Even if you don’t live in the Mission or consider yourself artistic, Precita Eyes Mural Arts Center has most likely touched your life.

What started as a free mural-painting class has become the group of artists behind hundreds of iconic murals throughout the city and world, a steward for maintaining and educating the public about mural arts and a hub for the next generation of artists.

Precita Eyes celebrates its 40th anniversary with a gala tonight.

Becoming a leader in the city’s public arts scene was never explicitly the plan, said founder Susan Kelk Cervantes. It just sort of happened organically.

“My husband and I moved to Precita Park in 1969, 1970, and we had our first son. And I was just looking around to see what there was for children to do in the neighborhood,” Cervantes said.

She decided to take on the the task of creating something. She first started an arts class for preschool-aged children. Already having 12 years as a painter under her belt, she sought out other opportunities to ply her craft, eventually coming into contact with the Mujeres Muralistas, or women muralists, who were pioneering mural work in the Mission.

Watching the women at their work on the scaffolding, she said, was “just amazing. I would go watch them every day … I just thought that the way they worked collaboratively was an amazing process.”

Eventually she was offered a chance to join in, and did so. From there, she started working on other murals around the neighborhood and leading a mural-arts workshop for adults near Precita Park.

Upon completing one such workshop, with a mural on a series of panels, the group found itself at a loss for how to sign it — there was no one person who should take credit. So they signed it with the name now carried by the organization, named after their location and the eyes that allowed them to visualize their work as it took shape.

“We didn’t know at that time it was going to last for 40 years,” Cervantes said.

Precita Eyes Mural Arts Center founder Susan Kelk Cervantes at a public hearing. Photo by Lola M. Chavez.

In recent years, the group has become the go-to for schools, hospitals, nonprofits and other groups seeking murals for their blank and dreary walls. Others who seek their help are owners of walls with murals that need upkeep or restoration.

Recently, it restored the mural by Carlos Loarca that adorns the Mission Cultural Center for Latino Arts.

Carlos Loarca working on restoring his mural on the MCCLA building. Photo by Lola M. Chavez.

For staff member Max Martilla, an artist by training who started volunteering at Precita Eyes in 2009, the organization is an educational institution. Youth come and learn the collaborative process of mural painting, but the learning is not limited to young people — adults take classes or go on tours to learn the history of murals. Staff and volunteers also gain new understanding of the community work that goes into creating and preserving murals.

“The youth that we work with will someday replace me, and just kind of pass the torch, and pass the knowledge … it’s technical, but it’s also a personal and community thing too, all sorts of different knowledges go into it,” Martilla said.

Being out on the street and creating public art means Precita Eyes painters are much more approachable than a studio artist working in private, a role the group takes quite seriously.

“Getting an opportunity to see artists outside actually creating something in space has changed people’s perception of an artist,” Cervantes said. “And, of course, as a public community artist you have to be able to talk to people. They want to ask you about what we’re doing: ‘What is the theme, what do these symbols mean that we’re painting?’ So you have to be really sensitive to the community that you’re performing in front of.”

Mission artist Dogpaw Carrillo, while long a practicing artist in the neighborhood, has just in the last year begun leading tours for Precita Eyes.

Modern Times Bookstore Collective on 24th Street, 2013.

A new Precita Eyes mural. Photo by Ben Glenn.

“It’s interesting, because it’s not about just the murals, it’s the history of the area, throughout the decades,” Carrillo said. “We get spoiled, and this is one of those situations where you once thought that there was a Fantasy Records on every block and a Precita Eyes in every town. No, not really!”

Connecting visitors and neighbors with the history that the murals offer, often in many layers of symbolism that capture political and social movements of bygone eras, is one element of Precita Eyes’ work. But the organization also has a strong focus on allowing for a contemporary expression of what will become the next decades’ history.

“The murals we paint now,” said Martilla, “will be seen as a historical thing, a time capsule of where we’re at right now.”

So Precita emphasizes offering young people a voice, a chance for their work to be displayed publicly.

Cervantes says it gives them “a voice and ownership of cultural space” and adds, “there’s not that many opportunities that they have to do that.”  

In one recent instance, Precita Eyes stepped in when a business owner new to 24th Street commissioned a mural that covered up an existing work that had been done by young people with the Precita Eyes program. After a tense afternoon confrontation on the street, and several meetings to negotiate, an agreement was reached, and young artists with the program have painted a fresh mural in place of the old one that includes local themes and image they chose. 

Working with others on murals, leading youth projects, being out in public working in diverse communities, Martilla said, means the artists have to find common ground.

“Sometimes there’s drama that goes along with it, or people want something a different way, and then when all that gets resolved … it makes it that much more beautiful and it makes the work that much stronger,” Martilla said.

Precita Eyes mural painted over on 24th and Folsom. Photo by Lola M. Chavez.

“La Cultura Cura” by Precita Eyes youth muralists, which has been painted on 24th Street near Folsom Street.

Detail of “La Cultura Cura” mural on 24th Street near Folsom Street.