The Valencia side of Taqueria El Buen Sabor, at the northeast corner of 18th Street, is undergoing an upgrade: Hibiscus flowers the diameter of bicycle tires burst out of a half-finished tropical backdrop, a frog obscured by scaffolding gazes up from a bottom corner, while a monkey in the top right is still just outlined in pencil.
The group working on the mural is as lively as the jungle they’re painting. Marina contours a flower with the oranges and reds that she mixes in a plastic container. Her last name, she tells me, is “Perez-Wong — you gotta switch accents real quick.”
To her right and three feet higher, Elaine Chu kneels on scaffolding, at work on the leafy environment. On Perez-Wong’s other side, Manolo Davila leans against the facade of Live Fit Gym next door. “I’m just watching, I’m just hanging out,” he says as he drinks yerba mate. “I’m supporting and appreciating the art.”
Perez-Wong and Davila grew up together in the Mission and have known each other since Kindergarten. The two painters met “a bajillion years ago,” says Chu, who attended high school with Perez-Wong at the San Francisco School of the Arts.
Perez-Wong is a third-generation San Franciscan, and a second-generation Mission resident. The three grew up in the ‘80s. Back then, the Mission was “kind of like when Covid happened and nobody was on the street,” Perez-Wong said.. “Valencia Street was sooo different,” Chu chimes in.
“You couldn’t walk down Valencia Street,” Perez-Wong says. “There was nobody. You couldn’t eat on the street like this,” she continues, pointing at the people enjoying a curbside lunch in the afternoon sun.
Perez-Wong grew up between 21st and 22nd streets, on “a dividing line for two different gangs.” She says that gangs were “rampant,” as was drug use, but that “there was a lot of really beautiful community here too, and that’s what Manolo and I were just talking about. We grew up with a lot of musicians and activists and artists, and that part of it was really beautiful, growing up as a kid here.”
Davila adds that growing up they were “supported through the education of teachers who really cared about us and taught us a lot about art.” He goes on to say that “we’re still doing art to this day, and finding ways to give back to the streets that have given us so much.”
Perez-Wong and Chu have a mural-painting business, Twin Walls, that is about to turn 10 years old. Before starting their own company, they painted murals at Precita Eyes for 10 years. “We got good on a couple of projects,” Perez-Wong says, “and realized we had so much fun painting together and talking smack. We’ve known each other since high school and always got along, so why not paint with your best friend?”
They’ve painted throughout San Francisco, as well as in Oakland and Richmond. They even have a mural at SFMOMA, and both recently exhibited individual works as part of a Lunar New Year exhibition at Helvella Art in Oakland.
They usually work on every project together, but Chu covered for Perez-Wong for a while after she was diagnosed with stage-four, metastatic breast cancer. She received her diagnosis while working on the mural on the 18th Street side of Taqueria El Buen Sabor. The owner was very understanding, whereas some other clients demanded that they still finish projects on the agreed-upon timeline.
“Now I’m doing much better, so, this is kind of still part of that healing. This whole mural is about healing. That side is about Coyolxauhqui, the moon goddess. She’s being put together by all her homegirls, ’cause that was my story,” Perez-Wong says.
The murals usually take around two months. They began this second mural at Taqueria El Buen Sabor a few weeks ago and took a break during the rain. They expect it will take them another couple of weeks to complete.
I ask what it’s like to come back to the Mission: Though Davila still lives in the neighborhood, Perez-Wong lives in Mission-Bernal and Chu lives in Oakland.
“We used to be able to walk down any street in the Mission and run into somebody that we knew, and now, I could walk for miles and not see anyone I know,” says Perez-Wong.
A good thing that has remained, however, is We Be Sushi. “We’re so happy it’s still here,” Chu says. “We still frequent it.”
Can I secretly hope that Perez-Wong and Davila some how fall in love and have gorgeous Mission District children.