If you’ve been to the Mission Community Market, you’ve seen it — a hyper-detailed, almost luminous image of birds and plants and animals. The mural, called “Amate Mission,” is the second in a series of murals by local artist Jet Martinez based on reinterpretations of traditional Mexican folk arts. According to Martinez, the title refers to a style of painting usually done on paper made from bark from the amate tree. The style is thought to have originated with the Otomi Indians in the state of Guerrero, but it’s now practiced by many artisans throughout Mexico.
The title has a double meaning: “Amate,” when spoken with a Central American accent, means “love yourself.” A dedication and party celebrating the mural’s completion will be held tonight between 5 and 8 p.m. Recently Martinez was kind enough to answer a few of our questions about the project.
Mission Loc@l: So what’s the story behind the mural?
ML: So has the tagging stopped now that there’s a mural?
JM: I’ve been working on this for months and it hasn’t gotten tagged. I just put the last anti-graffiti coat on it.
Normally my stuff doesn’t get tagged. A lot of murals are getting hit lately that wouldn’t get hit before. I’m one of the directors over at Clarion Alley, and a lot of stuff is getting hit down there. Things you wouldn’t expect.
ML: What would you expect to get tagged?
JM: Things that could be perceived as pretentious. Things that are perceived as not very well done. Beginner pieces. Kids’ projects, sadly.
ML: So when a piece gets tagged, what happens?
JM: The way Clarion Alley works is that if your piece gets hit, you get a call and you come down and freshen it up. If you don’t do that, it gets painted over. If you freshen it up it’s your wall for life.
But it’s amazing how often people ask me this question. It’s right up there with, “Did you paint that?”
ML: People ask you that?
JM: All the time. I’ll have the paintbrush in my hand and they’ll say, “Did you paint that?”
ML: No. The factory that painted it for me just left.
JM: I just feel that when the first thing we think of when someone is doing a mural is, “Aren’t you afraid it’s going to be tagged?” — it shows me how people’s expectations of each other are so lowered.
ML: What other questions do people ask you?
JM: A lot of people ask you what it’s about. But not a lot of people ask you what were thinking while you were painting it.
ML: So what were you thinking?
JM: I was thinking, “Thank God I’m painting this mural.” The last one I painted was so heavy. It was the reproduction of the mural they found in the Mission Dolores.
When Ben [Ben Wood, the freelance artist who, along with archaeologist Eric Blind, photographed the mural by lowering a camera behind the 18th-century altarpiece blocking it from view] approached me, I didn’t want to do it. I grew up in Mexico. I saw a lot of murals of priests saving the souls of kneeling Indians. And this mural is really about the Catholic missionaries’ oppression of the natives. They painted those hearts — the Sacred Heart of Jesus, the Sacred Heart of Mary — because that’s what the missionaries told them to do.
But my New Year’s Eve resolution was to be more open. Ben wanted me to restore the mural to what it would have been, but I didn’t want to. Huge sections were missing. To imagine what the mural would have been [would be] to put my own interpretation in it. I left the gaps.
Working with two other painters [Bunnie Reiss and Ezra Eismont] helped me remove myself a little. People would ask me, “Why are there no Native Americans working on this mural?” Because we had one Mexican-American guy, one German guy and one Jewish woman.
I thought, Native Americans were already forced to paint this once. We’re not going to make them paint it again.
ML: So what were the images in the new mural based on?
JM: These images are based on pinturas de papel amate. Amate means tree — they’re done on bark paper. They come from the state of Guerrero, but they’re totally ubiquitous. You can find them for sale in every place where tourists go.
ML: They look a little Ukrainian.
JM: They do. I actually hadn’t seen any Ukrainian art before I started, but I just saw an exhibition when I was in Alaska, and I was shocked by the similarities.
ML: Well, a lot of eastern Europeans migrated to Latin America.
JM: My last piece in the Tenderloin was based on embroidery — those patterns of flowers that you see on dresses like Frida Kahlo wore. The story of those is that the Spaniards were obsessed with Chinese silk. The native women in Mexico saw the flowers on those silks, thought “I can do that,” and replicated those flowers with their own materials.
You know, all of the Americas are a melting pot.
This time I really wanted to celebrate folk art. The parts of Mexico that don’t deal with perpetual struggle. Which is a lot of Mexico. People are living their own lives over there. Living in their own economy. I feel like…it’s OK to make something pretty. People will call that shallow. But there’s so much that’s dark right now.
ML: It’s interesting. I’m looking at this, and none of the color combinations repeat at all throughout this. Everywhere you look, it feels like a surprise.
JM: I spent so much time on this. I can see all of my moods in this thing. I can see where I was tired. I think that it looks happy because I was in a good place painting it.
I’ve been working here on this 40 or 50 hours a week. I wind up taking a hit on a lot of my public projects. It’s the work that I love the most, because it’s for everybody that walks by. And that’s my name up there. I’ll take it all the way, no matter how long it takes.
The property owner would come out while I was working and say, “This is bad for your business.” He knew how much I was getting paid. “You’re so flighty,” he said. “You need to be a better businessman.” C’mon. He shows up for work: I’m here. He leaves: I’m still here. It’s not like I’m floating down here between mushroom trips.
That’s one advantage, as a painter, of doing murals. People can see exactly how much work you put into it. Everyone I meet here — the cops, the gangsters, the grandmas, the crazy people — all of them have had good things to say. People come up to me and say, “I don’t know much about art but I love your stuff.”
You shouldn’t have to know anything about art. You should be able to connect with it. I’m trying hard to make it seem like art is a normal thing to do.
It’s important to me as a painter to be seen as a plumber. As an electrician. A specialist.
It’s not rocket science. It’s art.