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Clarion Alley’s Long-Vanished Street Art Lives On in New Web Archive
Caitlin Harrington | Photo: Clarion Alley Mural Project | June 16, 2016
No mural left behind.
The best thing about street art is also the worst thing about street art: its ephemerality. Clarion Alley, one of the Mission district’s famed mural-covered blocks, hasn’t seen a blank wall since 1993. But with some exceptions, no surface has been covered in exactly the same way in the alley’s 24-year, 700-mural (and counting!) history. And so this week, the Clarion Alley Mural Project (CAMP) launched a comprehensive web archive devoted to chronicling the alley’s history. It’s a digital time capsule of perhaps the only place in San Francisco that seems to change as fast as, well, San Francisco.
Through photos, videos, essays, and ephemera, most of the images here reveal long-gone artworks—pieces that, until the website’s launch, had to exist for the most part in memory. There’s a trompe-l’oeil escalator painted by Julie Murray in 1993. There's a photo series documenting the gradual buffing out of a 1994 Barry McGee mural, which the artist ordered destroyed in 2004, when Community Thrift opted to replace the rollup door it was painted on. The alley's history is parceled out in sections that are colorful and engrossing, if not exactly intuitive (look for the very helpful by-decade history under “About Us”).
In one video, CAMP cofounder Rigo 23 touches on the project’s origins. “When we started, we knew we were working on some sort of time capsule,” he says over footage of the alley in the early ’90s, when it was a no-man’s-land that regularly saw drug overdoses. “If the neighborhood is going to change anyways, then through the walls of this alley we’re gonna keep some of this raw street energy and preserve it into the future.”
One of the website’s handiest features is a database of hundreds of murals, from both Clarion Alley and other locations visited by CAMP artists, searchable by artist, year, and location. A 2013 mural titled “Viva La Tamale Lady!” celebrates the beloved Mission district foodstuff and issues a call to action, urging residents to donate toward a brick-and-mortar shop (this was after the city shut down her roving operation).
You’ll also find an attic’s worth of ephemera culling fliers, newspaper clippings, neighborhood meeting minutes, labor pamphlets, and pre-Evernote scrawlings that get at the pragmatic side of organizing a mural project. There’s something oddly engrossing about reading a stranger’s bygone to-do list: “Wall Next to Blue monster face (Andy will fix).” Or, regarding the city’s first international public art exchange: “8:45 leave. Look good on plane!”