Repainting the Tenderloin: Mona Caron’s Meta-Mural “Windows into the Tenderloin”

Where did the name “The Tenderloin,” come from? Stories abound, but the one I first heard was that the Tenderloin neighborhood of San Francisco was so full of homeless people, drug addicts and prostitutes that the police get “hazard pay” to work there, which makes it possible for them to afford the better cuts of meat. Another story is that the police can afford fancier meat because they accept bribes from the entrepreneurs in the hood. Perhaps the name is a reference to the soft, vicious underbelly of San Francisco. Or to the tender loins of the prostitutes who work there. Or did we borrow the name from New York City’s Tenderloin, which has a similar reputation? Whatever the origin, the Tenderloin is not considered the choicest cut of San Francisco’s neighborhoods.

(Photo from Mona Caron’s website.)

Nevertheless, some organizations and individuals are working to better this shady district. Mona Caron, one of my favorite muralists in San Francisco, painted a mural (“Windows into the Tenderloin”) on the corner of Golden Gate and Jones Streets not only to brighten the neighborhood, but also to offer a vision of transformation to the troubled are. In her mural, she shows how murals can improve a neighborhood, so her Tenderloin mural is a meta-mural, a mural about murals.

Caron portrays the Tenderloin at three times: in the ghostly past, in the gritty present and in an imagined future. The panels on Golden Gate Avenue show ghost-like structures floating up and away. These are buildings that once existed in the area before the earthquake and fire of 1906 wiped them out (like most of San Francisco). Take a look at that cool 12-sided one! I think the building housed a panorama.

(Photo from Caron’s website.)

Below the phantasmal buildings, we see a portrayal of the neighborhood as it is now, looking from Market Street over the abandoned Hiberian bank down Jones street towards Golden Gate, towards the very corner where you can find this mural. The people of the Tenderloin mill about the streets. Many of them are actually folks you might see there, like this guy, who always wears a black top hat with a flower. His name is Indian Joe, and he is a big fan of Alice Cooper, as you might guess. As I was taking these detail photos, a few of the locals were examining the painting, pointing to people and guessing who they were.

(All the detail photos, like this one and the next, are my own.)

And if you look closely into the mural, at the corner of Golden Gate and Jones you can see a self-reflective portrayal of the artist in the process of creating this very mural. In this self-portrait, Caron is standing on a ladder working on one of the ghostly structures. The tools of her trade rest on the ground below her.

Presumably, if you could zoom into this mural within a mural, you would see another smaller version. Zoom in further and see another, and so on and so on, forever into the abyss. (This is an example of a mise en abyme, a work within a work.)
Around the corner on Jones street, you can see more panels portraying the Tenderloin. In the one to the right, a lone saxophone player stands in an empty parking lot at night blowing his horn, the music curling up like smoke and changing, high above his head, into vinyl record to the left and a hawk high to the right.

(Photo from Caron’s website)

Through the smoke, on the wall behind the musician, you can see the left side of a mural. The mural is an actual mural in the Tenderloin, so “Windows into the Tenderloin” is a meta-mural not only because it portrays itself, but also because it represents other murals. This one is trompe l’oeil, which Wikipedia defines as “an art technique involving extremely realistic imagery in order to create the optical illusion that the depicted objects appear in three dimensions.” The mural blends real features of the buildings (like windows and brick) with painted elements (like windows and columns), making it difficult to determine what is real and what is not, especially in Caron’s painted version.

(The rest of the photos are my own.)

Over the tops of the building, you can see another mural of a man holding a feather in his tiny finger tips. The cartoonish man squats on top of a building on Market Street and is very hard to spot. I remember how delighted I was when I first noticed him. Caron noticed him and paid him and his painter homage in her mural.

In the next panel to the left, night has given way to morning, and we see another mural within the mural. On the wall at the back of the parking lot, you can see a pool player, painted from below so that we are looking up at the soles of his shoes. This was an advertisement for a pool hall called Rack ‘Em Up. The pool hall is now boarded up, but the painting remains.

