When Carlos Gonzalez, a San Francisco Mission native and muralist, first heard that a man named Dick Evans wanted to make a photography book about murals in the Mission, he wasn’t immediately on board.
“I’ve been through experiences before where people come, pick our brains, and then kind of use and abuse us and misrepresent what we say,” says Gonzalez, “so I was a little skeptical.”
Four years later, though, Gonzalez couldn’t be happier with Mission, Evans' finished product recently released by Heyday Books.
“Many people from the neighborhood would be really proud to have that book on their coffee table and brag about it, because that’s the essence of the neighborhood in the book,” says Gonzalez. “I mean, not only did he cover the murals, but he captured the culture. You can actually smell the carnitas and the fresh pan dulce.”
Community murals in general — but especially murals in San Francisco's Mission District — occupy complicated and slippery cultural terrain. Initially a community-led method of beautification for a neighborhood neglected by local government, the Mission District’s fantastically rich display of murals has also become one of the characteristics drawing newcomers — and, in turn, contributing to the ongoing displacement of primarily Latino families who have resided in the area for decades. (Gonzalez himself was priced out and now lives in San Bruno.) The vibrant visibility of the murals makes them simultaneously empowering and co-optable. Capturing them in a coffee table book only adds another layer of vulnerability.
Mission, however, isn’t some anthropological catalogue. The brightly saturated hardcover book offers close-ups of artistry in the murals as well as more contextual shots of the paintings’ true use as backdrop to urban life. In many, pedestrians walk through the frame, their sneakers and jackets adding pops of color that juxtapose the palettes of the walls. Meanwhile, fruit markets, restaurant signs, and events such as Carnivale offer their own kind of color.
Mission is not Evans’ first photography book. In 2011, he published San Francisco and the Bay Area: The Haight-Ashbury Edition, which focused on murals along San Francisco’s famous Haight Street. But, as soon as he began Mission, he realized this book would be much more complicated. “The murals in the Mission are inherently much more political,” he says.
He also decided early on that he wanted to use the project to raise funds for a local institution. The obvious choice was Precita Eyes, a long-running community-based mural organization that’s key to the area's heart and soul. Profits from the book will support the organization.
A close look at the murals of the Mission also offers a visualized social history of the area. Evans' book begins with a portrait of Ohlone descendant and writer Vincent Medina in front of “Mission Dolores Mural,” a public recreation of the mural that sits behind the altar in the famous Mission Dolores, originally painted by Ohlone artists during the late 18th century. In the time since Evans took the photo, the mural was torn down due to fire damage on the building.
Mission goes on to include murals painted in protest of U.S. involvement in Central American civil wars in the 1970s, murals demanding justice for laborers and all people of color, Black Panther murals, LGBTQ-centric murals, anti-police brutality murals, and murals about gentrification.
But rather than offering historical background for the paintings, Mission is instead punctuated with poems, statements, and interview excerpts from artists, activists, and residents who call the neighborhood home. These were collected by muralist and tenant’s rights activist Carla Wojczuk, whom Precita Eyes co-founder Susan Cervantes asked to act as a community liaison for the project. Wojczuk says the inclusions are important because they ensure the book is not only “for the community, but also by the community.”
Among those elongated captions are many statements by artist Juana Alicia, who painted La Llorona’s Sacred Waters on York and 24th Streets — a dynamic narrative rendered in blue and red that’s one of the most admired murals in the Mission today. “Every time I emerge from the guts of the 24th Street BART Station, with its tamale vendors, sidewalk musicians, drunks, junkies, bible-thumpers, hipsters on their way to Noe Valley or their new Mission condos, and political organizers, I feel reborn, like I have arrived,” reads one of Alicia’s contributions. “It’s the same way I feel in the Zócalo in Mexico City, where 500 years of history are on decade-by-decade display. I am mesmerized and absorbed, and could draw there for days at a time.”
In his photographer’s statement, Evans writes that he intentionally aimed not to politicize any of the content in the book or the cultural shifts in the area. Simply, the goal was to document and let the images speak for themselves. That decision is largely what makes the collection interesting — because it leaves room for all the slippery and chaotic cultural collisions that make the Mission what it is today.
Rather than the typical dry opener one might expect, Mission begins with a gorgeous poem by U.S. poet laureate Juan Felipe Herrera — who is Mission-raised. Then comes the introduction, a personal essay by Wojczuk that ultimately does offer some radically upfront political positioning that one might only find in a coffee table book published by Berkeley’s conscientious Heyday Books.
“The Mission is tangled in myriad strands of history, but the purpose of this book is not to offer up an archeological or architectural scavenger hunt,” writes Wojczuk. “The demographics of the Mission are changing rapidly and often traumatically, but we are not here to fetishize a settler/colonial mentality, nor do we attempt to satisfy progressive dying-culture savior mentalities.
“This is a record of a history that lies in the present: contested, dynamic, and made by many forces.”
A launch event for 'Mission' takes place at Gray Area (2665 Mission St., San Francisco) on Thursday, April 13, at 6pm. See here for more details.
For arts stories you won’t read anywhere else, come to KQED’s Arts and Culture desk.