The Hand-painted Neighborhood

San Francisco’s Mission District has the strongest visual character of any neighborhood I’ve ever visited.

The Mission is best known for its murals, which adorn nearly every block and transform alleyways like Balmy Alley into public art galleries (Balmy is lined with over 30 murals). Those murals have been well documented elsewhere, particularly by the Precita Eyes muralists, who are central to the community and have published a book on the subject. However, the neighborhood’s unsung hero is its hand-painted street signage: colorful restaurant façades, elaborate store windows, and charming, handmade business marquees all possess the welcoming tone of a handwritten note from a friend.

San Francisco Restaurant Signage


I interviewed a local mural artist and mural tour guide. I was kind of surprised by some of her statements; when I asked if there was a shared heritage between the murals and the painted storefronts, she seemed quizzical about the insinuation that there was any connection at all. Furthermore, when I asked about the use of typography in the Mission District, she seemed unfamiliar with the word ‘typography.’

What I gathered from that conversation was that she considered the murals to be ‘art’ but the public signage (like the text above and the painted watch on a jeweler’s window below) were considered mere informational graphics. Personally, I believe that both art forms come from the same artistic impulse: to use the neighborhood as a canvas on which to express cultural identity. Sure, mural art and graphic design are two different visual languages, but they both express the social voice of the local population. Besides, to say that the lines are blurred between the two would be an understatement; graffiti, signage, and murals appear side by side on dozens of walls, storefronts, and alleyways.

Regardless, it’s refreshing to spend time in an environment where art in the public space is a beloved extension of cultural identity. The Mission District proves that when public art is encouraged and fostered, it can be a beautiful sight for residents young and old. Even the exterior of a local McDonald’s has been decorated with images of butterflies and smiling faces painted by children (a charming sight at first, but surely that beautification has the adverse effect of endearing McDonald’s to potential fast food customers).

I’m always going on about the merits of DIY (do it yourself) artistic techniques, and the Mission District is the ultimate DIY neighborhood. The shoe repair sign on the left is one of my favorite images here. Walk down the street in almost any American neighborhood and nearly %100 of the graphics you see will have been mechanically produced. There’s something so friendly and disarming about the personal touch that these images endow the neighborhood with.

10 Responses to “The Hand-painted Neighborhood”

  1. Great article. I really love the sign of the cannibalistic pigs cooking one of their own. It reminds me of the Beatles song “Piggies”.
    The tour guide you talked to sounds a little bunk. She doesn’t know the word “typography”. You need to go Helvetica on her ass and show her what’s what.

  2. Thanks for your comment, Stray-cat! I love how happy the pigs are. They must know how good they taste.

    Yeah, the experience with that tour guide was odd, but I suppose she has her own perspective: her sole interest seemed to be figurative mural work. She was more concerned with political, historical, and social issues than typography, which seems like a shame given the plethora of gorgeous typographical styles that adorn the neighborhood.

  3. Whoa – the shark mural is insane!!! What a cool post, Dan.

  4. […] Some overdue appreciation for the handpainted signage, windows and facades that make up  the Mission’s visual character. […]

  5. Mark linked to this in Today’s Mission. Love what you did-accumulating all of these in one place. Thank you, Lydia

  6. Thanks for reading, Lydia. I’m glad you enjoyed the piece. I was thrilled to visit the Mission this month – especially La Taqueria on Mission Street!

  7. Please, can you PM me and tell me few more thinks about this…

  8. […] apreciación que se debía haber hecho antes sobre los letreros, ventanas y vitrinas que se pintan a mano y que componen el carisma visual de la […]

  9. i like that alot !

  10. Great article. I really love the sign of the cannibalistic pigs cooking one of their own. It reminds me of the Beatles song “Piggies”.

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