After three years, two applications for funding, and an almost 50 percent reduction in the budget, restoration of the iconic Carnaval mural above the House of Brakes on 24th and South Van Ness streets is expected to start this month.
The mural, which some call “Golden Dreams of the Mission,” reflects the Mission’s annual Carnaval celebration. It takes place for the 36th year on Saturday and Sunday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Harrison Street.
The mural has a story that stretches across the neighborhood’s history.
Back in 1979, Lou Dematteis was simply taking pictures. He used his Nikon F2 to document the first-ever Carnaval parade that year. It was Carnaval committee member Mauricio Avilés who pushed to get a selection of the photos onto a city mural.
“I was very happy to give [Avilés] my images,” Dematteis said. “I was a big proponent of neighborhood and community art.” Thirty-one years later, “Carnaval,” showcasing real people, real establishments and the real energy of the Mission, remains—dimmer, but still very much alive—on 24th and South Van Ness.
“It’s the joy of life coming into the streets—it’s thrilling,” said Dan Fontes, one of five artists who worked on the mural with lead artist Daniel Gálvez.
With Dematteis’s photos in hand, Avilés contacted Gálvez, who then drew up a list of five other artists—Fontes, Keith Sklar, Jamie Morgan, Eduardo Pineda and Jean Shield. Over six months and on a budget of $13,000, they painted the 24-foot-high, 75-foot-wide mural that Annice Jacoby, the editor of Mission Muralismo, called an excellent example of mural realism.
To gain access to the wall that would be their “canvas,” the muralists had to insert planks above the House of Brakes to preserve the roof, leaving them no choice but to work from a swinging-stage scaffold. They learned how to use it, raising and lowering themselves and relying on “that twisty knot that saves your life,” Fontes said.
“It was a little terrifying,” said Gálvez. In fact, one of his artists stood on the scaffold for a few minutes, couldn’t take it anymore, and left the project. Before beginning the wall, Gálvez took measurements and considered the issue of the building’s three light wells. He used a high school auditorium to shoot his image onto carbon paper. After he sketched it, he rolled the drawings up, transferred them to the site and taped them to the wall.
The artists began at the top and worked their way down. They went over the image with chalk, then traced it line by line with a ballpoint pen.
Fontes calls it a clever mural. The team used architectural tricks to integrate the art with the building. That included adding planks to the top of the structure and fashioning a complex cutout of the female dancer’s arm, which stretches across the light well to create a 3D effect.
The windows are painted using the trompe l’oeil technique (depiction so realistic it gives the illusion that the object really exists). It fools the eye into thinking they are actual windows.
“The Victorian detail and architectural detail—it’s all painted,” said Patricia Rose, Precita Eyes’ tour coordinator. She also observes that few people realize the wall isn’t a Victorian until it’s pointed out. “It’s done so well that most people don’t notice.”
But that took time. “We’d go across the street, have a burrito, and beat up [how well the illusion came off] over lunch,” Fontes said. “We’d laugh about certain things, kid each other about how we got the arms or eyes wrong.”
Eventually, they got it right. “I was a photorealist painter, and I wanted my murals to have that quality,” Gálvez said. Every paint stroke had to be large enough to be seen across the street. To achieve the realistic effect, they had to always stand two feet away from the painting.
“It was worth the effort,” Gálvez said. “It was really well received.” People began to tell him how much pride they felt in the Mission. They were glad it was about a classic Latino tradition. His ambition to have the mural become a part of the fabric of people’s lives was accomplished.
Several community organizers and the artists themselves couldn’t recall much about the real people behind the sketches.
But for Richard Talavera, the Mexican Bus specialist, it was just like yesterday.
Talavera clearly remembers the larger-than-life man in the center of the mural wearing a fire-truck-red vest. Jaime Aguilar was a Muni driver and, for five years, one of the principal drivers of the Mexican Bus, a cultural tour service that began as a project for Day of the Dead in the early ’90s and still gives tours of Latin dance clubs, city murals and city history.
“He just had a way with people,” Talavera said. So much so that when he walked into a nightclub with his party, he would dance with 10 women at the same time and get them all moving. On the bus, he got additional tips for his dance moves.
“He was just this incredible, fabulous personality,” said Talavera, who credits Aguilar with much of the bus’s success. “Until this day, when people point out the bus, they don’t say ‘Mexican Bus,’ but they say ‘Jaime, Jaime,’” he said.
To the right of Aguilar, the man in the puffy orange and red jacket playing a drum has long been believed by many to be musician Jorge Molina. It doesn’t look like him, said Rose, “although it could be him when he was much younger.” Molina himself recently confirmed to Mission Local that he is indeed depicted in the mural.
The woman decked out in a silver sequined bodysuit and bejeweled headband adorned with feathers was a Brazilian dancer named Marlena, according to Dematteis. Talavera called Marlena the Greta Garbo of her day. Marlena’s thin arched eyebrows resembled Garbo’s. “She was an extremely beautiful actress.”
The older man looking out of the window is Susie Aguilar’s father, José Humberto Aguilar. Known as “Pelón” (Baldy), he owned an auto body shop on 16th Street and South Van Ness. Avilés said he would look out for the younger kids who were in trouble. Susie Aguilar said the woman next to him in the window is her half-sister’s mother, Lulu, and the man in the red shirt is her half-brother, Jaime Aguilar.
The artists used enamel paints, which didn’t hold up well in the sunlight. Because they didn’t use a strong ultraviolet protector, “it diminished in intensity by 50 percent,” Fontes said.
Because the mural is on private property, getting funding required a huge community push backed up by the property owner and the muralists. Applications for this type of project go to the Community Challenge Grant office and must be linked with a nonprofit 501(c)(3) organization. The Carnaval restoration project partnered with the Mission Housing Development Corp., which will act as the fiscal sponsor and create a budget, work plan and proposal.
Many such grants require a match component. The city granted the Carnaval project $50,000 for its project, but 25 percent of the sum must come from the community. Individuals and businesses can contribute directly, or they can supply the project with materials or equipment and write off the cost as an in-kind donation. The repainting process will take five to seven weeks to complete, Avilés estimated.
A version of this story first appeared in Mission Local on November 14, 2011, and was updated by Laura Wenus in May 2014.