Paint the Town
Telling stories, reflecting cultures, providing joy - murals are a treasured part of the East Bay's urban landscape, and nowhere is that more true than in Oakland.
Oakland’s mural scene is exploding with works of social commentary, call-outs to resistance, and jolts of beauty on walls all over town. These are proclamations of optimism and anger, longing and hope, with influences as diverse as the Bay Area itself.
The region has been fertile territory for murals ever since the 1930s, when Diego Rivera introduced local artists to social realism with his San Francisco frescoes showing monumental figures engaged in everyday work—images that were informed by labor struggles at the time. In the 1960s and ’70s, civil rights activist–artists carried on that Marxist-inspired, social-realism tradition, and by the ’80s and ’90s, graffiti and cartoon-influenced pieces began to appear on city buildings.
All those strands converge in Oakland’s contemporary street art and contribute to its new energy. Artists like the Illuminaries—whose mural Rise and Grind shows Stomper (the Oakland A’s elephant mascot) as an armored beast bearing the city on its back—follow the lead of longtime crews like TDK, prolific spray can artists who came together in 1984.
Much of the latest crop of high-profile murals is the result of producers matching property owners with artists—connectors like Sorell Raino-Tsui of ABG Art Group. In 2015, street artist Zio Ziegler asked Raino-Tsui to help him find a wall for a commission from the United Nations. Now, Ziegler’s figure—densely patterned in designs that evoke a multitude of cultures—celebrates the U.N. on nine stories of a downtown Oakland building. Nearby is another ABG piece, Joshua Mays’ luminous vision of a woman flanked by storks and Art Nouveau ornamentation.
There are also plenty of smaller-scale pieces tucked away in neighborhoods throughout the city. In the Laurel district, for example, A Bear-Shaped Hole by the Justseeds collective depicts grizzly bears filled with nighttime stars; and in Fruitvale, artist Debbie Koppman is working on a quirky timeline of Oakland transportation on the wall of an auto repair shop. Koppman’s project was funded by a grant from Visit Oakland, a nonprofit promoting local tourism, which is also cosponsoring the first Oakland Art Month in May.
“The most wonderful thing about murals is the opportunity for artists and the community to engage with each other,” says Koppman. “[When people see me working on a mural] for a month or a year ... it gives them a sense of possibility for their own projects, for their creativity.”
Murals are traditionally expressions or reflections of the community they inhabit; they can be a way of coming together or fostering creativity among young people. Witness the Oakland Super Heroes Mural Project, in which kids work to improve their neighborhoods as they reimagine their lives through paint.
Schools have also turned to mural making to teach art and other lessons. Shardie Thomas-Ezell, an art teacher at Bret Harte Middle School in the Dimond district, sees murals as a way to learn about reframing challenges. She tells her students, “If a decision you make turns out not to work, you’ve got to problem solve and fix it.” And when the mural is complete, she says, “the kids post it on their Instagram—‘I made this.’ There’s a respect.”
From student works to commissioned creations, Oakland takes its murals seriously. “You get museum-quality pieces,” says Sage Loring, who connects muralists with empty walls through Fuming Guerilla Productions. “You get political pieces that provoke thought; you get high-end graffiti pieces and the [graffiti] bombs and throws. You can only have that with a city like Oakland.”
Off the Wall
Oakland artist and educator David Burke shares his thoughts on the renaissance of public art and why the East Bay is such rich territory for murals.
David Burke has collaborated on more than 30 murals in the last decade, producing vibrant works on freeway underpasses and school walls that explore community, science, nature, music, and surreal urban landscapes. He is also the art director for the Oakland Super Heroes Mural Project, a community development effort that works with area youths on concrete canvases that bring positive change to their neighborhoods.
Q: How did you become involved in mural making?
A: I broke my arm when I was 10 years old. As my mother drove me to the hospital, we passed underneath the 580 freeway in Oakland, where we encountered a mural of giraffes painted by local artist Dan Fontes. I was so captivated by these creatures standing amidst the dense urban landscape that I forgot about the pain of my broken arm. There was something magical about that encounter.
Q: Why do you think the East Bay produces so many great muralists and public art projects?
A: Over the last 10 years, we have seen a lot of artists move to the East Bay from San Francisco and the South Bay due to the rise of housing costs. As a result, you have this concentration of creativity and talent that has contributed to a wave of incredible public art. Between all of the new murals popping up and the graffiti that has a long, rich local history, it’s not a stretch to say that we’re in the midst of a public art renaissance here in the East Bay.
Q: Who are some of your favorite mural artists working in the area?
A: I grew up seeing the work of Bay Area mural legends like Daniel Galvez, Dan Fontes, and Keith Sklar. Their murals had a big impact on my development as an artist. And there are so many great [local] projects going on. Community Rejuvenation Project has been combining youth outreach and mural painting in Oakland for the past 10 years.
ARTISTS IN ACTION
May will be the first Oakland Art Month, and as part of the festivities, the Oakland Mural Festival will take place at Jack London Square from May 12 to 19. the closing celebration will feature performances, live paintings, music, food, and drink. bamfest.org.
Click here for a map of street art in Oakland.