"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."