The Walks of Life mural painted by Alison Oksner. Photo by Abraham Rodriguez.

Update 3:40 p.m.: Alison Oksner responded to messages sent via Instagram, saying that the building’s owner hired a painter to cover the original mural on northeastern end of Clarion Alley after it fell victim to graffiti. According to Oskner, a man named Bill was hired to paint over graffiti that had vandalized the original mural and provided the primer layer of paint. She began to paint the mural only after the old mural was covered up by owners.

“I would truly never paint over another artist’s work intentionally,” she wrote.

Earlier this month, Alison Oksner, an out-of-towner and, some would say, free spirit, began painting a mural honoring local homeless residents. Unfortunately, the owner of the building — located toward the middle of Clarion Alley — failed to approve.

Undeterred, Oksner moved last week to the far northeast corner, where the alley ends at Mission Street. After getting permission from the owner of 2118 Mission St., she resumed her work, she said. Mission Local first noticed her there on August 24.

This week, she finished her Walks of Life project, and that, too, will soon be painted over.

Oksner, whose website describes her as a 2018 graduate of George Washington University and still a resident of Washington D.C., said she did not seek permission from the Clarion Alley Mural Project, which oversees art on the alley. She only communicated with the mural project, known as CAMP, after she began painting her mural.

That, it turns out, was a mistake, says CAMP co-director Megan Wilson, who described Oksner in an e-mail: “she sounds like a self-absorbed burner who happened to be blowing through SF on her way to Burning Man and wanted to paint a mural in Clarion Alley.”  

Camp said Oksner painted over a mural by the artist Mel Waters. His Cesar Chavez mural was only recently added, Wilson said, and followed another mural that Waters made in memory of two lovers who died in the Ghost Ship fire.  

So, regardless of whether she wants to describe her work as being about the community — she clearly has no respect for the community that she is not from and that her need to paint HER mural was more important than actually connecting with the community to get permission,” Wilson said in an email.

Elisa Khan, the owner of the building, said Oskner had her permission. The earlier mural, she said, was covered in graffiti, and her maintenance worker painted over it because they feared getting a ticket for graffiti.

Oksner described the mural application process as “blurry,” but said that she did receive permission from the owner at 2118 Mission St.

When CAMP adds new murals to the alley, it asks for applications or directly contacts artists it wants for a mural. The organization has contractual agreements with property owners along Clarion Alley that allow the group to curate and preserve the artwork there. Whenever a mural is vandalized, CAMP is notified and the original artist is notified, so that they can repair the damage. It’s unclear how Oksner worked for more than a week on the mural without CAMP stopping her.

Oksner’s project began, she said, when Tyrone Butler, a homeless resident, suggested that she put him in a mural and help tell his story. Butler made the suggestion after Oksner offered to do a hand-drawn portrait of him on a spot she had set up at 17th and Mission, doing paid portraits.

Walks of Life features Butler on the far left of the mural, with the words, “My name is Tyrone and this is the walk of my life. This is where I chose to tell my story of my life. I’ve been here since 1972 and these are my friends and this is a place where you can share your story.”

Others are depicted standing in an alley reminiscent of the real Clarion Alley.

In the email, Wilson said CAMP would be painting over Walks of Life soon.

Oskner, who may have left town, did not return calls.  

We spoke with a few of the people depicted in the mural.

Photo by Abraham Rodriguez.

“I’m tired of holding stuff in”

Tyrone Butler, the first man in the far left of the mural, said his family moved to San Francisco from New Orleans when he was nine. The family moved around the city, first living with an aunt in Sunnydale and then moving to the Double Rock Projects in Bayview. As a kid, he spent a lot of time in the Mission. But in his teens, Butler spent a lot of time in and out of jail. By the time he was in his 20s, he had matriculated to prison.

In prison, he kept to himself, avoided the gangs and found Islam, he said. Shortly after being released at age 31, Butler was sleeping on the streets. His luck changed, he said, and Butler met his wife-to-be and later moved to Las Vegas. Things went sour for Butler after he found out his mother was dying. Soon after he returned to the city to bury his mother, his wife passed away.

Again, Butler was on the streets.

“I still feel good, because I know God has my back,” Butler said. “I know people who love me have my back. I know that I can speak now and not hold anything back.”

He looks at the half finished mural and studies it as a crowd gathers around Oksner, watching her paint.

“That’s why I call this the Walk of Life. The walk of my life, and how I was happy in the good parts, and how I was in the bad parts.”

Photo by Abraham Rodriguez.

“My name is Jose, and I’m Cuban.”

Jose Calderon, 67, depicted on the far right of mural, was born in Havana and learned to play musical instruments when he was young. While working for a meat company in Cuba, he joined an employee band that played folkloric music. It was then, he said, that he really learned to love playing.  

His time at the meat company left him with back injuries that continue to limit his mobility.

“I’m one of the Marielitas,” he said, referring to the thousands of Cubans that left Port Mariel in Cuba back in the 1980s.

