Student Project to Beautify Oakland Underpass Hampered by Caltrans

Hoover Elementary 4th graders protest a Caltrans policy holding up a new mural on a Highway 580 underpass. (Photo: Cy Musiker)

The line of children marched up West Street in West Oakland Wednesday afternoon chanting “Art is peace, art is peace.” Just a few blocks away, 18 fourth graders from Hoover Elementary started a new round: “We can inspire, we can inspire.”

The students and their teachers stopped under the I-580 freeway, in an underpass strewn with trash and old clothes, holding up their posters -- “Life is Better with Art,” one read. Some held painted canvases showing the design for a mural they’ve worked on for months with help from the activists and artists at Attitudinal Healing Connection.

But right now, according to Attitudinal Healing Executive Director Amana Harris, “Caltrans is stopping us.”

Hoover Elementary 4th graders protest a Caltrans policy holding up a new mural on a Highway 580 underpass
Hoover Elementary 4th graders protest a Caltrans policy holding up a new mural on a Highway 580 underpass. (Photo: Cy Musiker/KQED)

Harris’s group has worked with Oakland school children for years on what's called the Oakland Super Heroes Mural Project, creating three murals so far. Those include one directly across the street on Caltrans property, painted in 2015 by students at West Oakland Middle School.

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“This artwork,” Harris said, “gives our kids an opportunity to have a stake in public spaces, these neglected blighted horrific spaces, where there are trash and needles.”

Trash and old clothes litter the sidewalk of an I-580 freeway underpass on West Street in Oakland
Trash and old clothes litter the sidewalk of an I-580 freeway underpass on West Street in Oakland. (Photo: Cy Musiker/KQED )

But this time, Harris says Caltrans has added a new requirement that the students and artists sign away the copyright to the work, and Harris said that's impossible.

“Caltrans wants exclusive copyrights. But guess what, we don’t have exclusive copyrights to give. We have a license from parents to use images of the student’s artwork.”

A section of the Oakland Super Heroes Project mural done in 2015 by students at West Oakland Middle School
A section of the Oakland Super Heroes Project mural completed in 2015 by students at West Oakland Middle School. (Cy Musiker/KQED )

Caltrans Spokesman Bob Haus says the state agency, which owns the underpass, has changed the documentation required for murals on its property.

“What’s different this time,” he said in a telephone interview, “is that there’s a separate form to fill out just to make sure everyone understands that the copyright is assigned to us. This way we’ll make sure there’s no misunderstanding.”

The problem, said Haus, is that if the mural is damaged in any way, Caltrans has to fix it. “And we can’t do that,” he said, “if we don’t have the copyright.”

But the artist and kids, Haus claimed, retain all rights to the images.

A Hoover Elementary 4th grader holds a canvas showing a section of the planned mural for the I-580 underpass wall behind him
A Hoover Elementary fourth grader holds a canvas showing a section of the planned mural for the I-580 underpass wall behind him. (Photo: Cy Musiker/KQED)

City officials from San Jose, Oakland and San Francisco recently sent letters to Caltrans’ public art division suggesting ways to resolve the dispute, noting they were surprised to see the state agency insisting on the copyright provision.

Susan Pontious, program director for the Public Art Program in San Francisco, wrote that her office funds murals throughout the city, with artists retaining their copyright -- but giving up state and federal rights to protect the image against any future change, “because of their inherently temporary nature.”

Spokesman Haus couldn't comment on the letters, but in a email following our interview, he wrote:"We understand Attitudinal Healing Connection’s concerns regarding the copyright policy and we are working to resolve this issue."

The I-580 underpass wall where the Oakland Super Heroes Project wants to paint a mural
The I-580 underpass wall where the Oakland Super Heroes Project wants to paint a mural. (Photo: Cy Musiker/KQED)

That was news to Harris, who said no one from Caltrans had contacted her to schedule a meeting.

Meanwhile, students who marched said the standoff was deeply disappointing.

“This would be the pretty side of the street too,” said fourth grader Destiny Johnson, looking across the street at the mural painted in 2015. The West Street underpass is on her route from home to school every day.

“I think to myself, 'We should have our mural here,'” Johnson said. “But the sad thing about it is that school is about to be out, and the kids are going to be at home.”

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