Walk through quiet neighborhoods across San Diego county and you can’t miss the murals. Turn a corner and you may suddenly face a wall transformed by color, patterns, texture and all with a message. Some document local history, as one mural artist did on the UCSD Campus.

Many local projects accessorize neighborhoods, like the La Jolla Mural Art Project, which has commissioned a rotating series of high-toned artworks. The most politically strident mural artist will find their work transported or destroyed. The most surprising and relevant pieces respond to local events.

In this post:

  • Mural at UCSD
  • La Mesa and Floyd George
  • Black Lives Matter in La Mesa
  • Riot Destruction
  • La Mesa Re-opens
  • Mayor apologizes
  • Where to find more mural artist work


Commemorating 40 years of Chicano History in San Diego

La Mesa is home to dozens of murals. They are temporary embellishments created by students and art departments, volunteers, and more than one established mural artist. Most of the mural artist works are tagged or anonymous. All are temporary.

Mural artist interpretation of George Floyd and others who inspired the Black Lives Matter protests

La Mesa’s Black Lives Matter Moment

La Mesa is east of downtown San Diego with a convenient trolley stop across from the main street of shops. It’s been one of my favorites places to visit for thrifting, to hike the hidden staircase up the hill and to listen to music with friends. There are restaurants, coffee bars and pizza joints. The vintage furniture emporium is packed with finds. This part of the city has always seemed friendly and full of modest, home-grown character.

Downtown La Mesa Village a week after the riots

The village found itself on the cusp of a nationwide uprising in the wake of the murder of George Floyd, thousands of miles away in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Several viral episodes of abusive encounters with police have been documented in La Mesa. It didn’t make the city famous but inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement over Memorial Day weekend, hundreds of protestors targeted the city as an example of systemic problems. They strode through the village in a passionate parade during the day, but the event devolved into looting and destruction after dark. Local press reported that while some of the daytime protestors stayed on into the evening another contingent arrived after dark. They were dressed differently, often in dark colors. Many of the new arrivals carried hammers and bats.

Mauled building after riots in La Mesa

Triumph over Tragedy

What happened next shocked the city, the county and California. Windows were broken and looters grabbed what they could. Several buildings burst into flames. Walk through the village today and you can’t miss the twisted remains of the Chase Bank building and several adjacent catastrophes. The horrific, immense mass of melted steel and charred cement is hard to forget.

However, the boarded-up storefronts inspired mural artist energy and within a week much of the bleak and blank plywood was transformed into inspired canvases. Most of the murals took their themes from current headlines to commemorate Black Lives in paint and form. Some ask for forgiveness, remind viewers of childhood innocence, and call for community healing.  

Memorial fence in La Mesa

Other artwork has been woven into the wire lattices of chain link fences around the burnt buildings. All of it will be gone soon as repairs are being made. Rumor has it that a local church is going to auction off the artwork to help with the reconstruction and restocking.

Sheldon's cafe in La Mesa Village

Restaurants are reopening along the main street with Covid-19 guidelines in place. Many were not hurt in the protests, but the city remains changed. The Police abuse that focused attention on La Mesa led to the firing of Officer Matt Dages. A grandmother, Miss Furcron, had joined the protest and was disputedly targeted for throwing a can. The police shot her in the head with bean bag and she spent a week in a hospital induced coma.

The Mayor apologized, “I’m sorry for the incident at the trolley, for everything that happened on Saturday, for the mistakes made and a lot of anger. I am angry too.” The Citizen Public Safety Oversight Task Force is re-starting, and the City Council is promising more equity and accountability.

Desmond Tutu quote done by a La Mesa Village mural artist

Join the mural artist efforts by donating to a Go Fund me account organized to distribute funds to businesses targeted by the violence.

Mural artist work in Chicano Park, San Diego

Where to find other socially significant, mural artist work

  • Chicano Park. Head south from downtown to the pilons below the Coronado Bridge. The towering columns are painted with mystical characters, Mayan motifs and social messages. Read more in my earlier post.
  • The La Jolla Mural Project. Visit La Jolla and stop in at the Atheneum where you can pick up a free map of the murals commissioned by the art group. You can also take a monthly tour. Read about it in this article I wrote for Travel Awaits.
  • The Surfing Madonna made her first appearance on an underpass wall. She was dismantled pretty quickly by the city but emerged in several locations before setting up residence permanently in Leucadia. Her fame spawned non-profit events to benefit public art projects.
  • Urban Artist Collective Project A mural artist collaborative focused on place-making and beautification.
  • The Cohort Collective and the Pangaea Seed Project created the Sea Walls project in alignment with the Kaboo concert series. Several mural artist projects were created. Many have been removed.
Mural artist heart pin from La Mesa
Mural artist figure from La Mesa after the riot