There’s no need to brave icy galleries or pay steep museum fees to see awe-inspiring artwork in San Francisco. Some of the city’s most vibrant creations can unexpectedly steal your breath away on a random stroll around the block or on an outing to the corner store. In the Mission District especially, it is impossible to even step outside without seeing murals bounding from walls and artwork creeping up from the cracks in the sidewalk. Clarion Alley, nestled in the heart of the Mission, is home to one of the largest clusters of street art in the city. Virtually every surface of the alleyway is covered with murals ranging from spray-painted graffiti art to urban masterpieces and collages.
Clarion Alley was first adorned back in 1992 by a local collective of artists (CAMP: Clarion Alley Mural Project) and was originally inspired by the clustered murals in the Mission’s Balmy Alley. Balmy Alley, around since the mid-80’s, is equally as artistically impressive, featuring artists’ visual outrage to Central American human rights violations and political corruption. Walking tours of both alleys and other great Mission mural sites are available every weekend by Precita Eyes and are well worth a few extra bucks to learn the history of these hidden San Francisco landmarks.
I visit Clarion Alley often, not only for the art, but also to witness the ooh-and-aahers, the snapshot-takers, the shortcutting passersby, the vagabonds, the Mexicans on lunch break and the cute local skaterboys, all of whom are part of the sweeping one-block adventure. Authentic and unadulterated, the raw magnetism of the spot lures in spectators as colorful as the art itself.
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There is a magical energy that seems to bounce between the walls, a hum of ecstatic history and culture, and the whole visual experience is grand enough to help you forget (or at least forgive) the unsavory aroma wafting up from Mission Street. And even that scent serves as a reminder of the true spirit of public art; it is a joyful and free expression made available to everyone from the wide-eyed tourists to the teary-eyed homeless. It is a beautiful place.
And as you pop out onto Valencia Street at the end of Clarion Alley, don’t forget to stop into The Community Thrift Store for the raddest vintage thingamajiggers around. Use that change still jingling in your pocket to support over 150 charitable organizations around the Bay Area, and you may even have some left over for a taco at El Toro on the corner of Valencia and 17th. Mmmmmm….