Calderon learned English at night school. Nowadays, he lives in nearby low-income housing and spends his days playing music with his friend David Soriano.

His daily dress is inspired by AfroCuban traditions. The straw hat he holds, he said, was a gift from an old friend and, when he wanted a mask to wear while playing small congas, he glued the hat and the mask together. Fortunately for Calderon, his mask was included in the mural. The rest of his outfit is made from recycled fabrics.

Photo by Abraham Rodriguez.

We’re not going anywhere

David Soriano wants to let everyone know that the old Mission is still alive, and that its residents are not going anywhere.

Soriano, 64, has been living in the Mission for 50 years and plays his flute to Latin Jazz over a bluetooth speaker at places like Clarion Alley, Dolores Park and Fisherman’s Wharf.

Self-taught, Soriano said he plays for fun and, like his friend Calderon, he too lives in a low-income unit. It’s his last line of defense, he said.

“This painting is an homage to everyone in this neighborhood,” Soriano said.

Soriano said he was walking along Mission Street when Oksner pulled him aside and asked him to pose. In the mural, he is next to his friend Calderon.

“This is my Mission, and no one will take it from me,” said Soriano, picking up his flute, and entertaining the street with a melody from Latin Jazz.

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  1. It is unfortunate and disheartening to see that Megan Wilson, an artist, is attacking another artist for creating a mural founded upon a love for the people of the Mission. One would think Wilson would be elated to see that a property owner, frustrated by the lack of art on her wall (having had to cover the previous mural up due to graffiti that would create fines for the owner), was excited about a traveling artist depicting many members of the local community who have lived there for decades. It seems to me that Wilson is more concerned with maintaining control over her carefully curated alley than supporting an artist who provided a space where disenfranchised members of the community can share their stories! As I wrote in a reply below, I saw Oksner painting the mural and witnessed, first hand, the sense of unity and family her work created while it was in progress. Many members of the community, all passionate about their neighborhood, gathered around to play music, sing, dance, or just watch while the mural was worked on. For Wilson to insinuate that Oksner doesn’t have respect for the community is an affront to the camaraderie created by Oksner’s “Walks of Life.” When I was there, I saw two members of the CAMP board express their support and excitement for the mural. Where was Wilson? If she knew this project was going on for a whole week, why didn’t she stop by to make a comment in person, or meet the artist and actually understand her intent and story?

  2. I’ve lived on the alley for over twenty-five years. CAMP and Megan Wilson have done an incredible job in supporting artists from the Mission community and keeping murals relevant — and revolutionary. Years ago, when the mural on my garage was tagged with graffiti, I asked C.A.M.P. if an artist friend could put her work there. CAMP was very supportive and even supplied the paint and other supplies (if anyone remembers, it was unicorns playing Nintendo). The alley is truly a community project, but it has become a major tourist attraction – it would be mayhem to let any artist paint whatever they wanted, whenever they wanted.

    I had not seen any major graffiti on the portraits of the victims of the Ghost Ship fire and I was upset see their mural covered up.

    I know many of the wonderful men in this new mural, however sad to me to see an artist like Oksner disrespect the community that has worked for over twenty-five years to keel the murals going.

    1. Unfortunately, there was serious graffiti on the Ghost Ship mural, which is why the property owner was forced to cover it, lest she get fined by the city. It seems we have a fundamentally different idea of disrespect when it comes to the community, though. While it seems to me, based on your comment, that you feel as though Oksner’s circumvention of the CAMP process was an affront to the community, I believe her taking a week in the alley, speaking with members of the community who have lived there for decades, understanding their stories, and gaining their trust, is more than many have done in the past. If anything, she showed the community (by that I mean the people who live there, not CAMP) the dignity and stage to share their stories that they deserve. I was lucky enough to watch some of this mural in progress, and the environment fostered by Oksner while she worked was one of unity, carefreeness, and family. CAMP is not The Mission, rather it is an awesome idea and organization that has provided a great service to it. However, The Mission District is made up of the thousands of people who have lived there and have made the culture as vibrant as it is today!

  3. I’m glad to see David being memorialized with art as part of the Mission Community. Here he is playing the Congas at the dedication of Mel Water’s Santana and Azetec mural at 19th.

  4. “Elisa Khan, the owner of the building, said Oskner had her permission.”

    The person who owns the walls gave her permission. She asked the local community that matters in this case which is the person that owns the building.

    Megan Wilson should be ashamed of herself for trying to impose her views on other peoples private property.

    Megan, offer up your own house for murals and stop extorting other people. You are not going to get into the pearly gates if you keep living this way. You are Trump should bone down.

    1. Yup, reads like Capp / Wilson had a contract with the properties on Clarion to curate them for public art, and in exchange obligated itself to maintain them free from graffiti. But Camp didn’t and that risked the property being fined for graffiti by the City.

      With Camp not doing its part of the deal, the property owner wanted to switch to a different artist. Should be allowed to switch.