After the devastating tsunami in Japan in 2011, Marina Perez-Wong painted a mural in San Francisco depicting koi swimming in turbulent waters. As she packed up for the day, she noticed a woman kneeling in front of the art.
“I thought she was going to graffiti on my wall and I was really upset because it was supposed to be a healing mural,” she recalls. “Then I looked at her face and realized that she was crying. She left something in front of it – she was Japanese and I could tell that she had a different vibration than other people. That will always touch me.”
That is the power of good mural painting. And the Bay Area has tons, thanks to a thriving and barrier-breaking muralist community that spans generations. Rest assured that paintbrushes and spray cans are swept across walls every day – in San Francisco, Oakland, San Jose and far beyond.
How does one get drawn into this field? It goes back to a scary childhood for Perez-Wong, who runs the Twin Walls Mural Company with his partner Elaine Chu.
“I had a rare cancer as a child and spent the first five years of my life mostly in the hospital,” she says, where the walls were sterile white or gray. “But then I came home to the mission and there was all this color and vibrancy. The murals that struck me the most were those told by women, especially Chicana women, or stories by people from Latin America.” (She’s still battling cancer; support her GoFundMe here.)
As it turned out, the mission played a crucial role in the development of modern murals. Murals from the New Deal period once dominated the city; Often located in buildings, they depicted historical scenes that ignored the complexities of society. (One at Coit Tower celebrated what California is most famous for, an all-white agricultural workforce.)
“People could see them while they were in line to pay a ticket or get a fine or whatever,” says Tim Drescher, a historian of murals at Berkeley. “The difference happened in the late 1960s. It was a product of the politicization of our lives. And people suddenly realized that they could paint outside, so they started painting outside.”
Artists in the mission — many of them Latinos carrying on traditions they saw in their homelands — led the charge with “community murals” that grappled with politics and identity. An influential group in the 1970s were Las Mujeres Muralistas, made up of local women who were fed up with sexism in the mural community.
“Back then it wasn’t for women – they didn’t go out and paint murals,” says Drescher. “It was banned at all levels, not the least of which was families. These women were very brave to go out and paint, despite what their parents had forbidden them to do.”
Perez-Wong and Chu were mentored by an artist who has worked with Las Mujeres Muralistas — Susan Cervantes of the Precita Eyes organization in San Francisco — and credit her and other women in their lives for their motivation.
“In a lot of our murals, we have this theme of badass women and non-binary people,” says Perez-Wong. “We cannot help it, because we must give a voice to those who came before us and paved the way, but also to the generation to come.”
In San Jose, you’ll find a large mural depicting another powerful woman, the late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, by the side of a high-rise building by Stanford artist and biomedical engineer Chuba Oyolu.
“We wanted something that everyone in San Jose could look up to as a beacon of hope,” he says. “We started pushing around characters like Einstein and Steve Jobs from the Bay Area. But RGB has done so much and is really an inspirational figure, and I don’t think there are many murals in the world with inspirational female figures, so I wanted to give her a big shout out.”
It took Oyolu a month to apply the mural using modern methods. But he was drawn to the craft by someone without such magic: Michelangelo. “I’m really impressed by how he managed to create these spectacular works of art all those years ago when there weren’t cranes, electricity or the conveniences we have today.”
One of the most defining moments for murals only came in 2020 after the police murder of George Floyd. Tens of thousands of murals have been painted for Black Lives Matters around the world, with celebrities featured throughout Oakland. (You can find them in a new book from Nomadic Press, Painting the Streets: Oakland Uprising in the Time of Rebellion.)
“I remember being downtown the first night the riots started and then driving through the next day and seeing people starting to paint,” says Rachel Wolfe-Goldsmith, creative director of the Bay Area Mural Program . “I think we’ve just processed so much pain collectively that we’re expressing ourselves that way as artists and getting our voice out there.”
Art literally popped up on the streets of downtown Oakland, with a huge Black Lives Matter street mural on 15th Street. Despite the sanctions, the case caught the attention of authorities, says Wolfe-Goldsmith.
“The police came in an unmarked van and stole all of their paint and drove it to the police station.” The mural organizers followed them to complain. “They brushed it off like they weren’t doing anything, returning the color.”
There was an explosion of fresh paintings on plywood that companies had hastily affixed over their windows and doors to prevent property damage. “The plywood was ugly, and paintings were better than that,” says Wolfe-Goldsmith. “So it seemed like a no-brainer.”
DeVante Brooks is a West Oakland-based artist collaborating with AeroSoul, an international collective with ties to the Black Panther Party. During that controversial summer, he helped paint a mural at the Oakland Greyhound Station with a quote from Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale’s 10-point program: “We want an immediate end to police brutality and the murder of black people.”
“It was a lot of personal growth for me around that time to take that leap into being a full-time artist,” says Brooks. “The work addresses larger issues like homelessness and police brutality, but also spoke to me on a personal level about the potential and ability to produce with a message that goes beyond something that’s just aesthetically pleasing.”
For her part, Wolfe-Goldsmith created a mural on the side of the Tribune Tower in Oakland depicting a woman performing traditional African dance moves.
“For me, being of multiracial and black heritage, everyone has been through so much in this time — with the pandemic and then doubly with everything else, it’s been a space to declare joy and passion,” she says. “It became this energetic hub for people to stop by and take a break from all the madness that was going on.”
It is in the nature of art that these murals all disappear at some point – painted over, destroyed, eaten away by the weather. With any luck, they inspired people during their moment in public.
“Sometimes it feels pointless to be standing on a ladder with a paintbrush and thinking Am I really doing something?‘ says Wolfe-Goldsmith. “But you see people walking by and literally start screaming with excitement and validation when you see a story being told or their aunt or the story of the Black Panther Party. They realize it really matters and really impacts the collective consciousness of our spaces.”