Reclaiming space for community art and meaning

El Inmigrante, a street mural by Joel Bergner, is a beautiful work of art; but it is also a reclamation of public space, and a soulful reflection of the harsh realities lived by people in our cities.

El Inmigrante, Joel Bergner

"El Inmigrante" by Joel Bergner, a mural in San Francisco's Mission District

Joel explains the location of his mural in San Francisco’s Mission district:

“I did not choose the location of the mural based on the nearby murals, although I love to paint in the Mission where there are so much amazing art. I wanted it to be on a street where a lot of people pass by and where there are a lot of immigrants who could relate to the themes of the murals.”

“The man in the middle is on a journey that is very difficult and emotional, which is why he has his eyes closed, deep in thought. He’s leaving his home, culture, family, and everything that he is familiar with, which is portrayed on the right side of the mural. His home country has beauty as well as problems, which is why I painted families, bright   cultures, tropical scenery, but also a street kid, protesters, and low-paid factory workers bent over their work. The woman, who is his girlfriend or wife, is staying behind, which is very painful for both of them. This situation is very common for many friends and room-mates of mine who are from El Salvador, Mexico, Brazil, Colombia, Iraq and other countries. The man is coming to the large American city, which also has its positive and negative aspects. He finds it cold (both the weather and the culture), overly-organized and technical, and many people are zoned into materialism and a spiritually-empty media (which explains the zombie-TVs and the bug-eyed people). Some people make money off  of all this, but they too are victims (which is why they’re portrayed as being bug-eyed as well, and zoned into their money). On the positive side, there are families having fun together and a relatively high standard of living.”

CITY editor Bob Catterall considers Joel’s work in a 2007 editorial (CITY 11.2, pages 141-143 >>):

“Bergner is also a social worker. He knows not only who he is portraying, but also what. How do the portrayals of urban landscapes, perspectives of, and representational approaches to a range of situations of urban life relate to his portrait? What do they add? What, if anything, is missing? The mural is, of course, a symbolic enactment rather than a realist record. Nevertheless, it is meaningful to ask of both the portrayals and the portrait how far, in essence, do they confirm and challenge each other?”

In his concluding article to the issue, he continues (1):

“We … need to include human subjects, actual instances and types, not just subjectivities within our field of knowledge, and not just station them on the Cinderella heaths and hearths of fiction and biography, only occasionally and highly selectively admitted to the ballrooms and heartlands of celebrity. We need to present our subjects, at least occasionally, in line with the way in which we live our everyday lives and their crises, not at several removes as absented ghosts somewhere outside an analytical realm of abstractions and statistics.

“How do we and they know that what we are saying is true if neither we, nor outsiders, can find life as it is lived to compare with our abstract or empirical representations of it? One should not seek to spend too much time on the peaks of disembodied theory and facts without regular, consequential dialogue and testing being undertaken on the plains below and finding a place for them, their subjects and their narratives within our work. Some of us will operate more from the  plains than the peaks, more from the outside than the inside, but we do need each other if we are to chart, mediate and negotiate our way through the maze.

“A chart, a symbolic re-enactment, of crucial dimensions of that maze is provided  by the muralist and social worker Joel Bergner. (2) ‘El Inmigrante’ is one such  wanderer. He wanders through the maze wondering while his partner hesitates and hangs back. He moves from the country to the city and finds himself (or, rather, does not find himself) near the centre of a spectral realm where spectators have introjected the ever-multiplying screens of ‘the media’ as their own way of seeing, while at the same time the money rolls out.

Bergner’s El Inmigrante is also featured in Björn Surborg’s article Reclaim the City? Yes! But for whom, and for what purpose?” >>


  1. Catterall, B. (2007) “Is it all coming together? Thoughts on urban studies and the present crisis: (11) From Neoliberalism towards a paradigm for a New International” CITY 11.2, pages 245 – 272 >>
  2. There is a biographical page on Bergner’s website: An update – information supplied by Bergner: ‘Joel recently moved from San Francisco with his fiance to Washington DC, where he is working with youth at the Latin American Youth Center. He is also currently an intern with the International Rescue Committee (IRC), a global organization that works in conflict zones around the world as well as working with refugees in the US. Joel is planning an international mural project that will feature artists from a variety of countries and cultures. The murals, which will be presented next to each other, will each be cultural and deal with social issues such as human rights.’

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