“Silk screening is cheap, easy, and you can do it anyplace,” Calixto Robles says, looking over the busy workshop floor at Mission Gráfica. On any given week, the crowd might include a musician designing a CD cover, an activist creating a call-to-arms, an arts-and-craftser turning out calendars she sells online, or Robles himself, who teaches classes here and produces bright-hued prints filled with icons of Latino culture, from Teotihuacan to Carlos Santana.
Most popular art is created on a different kind of screen these days, as we tick-tack away at our blogs or role-play digital Picassos with our Brushes iPhone app. But in the days before Facebook invites, you rounded up your friends and fellow activists through attention-getting posters. Three decades ago, Mission Gráfica was created to produce art that served that kind of concrete purpose. “Everyone needed work done and we never turned anyone away,” says ex Gráfica director Jos Sanches, speaking of the workshop’s beginnings. “You could walk down the street and see posters we had done for peace marches, political and social events, celebrations.” Gráfica was — and still is, especially among those who appreciate fine art and may not have computer access — an important communication resource for the Mission Latino community.
In 1977, the ambitious Mission Cultural Center for Latino Arts opened in an old furniture factory at 24th and Mission streets. At the time, the building was little more than a collection of huge, open floors. A fledgling print shop took up one corner, meant to provide publicity for the center’s events. “The first thing we had to work on was getting walls put in, and some heating,” Alfonso Maciel, a local painter elected to take charge of what was then called the center’s graphics department, says with a laugh. By 1980 codirectors Rene Castro and Sanches had renamed the studio Mission Gráfica to underline its commitment to Latino social activism. They gathered better equipment, all of it hand-me-downs or paid for out of their own pockets. Sanches remembers their drive to create something different. “There was a stigma about community printmaking back then. We wanted to do stuff that was as good as what was going on anywhere.”
Silk-screened graphics were co-opted as an important form of Latin American protest from time of the technique’s invention. Handmade posters like those from Rupert Garcia and the United Farm Workers used the ugliness of class struggle to forge beautiful, iconic tributes to human spirit. Ester Hernandez’s breakthrough 1982 riff on the Sun-Maid raisins box (“Sun-Mad”), portraying the “maid” as a decomposed skeleton to protest the use of agricultural pesticides, brought Latino social poster art into the American mainstream. “If you look at most ‘art school’ art,” Sanches says, “it’s typically about the artist. But [art from developing countries] is more outwardly focused,” fusing politics with craft.
Throughout the 1980s, Mission Gráfica built its reputation for compelling designs and drew accomplished guest artists from all over the world. One day, Sanches recalls, he was interrupted in the studio by an Irish musician who invited him to a concert he was playing that night. “I told him, sorry, I can’t because I’ve got to make dinner for my kids.” He laughs. “It turned out to be Bono. He thought it was funny. He bought a few prints and started hanging out.”
Eventually, Gráfica designed a banner denouncing war in Latin America for a U2 benefit concert in Oakland. The studio produced album artwork for Santana, a Mission High graduate. Among the 4,000 historical prints still kept in Gráfica’s extensive archives — among the largest in the United States — there are heart-stopping expressions of solidarity with war-torn Central America, pirate radio schedules, homelessness advocate rallies, public health announcements, and Caribbean-flavored flame-bursts heralding the neighborhood’s wild annual Carnaval.
“Without a doubt, Gráfica was one of those spots where people from different movements could come together,” said “Doug Gline” of the San Francisco Print Collective, a political street art group whose members met at the studio during the eviction-rife Internet boom of the late 1990s. Gline, who uses a pseudonym due to the extralegal nature of some of SFPC’s projects, credits Gráfica as a place where real work got done on social change. “It was a launching pad. It wasn’t like a café, where everyone was just there to hang out.”
Gráfica underwent a rethinking of its mission in the 1990s, under then-director Juan Fuentes. “We wanted to be a learning center, an educational place,” Fuentes recounts. In particular, Fuentes found ways to engage Mission youth, starting a free silk screening workshop for high schoolers and spearheading a project that decorated 50 bus shelters with teen-made posters calling attention to addiction and domestic violence.
Although currently lacking an official coordinator, the studio still hums with activity. Acting coordinator Gina Contreras estimates that 40 students attend the workshop each week. Expert instruction, equipment, and some materials are provided. New students are often amazed, she says, at the artistic power of the old-school technique. To Fuentes, what defines Mission Gráfica — and poster art in general — is the open invitation to speak out and the potential be heard. “We see the street as an extension of the gallery. Creating posters amplifies one’s voice beyond the studio and into the world.”
MISSION GRÁFICA SILKSCREEN WORKSHOPS
Mon.–Fri. 6–9 p.m., Sat 11 a.m.–2 p.m.; $15
Mission Cultural Center for Latino Arts
2868 Mission, SF
(415) 643-2786 www.missionculturalcenter.org