It has been almost 40 years since Michael Rios last ascended the scaffolding to face his historic mural at the 24th Street BART Plaza. Though faded and weather-beaten today, the scene he painted in 1975 remains deeply resonant: A silver BART train barrelling to a far-off distance, carried on the shoulders of a solemn line of people.
That scene will soon get a major renovation: Thanks to a $140,000 grant from nonprofit developer TODCO, where Rios is artist-in-residence, he and a team of artists are restoring the mural anew this summer. The job is long overdue; the last touch-up happened around the heyday of filmmaker John Hughes.
“I’m thrilled,” Rios, now 76 and shaggy-haired, said on-site. Prepped in wraparound sunglasses and paint-splattered clothing, he sprang to action and scraped the wall with gusto to prepare it for restoration.
Few other murals carry as much significance as this one which, along with Rios’s other works, helped popularize public art in the Mission, and documents important local history, said Cary Cordova, an associate professor at the University of Texas, Austin, and author of “The Heart of the Mission.”
“It’s a really special mural. There’s few left from that time period,” Cordova said.
Specifically, the mural evokes Mission and SoMa residents’ protests against the Bay Area Rapid Transit system, which opened three years before Rios and fellow artists Anthony Machado and Richard Montez completed the 24th Street mural in 1975. According to a video clip, demonstrations against urban renewal stopped a train on BART’s opening day in 1972 that “was on schedule, right up until it reached the Mission.”
“In 1972, BART officials had no plans for any murals in the Mission,” according to Cordova. Eventually, officials changed their minds, likely due to demonstrations, and Rios got his shot. “Close to 50 years later, the mural still feels reflective of struggles for representation,” she said.
It’s also become heavily associated with local Latinxs. “The BART mural illuminates the indomitable spirit of our people and the pivotal role we play within the entire San Francisco Bay Area,” said Erick Arguello, founder and president of the Calle 24 Latino Cultural District, in a statement. It “depicts the struggle and resilience of our workers and our community.”
But the mural represents “much more than BART,” Cordova said, and nods to “a larger socioeconomic situation” Rios grew up seeing. Indeed, after driving by BART one day, Rios thought the pillars resembled human figures. He and Machado sketched the image in pencil, and meant for the pillar-esque people to symbolize class struggles.
“Poor people, for the most part, you know, carry the weight of the greater powers that control and run the country,” Rios said, explaining the meaning behind his work. But nearly 50 years later, the original theme of economic inequality “is still relevant,” the artist said. “And maybe even more so these days, in this economy.”
The same northeast 24th Street BART plaza, where the mural is, is now a scene of poverty: The artwork, on El Farolito’s south-facing wall, overlooks the plaza where, in the past year, large crowds of vendors have peddled goods, and trash has frustrated neighbors. While the artists removed shrubs and anti-bird wire to prepare the mural site, Rios energetically scurried up and down to fix this or that, and curious street vendors asked what was going on.
The parallels between economic questions raised in the 1975 mural and the present-day conditions in the mural above it are clear, says Carlos “Kookie” Gonzalez, an established muralist and mentee of Rios who is helping restore the mural.
“Right now, it’s right in front of us,” Gonzalez said, referring to the street vendors and some ill-gotten goods feet away from his vantage point up on the scaffolding.
Many of the homeless have substance addiction and mental health issues that “make it hard for them to accept help,” Gonzalez continued sympathetically, “so they’re here with their little flea markets selling stuff, blocking the bus stop, and fighting.”
While plaza conditions didn’t compel the mural restoration — cultural groups have advocated to restore it for years — the project, like family-friendly programming on the site, may brighten an area that has lately been frustrating neighbors and officials. Long ago, Rios learned “that putting art up there on the wall was something that could bring a little bit of color to the neighborhood,” he said. The Calle 24 Latino Cultural District and Precita Eyes Muralists, both prominent Mission cultural organizations, supported Rios’s new mural restoration.
The idea that public art could better our environment motivated Rios’s early career and cemented him among the first generation of Mission muralists. Rios remembered when Mission students along their routes to school walked by many a corporate ad for liquor and cigarettes. He had wished youth were exposed to something of “value” instead, and so he began painting murals. Rios said, “I considered it the battle against the billboards.”
For at least three young Mission residents, Rios’s objective succeeded. Gonzalez often saw the mural when he and friends would cut class to ride BART to Concord and Richmond. Suaro Cervantes, a renowned artist and son of Precita Eyes Muralist founder Susan Cervantes, remembered spotting the art while walking to school at Horace Mann School as a kid. Rios’s style largely influenced the work of renowned Mission muralist Lucia Gonzalez Ippolito, too, she said, flanking Rios while tending to the mural. Now all three are established artists, and Rios tapped them to work on this recent restoration.
“I have a lot of fond memories of this area,” Gonzalez said, noting that he helped restore the mural in the ’80s. He smiled nostalgically in shades, and his white pants were covered in multicolored paint streaks. “And here we are, back here again, bringing it back to life.”
Rios is “honored” to work with the younger generation and pass down techniques, but they’re just as in awe of him. When he runs up to grab a photo of the original mural in its vibrant glory, the others crowd around to snap a picture. There’s talk of letting each younger artist add their own twist on the mural, perhaps by changing the color scheme of the houses in the mural’s background, or by adding more human characteristics to the people holding up the train. For example, one person could have a goatee, Kookie said. (The reader should note: Kookie has a goatee.)
Goatee or no goatee, the multi-generational team expects to finish the job in a few weeks. On a recent day, Rios spryly scrambled up the scaffolding and started furiously wiping dirt off of El Farolito’s wall. Ippolito and Kookie scrubbed too, though Kookie joked that the cleaning solution looked “like dookie.” Cervantes, hair pulled back in a neat braid, searched for a hose hook-up to rinse the wall down, and filled a BART employee in on their progress. The team posed for a photo together, and after Ippolito asked the septuagenarian Rios: “You have an Instagram?”
Now as much as ever, Rios wants his mural to speak to those experiencing desperation, anxiety or fear. “As artists and musicians,” he said, “we have to always promote hope.”