In the lefthand corner of this mural, Caron has again represented herself producing the mural, this time with her team. In the image, a bicyclist has stopped to ask about the project. Caron, in a cowboy hat, holding plans for the mural, turns toward the bicyclist, to answer his questions. I often walk through the Tenderloin on my way to work, and I always stopped to talk to Caron, ask her questions and thank her for this amazing mural which was brightening the neighborhood. The bicyclist represents the viewer of the mural, yet another meta element in the work.

In the background, around the corner from the Rack ‘Em Mural, you can see another team of muralists at work. Apparently, the Tenderloin is crowded with muralists and murals. Caron is drawing our attention to all of the art work in the area, showing us how these murals add color and beauty to the neighborhood. A similar idea inspired the Clarion Alley Mural Project, which transformed a sketchy alley into a gallery of murals. (Read about one of them in my post A Meta-Mural on Clarion Alley: Lo Llevas por Dentro by Jet Martinez.) San Francisco has had a strong tradition of murals since Diego Rivera came to town in 1931. Rivera included himself in some of these murals, and San Francisco has continued this tradition of self-reflective painting. (Read my post The Making of a Fresco Showing the Building of a City: A Meta-Mural by Diego Rivera.)

In the third panel to the right, the sun has risen on a new Tenderloin, full of color, plants and life. This painting shows Caron’s dream for the area. The parking lots have been turned into parks, gardens and fountains. The streets are full of pedestrians and bicyclists, not a car in sight. We see a building that says “Housing Affordable.” The people are the same mixture of races we have seen in the other panels, but now they are well-clothed and look happy and healthy. On the wall, you can still see the Rack ‘Em Mural, which the inhabitants of this dream Tenderloin have preserved.

A bit idealistic perhaps, but Caron shows us how to achieve this goal: close streets to traffic, replace parking lots with gardens, provide affordable housing, and — most significantly — paint murals! In this Utopian Tenderloin, we once again see somebody working on a mural, standing on a ladder painting a mermaid holding onto the halter of a mythical sea horse, the hippocamp.

Caron is not just dreaming a new Tenderloin, however, she is actually repainting the Tenderloin. And she is inviting you to join her in doing so.

* * *

[See the artist’s own comments about her mural below.]

(Caron also painted the bicycle mural behind the Safeway on Market at Church Street and a mural about San Francisco at different times of its history at 300 Church Street. Be sure to check out her website! For more about meta-murals, read my posts A Meta-Mural on Clarion Alley: Lo Llevas por Dentro by Jet Martinez and The Making of a Fresco Showing the Building of a City: Diego Rivera’s Meta-mural.)

6 thoughts on “Repainting the Tenderloin: Mona Caron’s Meta-Mural “Windows into the Tenderloin””

  1. Thank you for your thoughtful piece about this mural! Always fun to hear someone else’s interpretation.

    I didn’t even know that there was a specific term, coined by André Gide, for what I do all the time in my murals: “mise en abyme”! I will promptly adopt that phrase in my vocabulary – thanks for that, too!

    A little shoutout for the artists of the murals-in-the-mural that you mention:
    – the trompe l’oeil piece was done in the early 80’s by John Wullbrandt at the corner of Hyde and Turk.
    – the “little man” is a piece by the world famous brazilian twin artists Os Gemeos, above the Luggage Store gallery (it’s actually huge, but appears small from the street.)
    – the mermaid-seahorse represents the artwork of the amazing local painter and papel picado artist Kay Weber, who lives across the street, and I painted him on the ladder painting his own art.

    I could go on forever with footnotes on this mural, so I’ll stop there. Last note, and shoutout:
    – If you’d like to know the origin of the neighborhood name “Tenderloin” once and for all, I can tell you how to get the most researched and documented answer: go take a TL walking tour with the excellent San Francisco City guide Peter Field (, who contributed lots of historical knowledge to this mural, (along with Mark Ellinger, , who can also give you plenty back stories on some of the details you mentioned.)


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