Clarion Alley in the Mission District of San Francisco used to be a shady street where junkies would shoot up. In October 1992, a volunteer collective of residents organized the Clarion Alley Mural Project (CAMP) to bring art and color to the alley. The murals of Balmy Alley, which are focused on Central American struggle, inspired the project, but the murals of Clarion Alley are generally more playful and cartoon-like, although they deal with serious social issues as well (“What I Know is What I Owe,” says one mural and another, now painted over, challenged the “Demonocracy” of the United States). Many murals explore the rich culture of the Mission, especially, of course, the predominate Latino culture.
One mural, called El Misísimo Diablo, said, “The life of any street art is short,” but begged visitors to respect the murals. This very same devil has, alas, been painted over and recently many of the best murals in Clarion Alley have been covered over by sloppy graffiti. For many years, graffiti artists respected the paintings, yet a wave of tagging has wiped out many works of art. Still, one of my favorites has survived, a meta-painting, or we should say a meta-mural: Lo Llevas por Dentro by Jet Martinez.
The mural is a colorful landscape, with vegetation that includes cacti, calla lillies, evergreen trees, a flowering deciduous tree, and rolling hills of dried grass, probably an amalgamation of California flora. The geometric patterns on the two evergreen trees and the deciduous tree, as well as patterns in the sky (perhaps part of a larger mandala centered on the sun) give the landscape a surreal, fantasy-like, peaceful look. Definitely, the place would be a pleasure to visit.
In the middle foreground stands the silhouette of figure, gazing out of the picture towards the viewer. Rather than a shadow, we see a painted alley, in fact Clarion Alley itself, the alley in which the mural appears. The painting is a meta-mural because it is a mural that represents murals, as well as representing its own surroundings and neighboring art work.
The title “Lo Llevas por Dentro” means “You carry it inside yourself.” What do you carry inside yourself? The art of Clarion Alley, the color and culture, the political commentary. When we look at art, we tend to impose our own knowledge, analysis and opinions to the piece. When I was standing in front of the mural, however, I felt the painting was asking me to step aside, emptying my mind, as the figure had done, and let the murals of Clarion Alley speak for themselves.
You might want to carry the surreal landscape away with you, but Clarion Alley, a real place, is what is represented inside the figure, rather than the fantastic vegetation. Nevertheless, the title suggests that we, the viewers, take the murals of Clarion Alley away with us when we go. Although Martinez did not represent his own mural in his painting, his mural is also implied. Considering that so many of my favorite paintings on this street have been lost, I am glad that I am able to carry Martinez’s mural and the humor, color, art, culture and social critique of Clarion Alley away with me. Now you too carry it inside yourself.
(Make sure to read the comment below from the artist himself! To read about other meta-murals, see my posts: The Making of a Fresco Showing the Building of a City: A Meta-Mural by Diego Rivera.and Repainting the Tenderloin: Mona Caron’s Meta-Mural. For more about meta-painting, see my posts Halfway: A Meta-Painting by Tofu St. John, “Abstract Paintings are Meta-Paintings,” “Las Meninas: A Meta-Painting, ”If Not a Pipe, Then What?,” and The Lack of Blank Spaces: John Cage’s 4’33″ and Robert Rauschenberg’s White Paintings.)