As Tourism Rises, So Do Mural Turf Clashes
The Mission’s status as a global tourism destination has never been more acutely felt—walking down any of the Mission’s increasingly famous mural alleys, French, Japanese, German, Korean, Swedish and the ubiquitous snap of cameras can all be heard. As the number of tourists increases, so have the companies providing neighborhood walking tours—at least a dozen coming to the Mission. Not everyone, however, is thrilled about these arrivals.
Clarion Alley Mural Project (CAMP), the non-profit that first organized the creation of murals in Clarion Alley in the 1990s, has asked private tour companies to refrain from including Clarion in their tours—going so far as to list specific companies contacted on their website including: Avital Tours, Precita Eyes, Wild SF, Dylan’s Tours, and the Real SF.
“We obviously have had a lot of problems with the tours on the alley,” said Megan Wilson, one of CAMP’s artists and organizers, which offers its own tour of the alley. “Our position is that we want to represent ourselves, we want to give people a tour that gives an accurate lens through which we operate.”
Wilson says that despite notifying numerous companies to cease offering tours of Clarion Alley, she’s observed new tours coming through the alley every day she’s there. These visitors are part of a growing trend affecting the entire city. According to the San Francisco Travel Foundation, the city welcomed 16.9 million tourists in 2013, a 13-year high.
“There’s more now than ever before,” said Precita Eyes tour coordinator Patricia Rose, of the mounting number of tour groups in the Mission. “Because our smaller neighborhood-based tours are successful, it’s drawn the attention of mega tour companies….their scale is really out of sync with the rest of the neighborhood.”
Most of the companies CAMP listed on its website confirmed that they had been asked by the arts group not to use the alley and several said they no longer operate tours down Clarion because of interactions with the arts-group. For some of the tour operators, the alley was clearly a heated subject.
“We talk about other murals in the Mission, but this is probably not something we want to engage in a discussion about,” said the founder of one tour company. “If the story is about Clarion Alley, we don’t want to talk about it.”
Another tour operator said an apparent representative from CAMP shouted at one of his tour bus drivers and then left a very negative review of his company on Yelp.
“If you want to sell your canvas and I can take it home with me that’s one thing, but if you’re going to be painting on what’s essentially public property, you shouldn’t be able to restrict it,” said the bus tour operator. “I’ve been living in San Francisco my whole life; the last thing I want is to deal with some newly-arrived Mission District hipster complaining that my bus is disturbing them.”
Michael Moran, a longtime Mission resident and owner of the tour company ExploreSF, explained that after having conversations with CAMP he now drops off his walking tours at one end of Clarion Alley, lets them walk down the alley on their own, and meets them on the other side.
“They have never said, don’t come to alley; they’ve just said they’d like to represent themselves,” said Moran, who explained that he has every intention of respecting CAMP’s requests. “I agree it’s surprising, but it’s their prerogative, it’s their business.”
According to Wilson of CAMP, the restriction on tours other than their own has little to with business competition and everything to do with representation. Though CAMP is still in the process of building a website that will provide more details about its tour, Wilson says the tours will be offered on a sliding scale and may include a tour of the alley as well as a potential tour of the Roxie Theater, which has murals by CAMP artists. Other tours in the Mission, which include more than Clarion Alley and range in services provided, can be free or cost upwards of $70.
Wilson says that in the many hours she’s spent painting in the alley, she’s heard numerous private tour groups sharing inaccuracies about Clarion, getting things wrong such as basic facts about who painted each mural as well as the project’s general philosophy.
“Listening to the tours go through, a lot of them are so bad…it’s like a nails on a chalkboard,” Wilson said. “It’s a public space, and obviously anybody can come in, it’s not like we can stop them, but we can ask these tour companies to please request our wishes and not come down the alley.”
For Paula Tejeda, owner of Chile Lindo and a longtime neighborhood activist, CAMP’s requests seem counterproductive to the neighbor’s well-being, in that tourism is an industry that supports the Mission’s economy. It’s also personal for Tejeda. Her aunt Juanita Rieloff lived on the corner of Clarion Alley when it first became a public canvas and welcomed the artists into her home. Rieloff’s name is inscribed in one section of the alley as a commemoration of her support of the original artists.
“When you are an artist, everyone is going to interpret your work differently; you can’t hold a patent on how your work is interpreted…it’s a street, it’s public,” Tejeda said.
Wilson stressed that she has no problem with individuals coming through independently and says the alley is open to everyone and their own unique interpretation.
“Self-guided tours are better…you can come and interpret the work however you want. But if you have a guided tour, they’re doing that work for you and speaking for the project and by some degree it implies it’s okay, when in fact it’s not the case” Wilson said.
Started in 1992, inspired in part by the murals on Balmy Alley, CAMP hoped to create a subversive arts space that was more open-ended than Balmy’s focus on Latin American politics. The alley’s artworks represent a range of political issues and styles and it has long been a place for anti-capitalist and subversive manifestos.
For example, the recent work “Wall of Shame & Solutions” by Wilson with Mike Reger and Christopher Statton addresses perpetrators of gentrification and displacement, listing specific tech companies and politicians. As part of this tendency towards subversion, CAMP also has a history of opposing unauthorized and commercial use of their work; there are signs posted throughout the alley asking that any reproductions of the murals r
eceive consent from the artist.
When Absolut Vodka used footage of Clarion Alley in an advertisement in 2011, CAMP campaigned against the beverage company. This past fall Mission Local was the target of CAMP’s frustration when the opening of the alley was featured on the winning entry, a Google Street View, in our Bedazzle a Tech Bus contest.
“We just want people to respect the fact that we put so much time and energy into this project,” said Wilson, who has been working on Clarion Alley’s murals since 1998. “It’s unreal how much of our lives we put into this project, it’s tens of thousands of hours.”
On behalf of Precita Eyes, Patricia Rose says she completely understands CAMP’s territorial stance.
“Balmy Alley got started years and years before Precita Eyes began, so we can’t claim it in the same way… but Clarion Alley is different; until CAMP there wasn’t anything there,” Rose said. “I can certainly understand the irritation that they see these groups bringing hordes of people, making up information and getting so much wrong.”
While Precita Eyes used to operate tours along the alley, Rose says the organization stopped once CAMP started their own tours. Rose added that she, too, hears a lot of frustrating inaccuracies about Balmy Alley and has offered free Precita Eye tours to several erring tour guides.
“I have to say, none of them ever want to,” Rose said. “Why would they take the time, when they’re already getting the benefits?”
J. Jo, the founder of the new free tour provider called Wild SF Tours, also used to lead tours down Clarion Alley but has stopped out of respect for CAMP’s wishes. He acknowledges the complexity of leading tours in a neighborhood in the midst of so many often-fraught changes.
“To bring tourism into the Mission is delicate,” J. Jo said. “For me, I’d only want to bring in fresh eyes of tourists to the Mission if it’s helping the community, pointing wallets to where it counts. We want to support shops and cultural centers, but also try to raise awareness about the issues going on here.”
For Wilson, one of those issues is the displacement of artists and their work. As such, she suggests that anyone interested in learning more about Clarion Alley get it touch with CAMP directly.