Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal sparked the tradition of mural painting in Northern California in 1933. To create employment in the midst of the Depression, artists were commissioned to create works of art for the public.
Many of the artists who undertook the project drew inspiration from Mexican muralists, such as Diego Rivera. But though the style was borrowed, the heart of the work was quite different. While Rivera’s work was Marxist and often meant to spark revolution, the murals that soon popped up all over California depicted men and women happily employed.
The pieces were critically shunned as bland, but the public liked the accessibility of the murals, and the government was pleased that the images championed the New Deal goals of getting the country back to work.
Decades later the Chicano civil rights movement of the 1970s inspired a new generation of muralists to rediscover the works of Mexican muralists, this time changing the style, but embodying the revolutionary passion.
Today there are murals all over California, with more than 600 in San Francisco alone. The largest concentration is in the predominantly Latino Mission District, with Balmy Alley’s 28 murals acting as the epicenter of the movement.