Big Names, Big Art: How to See SF's Most Famous Murals for Free

Rincon Center murals

There's art, seemingly, just about everywhere you look in San Francisco: from the Legion of Honor, MOMA, and the DeYoung Museum, to the large-scale street art of the Mission District, this city, you might say, was made to get the creative juices flowing. 

But even if your own artistic exploration of SF has taken you to every museum, gallery, and graffiti-coated alley in the city, San Francisco's still got a few masterpieces hidden up its sleeve. 

In the 1930s and '40s, a number of famous (and soon-to-be-famous) artists came to San Francisco to paint murals all over the city. Some were commissioned privately; others were funded by the Depression-era Works Progress Administration (WPA). A huge number of these murals are still around today, and while most of them are now located in privately owned buildings, you can still go visit many of them free of charge. It's just a question of knowing where to look. Today, we're shining a light on some of our favorite large-scale works by big-name artists in under-the-radar locations.

Diego Rivera's "The Making of a Fresco Showing the Building of a City" at the San Francisco Art Institute

Diego Rivera at SF Art InstituteConsidered by many to be the greatest Mexican painter of the 20th century, Diego Rivera lived briefly in San Francisco with wife, Frida Kahlo, in the 1930s. And over the course of the '30s and '40s, Rivera graced the city with several murals, each unique in its own way.

The Rivera mural on display at the San Francisco Art Institute, "The Making of a Fresco Showing the Building of a City," is about as complex as its name suggests. Looking at the "fresco within a fresco," which fills one entire wall of the campus's Diego Rivera Gallery, it's almost hard to tell what's part of the painting and what's not. It's like the workers creating the fresco have been frozen in place at their stations: look closely and you'll see depictions of Rivera's real-life colleagues, assistants, and friends measuring, chiseling, and painting away. Sitting in the very center of the mural, with his back to the viewer and a brush in his hand, is Rivera himself. Throw in some "wooden" scaffolding painted right onto the fresco to give the whole thing a three-dimensional, "Magic-Eye" feel, and this definitely isn't your typical mural.

The Pan American Unity Mural at SF City College

Rivera has another mural on display over at San Francisco City College's Phelan Avenue campus. Rivera painted his 22-foot-high, 74-foot-long Pan American Unity mural in 1940 on commission for the Golden Gate International Exposition on Treasure Island

"My mural will picture the fusion between the great past of the Latin American lands, as it is deeply rooted in the soil, and the high mechanical developments of the United States," Rivera said at the time. The mural's central figure is an Aztec goddess who is half-machine, and many other figures – including Abraham Lincoln, George Washington, and Rivera himself – appear in smaller form.

After the exposition on Treasure Island, the panels of the mural were crated up and stored out of sight for the next decade. But a few years after Rivera's 1957 death, the ten panels of the mural were reassembled at the City College. Today they're free and open for public viewing on weekdays (be sure to check the current schedule before you go). In the months of May and October, you can also get extra insight into the mural on free walking tours through SF City Guides

"San Francisco Life" by Lucien Labaudt at the Beach Chalet

The Beach Chalet, a swanky restaurant and brewery right on San Francisco's Great Highway, is known primarily for its fine dining and Pacific views. But down in the lobby, there are some pretty spectacular views of an entirely different sort. French-born artist Lucien Labaudt painted a series of large panels here depicting "San Francisco life" in the 1930s – on the beach, at the docks, in the park – as a WPA project, and today they're open to the public and free to view. You don't have to visit the restaurant upstairs to admire the murals, though if you happen to be around during happy hour (3:00 p.m. - 6:00 p.m. Monday-Friday), you can enjoy upscale ambiance on the cheap by grabbing one of the Beach Chalet's signature made-on-site beers for under $5.

Hilaire Hiler Murals at the San Francisco Maritime History Museum 

Maritime MuseumThe San Francisco Maritime History Museum is housed inside a sleek, modern building not far from HI-Fisherman's Wharf. Look at it from just the right angle, and the building actually resembles a cruise ship - a nice parallel given that the museum houses artifacts, artworks, photographs, and documents telling the stories of lives made at sea. 

The Bath House building, as it's also known, was constructed in the mid-1930s as a joint project between the city of San Francisco and the WPA. And inside the lobby, there are more WPA works of art to be enjoyed. Artist Hilaire Hiler spent two years creating 5,000 square feet of murals on the interior walls of the building's lobby in the late '30s. Today, whimsical, Technicolor representations of sea creatures (both actual and mythical), submerged islands, and even the lost city of Atlantis cover the lobby walls. (Museum is open from 10:00 a.m. - 4:00 p.m. daily).


"Aspects of California Life" at Coit Tower

Coit TowerMost visitors have done enough research on San Francisco before arriving to know about Coit Tower: the 210-foot-high tower at the top of the city's Telegraph Hill neighborhood has been an iconic local landmark since its construction in 1933. But many may not know what's inside the tower: another series of murals done under the auspices of the WPA. Numerous local artists, largely students and faculty from the California School of Fine Arts, contributed to the project, throwing socialist imagery in alongside scenes of the San Francisco Bay. While admission to climb the tower will set you back $7, you can view most of the murals for free.


"The History of San Francisco" at Rincon Center

 Anton Refregier muralAt the corner of Mission and Spear Streets, the Rincon Center may seem like a strange home for a set of historic murals. Taking up an entire city block, the center houses shops, offices, restaurants, apartments – and nearly 30 panels painted by WPA artist Anton Refregier in the early 1940s.

It took Refregier, a Russian immigrant to the United States, nearly eight years to complete the project, and it's immediately evident why as soon as you walk in through the door: the entire set takes on the complex theme of "The History of San Francisco." Spanning everything from a 16th-century visit by Sir Francis Drake, to the discovery of gold, to the construction of the Golden Gate Bridge, the works are a visual tour of the city's past. And they don't shy away from the heavy subject matter: panels depicting hardships on the infamous Donner Pass, unfair treatment of minorities by early white settlers, and the devastation of the 1906 earthquake are all given their due. When the murals went up, many found Refregier's frank portrayal of California's more controversial moments offensive and tried to have the panels covered up. Luckily for visitors today, those attempts were unsuccessful, and Refregier's masterpieces remain on display, free of charge, for anyone who'd like to see them.

Beneath each mural you'll see a panel explaining its subject matter. You'll also find glass cases full of San Francisco artifacts: Gold Rush-era photos of the city, bits of pottery and roofing that have been dug up over the years, and other archaeological goodies. 

But don't worry: the art doesn't stop there! If our mural tour has you ready to see more high-class art on the cheap, be sure to check out our guides to Getting Cultured Without Going Broke in SF and Art Spotting and Antiquing in Sacramento.

If you go: KQED, a local public radio and TV station, has a fantastic free app called "Let's Get Lost" with interactive information on several of the murals mentioned in this story.

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