In the Bay Area, art is all around you; it's simply a matter of knowing where to look. While galleries and museums rightfully boast about their summer shows, you don’t necessarily have to step foot in a gallery in order to see (and shoot) some impressive art.
From the iconic masterworks to hidden gems, here’s your guide to snapping the best public art in the Bay Area.
Calle 24 Latino Cultural District
We’d be remiss if we didn't start in the heart of San Francisco’s longstanding muralista community for our public art round-up. The Mission District murals — particularly along 24th Street and the Latino Cultural District — serve as San Francisco’s cultural archivists. As recent threats attempt to censor, destroy and literally whitewash some of the Mission’s iconic murals, exciting new movements within the community resist with paintbrushes, spray cans and creativity. Keep your eyes peeled for the work of Precita Eyes Muralists, Mel Waters, Laura Campos, Eli Lippert and Marina Perez-Wong.
Playa to Paseo at Plaza de Cesar Chavez
Ever wanted to see the grandeur of Burning Man art without going out to Black Rock City? A three-year partnership between the city of San Jose and Burning Man brings massive weatherworn sculptures from the playa to the streets of San Jose. Since Fall of 2017, San Jose’s rotation of works includes Sonic Runway, a light-art installation that “visualizes the speed of sound;” Ursa Mater, a 14-foot sculpture of a mother bear and cubs made out of 200,000 pennies; and Tara Mechani, a 15-foot-tall metal female Bodhisattva by Dana Albany. Each sculpture is on display temporarily — just one to three months — so keep coming back and continue to be surprised.
SoMa Street Art
Ground zero for much of the city’s tech chaos, SoMa maintains its creative energy with new work from both local and international artists. Keep your eyes peeled for jaw-dropping blooms by Jet Martinez, vivid sheroes by Agana, monochromatic musings of Zio Ziegler, and portraits of resistance by Jess Sabogal.
'Free To See' at San Francisco Museum of Modern Art
The secret’s out. From coral red bathrooms to five floors of rotating exhibitions, SFMOMA has solidified its reputation as an Instagrammer’s paradise. But while many patrons breeze by the first two floors in a rush up to the hottest new shows, they miss an art-filled playground for a photographer with a keen eye. High above the grand staircase at the museum’s third street entrance, you can stand face-to-face with the first-largest painting ever installed since the museum re-opened — an 80-foot-long, 20-foot-high, two-panel mural by Julie Mehretu. Then wander through a seemingly endless spiral of San Francisco artist Richard Serra’s Sequence. And on your way out, don’t overlook the vibrant Play Sculpture by Isamu Noguchi.
Diego Rivera's Hidden San Francisco Murals
There’s no need to jet-set off to an international destination to get a slice of art history, because San Francisco houses three hidden murals painted by the iconic Mexican muralist Diego Rivera. Tucked away in the Diego Rivera Theatre lobby at City College of San Francisco stands the massive Pan American Unity Mural — the largest mural Rivera ever created. By 2020, SFMOMA will move the 10-panel work into a free streetside gallery as the centerpiece of an exhibition dedicated to the legendary artist. The sheer scale and history of all three works are bound to satiate any art-hungry photographer.
Murals of Oakland: Downtown and Jack London District
Oakland heroes and heroines emerge from under overpasses and brighten concrete corners of "The Town." Themes of representation, resistance and beauty can be found spanning across sidewalks all over Oakland, providing momentary respite from the realities of its ongoing gentrification. Spend an afternoon perusing the (arguably) largest list of Oakland’s street art maintained by Oakland Wiki, or take a walking tour of some of Oakland’s newest murals by featuring the work of Los Pobres Artistas, Trust Your Struggle, Creative Shields (aka Lower Bottoms Collective) and others.
di Rosa's Sculpture Garden
With over dozens of objects along a long trail on the rolling hills of wine country, di Rosa's Outdoor Sculpture Tour surprises the eager photographer at every turn. Mark di Suvero’s For Veroniva rises like a rubescent monument, while Gordon Huether’s aluminum Yucca cuts through the soil like an offering to supernatural beings. And full disclosure, the di Rosa Outdoor Sculpture Tour isn’t quite “free, public art,” but supporting an arts organization that served as a refuge for the community after the North Bay fires should be considered $15 well spent.