Susan Cervantes can still remember a time in the Mission when murals were a foreign concept.
“‘What is that? What’s a mural? Where’s a mur-?’” Cervantes said people would ask, not even 50 years ago.
This year, the Precita Eyes Muralists Association, founded by Cervantes and her late husband, Luis Cervantes, celebrates 45 years of existence and hundreds of murals, with several dozen of those in the Mission. Others have been created as far away as China, Palestine and Russia.
Trained and working as a painter, Cervantes said that, in the 1970s, she began noticing the work of Las Mujeres Muralistas, a group of young women painters working in the Mission. She admired their collaborative approach to painting on a massive scale.
“I thought, ‘Wow, this is just so great, the way they work, they work collaboratively.’ That’s what was just amazing to me,” Cervantes said. The group would begin with a central theme, and each artist involved would integrate their individual ideas.
Plus, Cervantes said, it was inspirational to see women getting on scaffolding to paint, and getting paid to do so.
She began to work with the Mujeres and, soon after, in pursuit of their same dynamic, Precita Eyes was born. Precita artists have produced dozens of works found across the city — a 2021 mural at Laguna Honda Hospital, this 2013 mural in the Tenderloin and one from 2004 in Sunnydale.
“I saw it transform so many communities; not so much the communities, but the people that were engaged in the process were transformed by it,” Cervantes said. One major societal void that she tries to fill with Precita Eyes is a lack of ample opportunity to express oneself creatively, particularly in visual arts.
Josue Rojas was 15 years old and failing his high school classes when he stumbled into Precita Eyes in 1995.
“My father had just passed away, I was full of pain and teenage angst and needed a place to put my talent, honestly,” Rojas said. “It changed my life.”
Precita Eyes offers low-cost art classes for all ages, workshops and school programs, mural education and tours. On 24th Street, a small store sells art supplies and classes are held at the studio space on Precita Avenue.
The first mention of “Precita Eyes” appeared on Leonard R. Flynn Elementary School in 1977, when Cervantes and several others completed a collaborative mural together. From then on, Cervantes continued spreading the vision.
“Community murals involve the participation of the people who are going to be living with the mural in the future,” said mural scholar Tim Drescher, who first connected with Precita Eyes when he moved from Chicago in the 1970s.
This model, of engaging the community in choosing their own street art, Drescher said, is part of what makes Precita Eyes so unique. “That may be the first genuinely democratic experience that they ever have. And the murals are subversive, to that extent.” The organization is one of a small cadre of mural organizations in the country.
Precita Eyes does all of its murals by request; shortly after the mural at Flynn, the requests started coming, Cervantes said, and they never stopped.
Still today, at age 78, Cervantes climbs onto scaffolding to add color to the city’s walls. Most recently, she worked on a restoration of the AIDS mural at 16th and Market streets that was completed earlier this year.
“It grew — and we weren’t expecting that,” Cervantes said. “It just continued to be something that people were interested in being a part of. And it’s a really great way to bring communities together.”
That the community cherishes Precita Eyes is no secret. In 1998, when threatened with eviction and trying to purchase their current space on 24th Street, Cervantes said her team had to put a lot of cash down, but was short $15,000 on the payment.
That was the same amount as the commission for a planned mural on the McDonalds at 24th and Mission streets, so supporters put together the funds to pay for it. Cervantes said she never stepped inside the McDonalds, but appreciated that the owner allowed her team to choose their own vision, representative of the community, for the mural.
Seeing himself reflected on the wall was his true introduction to art — not galleries or museums or art institutions, Rojas said, even though he did go on to get bachelor’s and master’s degrees.
While street art has exploded around the world and artists helicopter into cities to make “eye candy,” he said Precita Eyes’ focus on heritage and local community made the process and outcome more impactful. He was part of the first class of the Urban Youth Arts class, and today is a well-known muralist with several works around the neighborhood and beyond.
Though she insisted that “there’s no such thing as a favorite” mural, in reflecting on Precita Eyes’ legacy, Cervantes tended to share stories that highlighted the power of some works to represent and unify the community.
In 2020, during the height of the pandemic, Precita Eyes managed to draw community members out at a time when many were still fearful of stepping outside their homes.
They had recently successfully fought a near-eviction, this time from what remained of Precita Eyes’ original studio space adjacent to Precita Park, and the new owners let them start a new mural.
“It seemed like it would be healing,” Cervantes said. Everyone had to stay six feet apart, and register for different time slots, but people were eager to get involved. “Over 50 people came and participated. That mural is called “Community Spirit,” and that’s the one that I’m really proud of, because it really represents the life and the spirit and the legacy of Precita Eyes.”
“There’s this myth that the artist has to be this tortured individual. Nothing could be further from the truth, in my experience,” Rojas said.
In celebration of its 45th birthday, Precita Eyes will host a gala on Saturday, Oct. 15, at Gray Area Theater. The event, in addition to hosting a silent auction and music, will feature what Precita Eyes does best: An interactive mural will allow seasoned painters and beginners alike to put a brush to the wall.
Thank you Susan and Precita Eyes for making the City a more beautiful and thought provoking place. Thank you for fostering the new generation of muralists, also.