Ghosts of the City's Past

New Mission District mural brings to life what used to lie beneath San Francisco.

A good deal of San Francisco’s deep history is buried beneath the footsteps of the City by the Bay. Construction digs yield old schooners, bits of pottery and the remnants of maritime factories. 

Seven years ago, Ben Wood and archaeologist Eric Blind heard the tale of an old Native American mural hidden behind the altar of Mission Dolores, San Francisco’s oldest building. The mural had been covered when the altar was installed around 1796, five years after the dedication of the church.

The only way to see the mural was to brave the attic, where 200 year old redwood beams were still fastened together with rawhide. There, in a crawl space behind the altar, the pair lowered cameras behind the wall using a series of ropes and pulleys. They documented the mural one photo at a time, piecing together a composite of the images on a computer. “If you’re above the altar you can look below and see a sort of oblique angle,” said Wood, "and see this mural which was painted in 1791.”

The mural was likely painted by Native Americans at the behest of Spanish missionaries who were converting the natives to Catholicism. Wood and Blind were able to document 22 feet of the old mural, including an image of a heart with a sword through it, and another punctured by nails. 

But Wood wasn’t satisfied. He wanted to somehow bring the mural back to the public eye. But trying to save the original was unfeasible, and it might not survive the effort. So he figured out the next best thing.

He brought in artist Jet Martinez to recreate the mural on the wall of an old Mexican market in San Francisco’s Mission District. Near the corner of Bartlett and 22nd, Martinez and his team are bringing the 200-year-old painting back to the living. 

"We don’t want to interpret for the public what the mural looks like," said Wood. "But we want to give them an opportunity for viewers to come and see it for themselves."
The artists are using Wood’s composite image to paint the mural, flaws and all. They’ve even replicated the spots on the original mural where the plaster had peeled away. “We decided to go with the way it was because we didn’t want to invent too much,” said artist Jet Martinez, who has studied and painted murals for 15 years.

The mural will become the backdrop for the weekly Mission Community Markets, which will take place Thursday nights on Bartlett Street. "It’s a way for the community to see a huge piece of the Mission -- the first mural," said market organizer Jeremy Shaw. "It’s been hidden for 200 years."

For now, graffiti covers the adjacent walls where the team is working. But Shaw hopes the mural will be the first of many to eventually breathe new life into Bartlett Street.

As the painters painted on a recent day, a steady stream of neighbors came by to admire the work and to inquire about its origins. They looked on as Martinez put the finishing touches on a heart, pierced by a sword. Martinez said the mural’s design reminded him of the churches he grew up around in his native Mexico. As he painted, it wasn’t lost on him that each stroke of his brush, seemed to be summoning ghosts from 200 centuries in San Francisco’s past. 

Like anything these days, the project could use money. If you'd like to help, click on this link.

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