Snow had started to fall in Flagstaff, and I needed an escape. I needed palm trees, flip flops, and Mexican food, so I flew to San Diego for the weekend – a city I hadn’t spent time in for at least fifteen years. I didn’t have a plan for what I was going to do there, but I knew I’d be on the lookout for murals, as I always am when I travel.
Little did I know I was touching down in a hotbed of public art. I probably should have guessed I’d find a lot of brightly colored creations in this city; after all, it’s a progressive, creative community that has always been a cultural melting pot, and its consistently warm weather makes public art a perfect fit for the urban landscape.
Just wandering around the neighborhood I stayed in, an area between the Gaslamp District and the East Village, I found a few panels sprawling across walls and hiding behind chain link fences on the day I got there.
But the next day, a little internet research led me to North Park, a so-called “hipster” neighborhood that also happened to have a few restaurants I was interested in. I figured out the city bus scene, hopped on one, and got myself up to this area that lies north and east of the famous Balboa Park.
There, I found all sorts of awesome art, including a giant cartoon dinosaur, pen drawings on a parking structure, a trio of Mexican wrestlers on a restaurant wall, and a couple of mermaids prophesizing the decline of our oceans.
My favorite North Park mural by far, however, adorns the outside of a Mexican handicraft shop. Thankfully, the place was closed, since these are the kinds of establishments where I find myself buying cool skull trinkets that I don’t need. I loved the colors of this panel, as well as its message and bold graphic style. Standing in front of it, I had my first ever moment of regret over not owning a selfie stick.
On the last morning of my weekend, I grabbed an electric yellow cruiser bike from my hotel and navigated the industrial zone between the Gaslamp District and Barrio Logan, the Latino neighborhood situated under and adjacent to the I-5 and Coronado Bridge interchange. I had read that there was a park dedicated to murals in this vicinity, and I had to see it.
I first pedaled up alongside an enormous panel entitled “The History of Our Community.” Painted by Salvador Roberto Torres, it depicts the lives of Mexican-Americans working in the nearby shipping and fishing industries. While it is mostly painted, it includes some mirrored tiles that reflect sunlight. Nearby, on a restaurant supply building are a couple of other ocean-themed murals that make this industrial corner surprisingly cheerful.
Turning left towards the I-5 overpass, I pedaled up to a spot that, according to what I had read, held the motherlode of murals, Chicano Park. Chicano Park was the site of a famous demonstration in 1970, when protesters occupied the space under the I-5 overpass and Coronado Bridge interchange for twelve days.
The city had promised the community a park, but residents were watching ground be broken for a California Highway Patrol building. Locals took over the zone, linking arms around the bulldozers and halting construction. Local government listened, and the area became what is now called Chicano Park.
There’s a little bit of grass in Chicano Park, and there are a few slides, play structures, and basketball courts, but more than anything else, this park is a collection of murals. There are paintings on the sides of the highway on-ramps, paintings on the bridge supports, paintings on the basketball court walls, and paintings on the bathrooms. Anywhere there’s concrete, someone has gotten creative with color.
Many of the murals depict images from Mexican mythology and Mexican-American history, and a number of them portray political themes intended to empower local residents. In fact, the city tourism bureau’s website calls the place, “an outdoor cathedral to community activism. And, as befits the parks politically charged atmosphere, a number of local residents are in fact living in the park; the area under the overpasses holds a substantial homeless population.
I spent an hour wandering this uber-urban industrial art park, discovering hidden gems at every turn. Some of the murals captivated me, while others really turned me off. This seemed about right, for an uncurated celebration of creativity that has emerged organically from an empowered community.
As I was leaving San Diego, I stumbled across a couple of public art blogs that identified dozens of additional city murals. Apparently, I’d only scratched the surface of the area’s public art options.
Next time I’ll rent a car; it sounds like I may be busy for a week.