying to force the man's jacket off, but when the sun warms him, he takes it off himself.

Recent murals have emphasized community concerns such as gang violence, the topic of Rigo's first mural in the alley.

For that mural Rigo depicted a young boy sprawled across a sidewalk spraying thick lines of paint from an aerosol can.

The can is red, but the paint coming out of it is yellow.
"The paint is all wrong," Rigo explains. "It's mixing the colors of opposing gangs, bringing them together. Let's paint with color, not shoot for color."

Since the mid-1980s, new murals have cropped up in the alley year after year, earning the street an international reputation.

Susan Cervantes, executive director of the nonprofit Precita Eyes Mural Arts Center, says 4,000 tourists included Balmy Alley in their walks of the city last year.

"People are drawn to the alley because it is historical and constantly changing," says Cervantes. The center offers weekly tours by experienced muralists for as little as $4.

"Community art is not permanent," explains Cervantes. "Panels are removed or painted over as the issues affecting the community change."

New projects include an AIDS wall, to be created this summer by children who have lost family members to the epidemic.

"The alley is a kind of metaphor," says East Bay muralist Miranda Bergman, "an expression of continuous renewal. Here was this neglected, funky alley. With paint we changed it into an outdoor gallery. It shows our ability to rise above adversity and transform our environment.

About The Author

Malcolm Garcia


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