Text & Photos by Farah S. Kamal

It is good to have friends around the world who are as excited about exploring places as you are. The nature of my job and my wanderlust takes me around the globe, and my friends there make the trips unique and memorable by taking me around to places that are missing from tourists’ travel brochures. San Francisco is among those cities which I frequently travel to and it is my most favourite part of the United States. This trip was for a business meeting and as usual, I was in search of a vantage point to photograph and tell its story. My long-time colleague and friend Dave, a proud Sanfrancisconian, suggested I visit Balmy Alley of Mission District. We drove to the Mission District, a place I had never been to before, first picking up Jon Voss, the creator of History Pinterest to join us, as he knows much about the history of this place. The Mission District in San Francisco is definitely a happening place with good weather, great food and a phenomenal collection of street art. The three of us spent hours strolling through this sensational mix of talent and social issues of community, culture and politics. Street art anywhere in the world inspires me; it appears organic, locally-centered and people-oriented, presenting social themes and promoting the views of common people, especially the marginalised. Street artists create work enjoying the freedom of speech and free art, sharing it openly with everyone selflessly.

Balmy Alley at the heart of Mission District, located between 24th and 25th Street, is a full block of concentrated art murals. It is an evolving exhibit that adorns almost all garages, doors, fences, walls, and homes throughout the alley. The bright, eclectic mix of colours and subject matter here attracts tourists and locals interested in activism, art and expression to spend their days at this amazing art alley. Founded as a mural art destination in 1972, it was first painted by a team of two Latino women who called themselves the ‘Mujeres Muralistas’. The area, where residents and home owners are mostly Latino, is known for political activism. After a slight reluctance they all embraced the projects, as they started seeing their lives in them. The murals tell stories about life in México, Central America, and the immigrant population of Mission itself. I enjoyed taking pictures of rich colours, detailed portraits and scenes, all engrossed in emotion of the politically, socially, and culturally-inspired murals.

Many of these paintings celebrate the landscapes and cultures of Central America, as well as the violence and civil wars that racked Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Guatemala. The stories of political turmoil that resulted in the migration of thousands of Central Americans to San Francisco over three decades, beginning in the 1980s are portrayed in these murals. “What an amazing way of storytelling”, I thought, while photographing the incredible piece of artwork Naya Bihana by Martin Travers, a huge 2002 mural on a wall, depicting the Latino struggles in brilliant hues.

I kept walking down the alley photographing the different murals and getting impressed by amazing work as well as listening to Dave and Jon discussing history. Balmy Alley's murals appeared in large numbers in response to the 1984 Artists Calls Against U.S. Intervention in Central America. In summer of 1985, a group of 36 artists created 27 murals in Balmy Alley, finally establishing the Mission as a street art destination. Artists from all around come here to work and the murals are changing regularly. The Mission District is also full of excellent restaurants and stores. Exhilarated by the artwork and a bit tired from all the walking, we finally came to the end of the alley and stopped at the Local Mission Eatery for a freshly baked and delicious brunch of brioche and eggs. Continuing our discussion on how liberating street art can be for underserved communities, I thought about my city Karachi, where we have so many communities, each with its unique culture and stories. It can be rewarding to replicate the idea, so that not only the places look better but also residents and youth with artistic talents can engage in creating murals.

This long walk was an eye-opening experience for me, as I realised how important the artistic community in a city is. I left all humbled, thinking about the human struggle around the world and how artwork can be a powerful healing element in one’s life.