Clarion Alley Turns 20

En Español.

It’s been said that Clarion Alley has achieved what other mural projects in the Mission District fought for. Other murals fought racism; Clarion offered wall space for artists and non-artists alike, spanning all ethnicities and generations. Other murals commented on crime; Clarion took a notoriously seedy stretch of concrete and garage doors and turned it into one of the neighborhood’s most vibrant destinations.

The Clarion Alley Mural Project (CAMP), which encompasses a chunk of street that’s approximately two blocks long and contains around 50 brightly painted murals, is celebrating its 20th anniversary on Saturday. The all-volunteer group behind the project is hosting the annual birthday block party and concert, and will unveil a handful of new murals.

“Every year the alley sort of declines all year long and gets tagged up,” said Aaron Noble, one of CAMP’s co-founders. “Then, three days before the block party, everybody gets out here and paints a new mural. So the alley just sparkles during the block party and for a month afterwards. It’s really the best time to visit the alley.”

There’s no guarantee how long murals will stay up. Some last for years, like Chuy Campusano’s turbulent black-and-white depiction of faces and fists, the last mural he painted before he died; or Mats Stromberg’s painting of ghosts “swooshing around a terrified cityscape,” which was used on the cover of the book “San Francisco Street Art” by Annice Jacoby. Others get tagged with graffiti the day of the block party. It’s all part of a constant evolution that’s as much a metaphor for the Mission District as a product of the neighborhood itself.

“Clarion Alley is one of the last bastions of true art and street culture in the Mission, from the original Mission School till now,” said Cliff Hengst, a Mission resident of 25 years who is painting for the 20th anniversary. “It’s still pretty raw and pretty exciting.”

Two other contributors this year are Aaron Noble and Ray Patlan, who are collaborating on a modern-meets-historic interpretation of Aztec imagery. Noble, who now lives in Los Angeles, helped found CAMP in 1992 along with San Francisco artist Rigo 23. Noble and Rigo lived in a former warehouse on Clarion Alley. Patlan helped start the Mission District’s iconic Balmy Alley mural project in 1984.

“Clarion wouldn’t have happened if Balmy wasn’t there. Balmy was just part of our visual urban vocabulary,” said Noble. “It was just kind of natural to apply it to this alley.”

Clarion isn’t just a destination for spectators. In past years CAMP has increasingly struggled with unapproved graffiti and tagging that covers up sanctioned murals.

“We will be more vigilant to make sure it won’t get all tagged up,” said Megan Wilson, a current CAMP organizer. “Since it’s our 20th anniversary and we’re all regrouping, we’re really excited to be more vigilant about making sure the alley is kept up.”

One of Wilson’s goals is to get the city to donate Graffiti Guard, an acrylic coating that makes it easier to remove unwanted ink and paint.

“A city is vital because people have a relationship with where they live,” said Antonio Roman-Alcala, who became involved with CAMP in the mid-2000s. “It’s not something that exists in and of itself. It’s something that has to be worked for.”

The Clarion Alley Mural Project 20th Anniversary Block Party will take place in Clarion Alley on Oct. 20, noon–9 p.m. 

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