• Kathy Chin Leong

Mystery Solved! Mural Artist Revealed


Gail Aratani, Spofford / Ross Alley Mural, 1986 | Page 55 | Photo by Dick Evans

On February 20, 2011, exactly ten years ago, photographer Dick Evans stopped to capture this mural. Says Dick, “We had just moved back to San Francisco from Montreal, and I was simply re-exploring Chinatown.” He had not visited the enclave since the 1990s. And when Dick came across this image of the young woman holding a pink box and passing a traditional tailor shop, he was struck by the “distinct artistic style” that seemed to embody a passing way of life.

Fast forward to 2019. Working with editors at Heyday Books and consultants at the Chinese Culture Center of San Francisco, the time had come to sift through and decide which photos would make the official cut for San Francisco’s Chinatown. He had taken more than 4,000 pictures, most from 2018 and 2019. Dick recalled that specific photo shoot years earlier and wondered if any shots would fit into the book’s themes and convey a unique perspective. He recalls, “This image and the one of laundry hanging on the balconies were two that I thought were worth including.”

Ross Alley location with artist, Gail Aratani

The mural, which was originally hung on Spofford Alley, is found on Page 55. The caption indicates that the painter is unknown. While the team made every effort to locate artists behind every image and get permission for publication, no one knew who the originator was. The mural had vanished by 2018, around the time the photographer decided to embark on this project.


Just this month, the mural’s creator contacted Dick. A friend of hers recognized the painting in the book and emailed her the photo. As it turns out, the esteemed artist is Gail Aratani, an established artist, muralist and art educator who lives in Oahu, Hawaii.

Spofford Alley location


In a recent interview, Gail explained she was awarded this commission by the Chinatown Resource Center and funded by the San Francisco Art Commission back in 1985. Completed in 1986, it was her largest project at that time. The mission? To beautify narrow and neglected Spofford Alley where neighbors were dumping their small bags of trash. Informally called the “Spofford/Ross Alley Mural,” the artwork had consisted of four panels, “each representing different generations of the Chinatown community.”


Many of the portraits were based on folks she knew personally. Hence, the young woman in the mural is her friend Vicky who posed for initial photos with the oranges slung over her shoulder and the box of dim sum. “I met her through tai chi class,” says Gail. “She later worked with helping non-profits with tax preparation.”


Storefronts in the backgrounds of each panel relate to the people being depicted, explains Gail. She used acrylic paints on masonite panels each measuring about 4' x 5'. Initially hung on Spofford Alley, they were bolted into four recessed areas of a concrete wall nearly thirty feet long. By 1996, the panels were re-located to nearby Ross Alley where Dick found them.


Over time, the artwork suffered. Graffiti vandals scrawled over Gail’s paintings. She was hired to refurbish the paintings in 1999. The panels were re-painted and then coated with anti-graffiti varnish. A few years later the panels were again graffitied but the artist was able to clean the panels due to the special varnish. However, the panels aged due to weathering. The set became chipped and severely damaged by passing cars in the narrow alleyway, and all were finally taken down. The next time Gail was in town from Hawaii, she stored them carefully in her father-in-law’s house in the Excelsior district. Eventually, when it came time to clear out his home to sell, she decided to throw them away. “It was a difficult decision,” she says. “It was on display for at least 25 years.”

The mural represented a significant season in Gail’s career. She was living near Chinatown with her artist husband Jim Dong in a small studio apartment. At the time of the commission, she had just given birth to her first child. Life was extremely hectic. On aprofessional level, “I had been active as a community artist in both the Japantown Art and Media Workshop and the Kearny Street Workshop, both in San Francisco. Kearny Street Workshop was housed in the International Hotel in Chinatown until 1977. It is through these affiliations that I found out about the mural project. Both organizations had art workshops, writing workshops, graphic services and art exhibits that served the Asian communities in the Bay Area.”


Being Japanese American, she thought the judges would pass her up and award the project to a Chinese artist. “I was thrilled to be given the commission,” Gail says. “I had to submit drawings, and they liked them.”


It was a happy day in 1986 when the SF Art Commission and the Kearny Street Workshop honored Gail for her contribution. The artwork, indeed, beautified Spofford Alley. In fact, the event was a joint unveiling ceremony to also celebrate the work of her husband, artist Jim Dong, who painted the giant wall mural of a boy on a home-made go cart at the Chinese Playground. “There was a Chinese lion dance, and a BBQ,” recalls Gail. “We started in front of my mural and then walked together to the Chinese Playground.”


Today, now retired from teaching art, Gail is pursuing her own art projects at home in Oahu. Looking back, she is proud of her work and legacy in Chinatown. “I want to encourage today's young Asian American creative community. If they work on mural projects that they understand their rights under the Visual Arts Rights Act.”


She adds, “Make sure to sign and date your work as well as place a plaque for your mural so that its history does not get lost. I also hope that they will connect with a place like the Kearny Street Workshop (www.kearnystreet.org) to meet other Asian American artists.”

Jim Dong, Chinatown Playground Mural, detail 1986 | P. 71 | Right photo by Dick Evans

**Note: All other photos were taken by Jim Dong when both the Spofford / Ross Alley Mural and Chinatown Playground Mural were newly completed in 1986.


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