After last month's Oakland Mural Festival, Oakland’s already-rich street art scene gained nine more stunning surfaces coated with public art. KQED Arts takes you on a tour to find out more about the artists and inspirations behind the murals.
Martin Luther King Jr Way and Embarcadero West Creative Shields a.k.a. Lower Bottoms Collective
High above the train tracks on MLK and Embarcadero West, a turf dancer moves across a glowing Oakland skyline. Rocks quake under the weight of his steps and as he slides his way over massive concrete slabs and takes his first step right out of the frame.
“The mission of this was to represent authentic Oakland culture. We saw that possibility through turf dancing and showing that movement on the canvas,” explains James Shields, founder of Creative Shields and creator of the Hip Hop Coloring Book. But why this mural, and why now?
“I feel like we have been losing the true authenticity in Oakland by having so many people come in and take over our equity out here—our space,” says Timothy B., an artist born and raised in Oakland.
The muse behind the mural is turf dancer Noh Justice (a.k.a. Nonoiz). When talking about his dance style, Noh Justice sums it up simply with what he calls "a hood ballet." With turf dance, the creative process starts with anything around him: “Mainly our stories and our lives and things we don’t like to talk about.” It’s not the first mural he’s found himself starring in; he routinely (and proudly) points out another three Oakland walls to his kids.
The rocks floating around the dancer capture the force of his moves. “It shows he’s making an impact,” says Timothy, referencing the Hindu god Shiva, who destroys and recreates the world around him. “To me, he’s dancing for change. He’s making an impact and destroying his surroundings to create change for a new way of being.”
Martin Luther King Jr Way and 2nd Alise and Jack Eastgate
Just blocks from the Jack London Inner Harbor, a little girl valiantly rides a whale moving westward. In Warmer Waters (also known fondly as "Whale Rider"), artists Alise and Jack Eastgate play with movement across time and space. The whale reflects the presence of ancestors, while the little girl, adorned with symbols native to Fiji, stands between the present and future.
And their work is timely. Just days before completion, news broke of a beached whale found in the Jack London estuary. The industrialization of the oceans and the waning rights of people to freely move across borders inspire the Oakland-based muralists.
“A lot of things felt right about this wall,” says Alise. Located at 679 2nd Street, the two noted the serendipity of the address. 679 is the area code for Fiji, Jack’s birthplace, while the blooming magnolia tree just overhead brings a sense of nostalgia to Louisiana-born Alise.
In their latest collaboration, Mike "Bam" Tyau and Jesus Rodriguez pay vibrant homage to their roots. “Besides the Olmec and Chinese motifs as ancestral guardian totems, we painted these to remind people to go to their pillars of support during these trying times,” Mike wrote in an Instagram post at the end of the seven-day-long Oakland Mural Festival.
Foliage and mountains encompass two figures, references to the artists' ancestral homelands. For Tyau, the leaves of the plants ground the composition with symbols pointing back to Mother Earth.
2nd and Broadway Caleb Duarte and Youth from Embassy of the Refugee Project
"Our ability to create myth in order to understand certain realities; is what we do,” Duarte wrote on Instagram, under the image of his latest work. “Those of us with no political or economic power, exiles or displaced working people, turn to the creation of the ‘embassy of the refugee'... as a form of exercising a magical realism in order to thrive.”
Straddling a busy street that connects some of Oakland’s homeless encampments with million-dollar condos, Duarte’s silhouette of a figure pushing a shopping cart posits a powerful statement on the pursuit of finding “home.”
Two hands rise, palms open, up a wall. For the artists of Trust Your Struggle Collective, they simultaneously signify the power to hold on to, and reach for, your dreams.
Perhaps the most visually striking element of the collective's mural are the two large words spanning the sun-soaked wall: "Oakland Dreams." The second word pays homage to one of the founding members of the TDK (Those Damn Kids) aerosol collective, Mike "Dream" Francisco, who lost his life to gun violence in a senseless street robbery in 2000.
Images of flora and fauna run subtly throughout the mural. A lotus—a symbol often associated with transcendence—blooms from the sidewalk while a yellow hummingbird emerges from a red triangle glistening in the sun. Some interpretations of the hummingbird link back to the Aztec god Huitzilopochtli, a deity associated with the resurrection of a fallen warrior.
Even though this mural revolves around just three core elements—a way-larger-than-life rooster, a Chinese character and a “rising sun”—Dave Young Kim and Erik Burke’s newest work is anything but simple.
“The rooster traditionally symbolizes tenaciousness, never giving up,” Kim shared in an Instagram post. And in the composition, the rooster reigns supreme in spite of the Chinese symbol "恨," pronounced "han" in Korean, that towers over its head.
To Kim, the symbol represents a feeling that being downtrodden could be both a burden and a source of empowerment. "It could crush you, or you could rise up and fight til the end,” he says.
Fittingly, the mural also gives a nod to Jack London, the prolific author who spent most of his childhood frequenting the waterfront district that now bears his name. Instead of a sun, a circular frame depicts a lone figure in a snowy landscape, facing a radiant fire for warmth. It’s painted after a photograph Burke fixated on for a long time, inspired by a scene in London’s short story “To Build A Fire.”
Reflecting on Han, Kim says he found his “mural soulmate” when working with Burke. They had plenty of time to bond in the two-and-a-half days of long working hours.
Seven students and members of Los Pobres Artistas focused their creative energies on distilling images from the global refugee crisis. Sprawled across the right and the left sides of the mural are two words in all caps “EARTH” and “SANCTUARY.” At the center, giant hands support a raft filled with female refugees. In the foreground, schools of orange fish rise and fall as if to guide the raft safely to shore.
According to Los Pobres co-founder Thomas Jones, the mural stands for the idea that Earth can be a sanctuary for everybody.
Spanning the rear wall of Seawolf Public House, catch a golden-hued scene in which Cheemah, the “Mother of the Spirit-Fire” descends onto the Port of Oakland atop a giant eagle. Locals might instantly recognize the figure from a bronze statue placed in Jack London Square. Originally sculpted by Osprey Orielle Lake, the mythic being stands for “cultural diversity, world unity and care for the earth.”
And while the moment might look idyllic, a somewhat menacing clue stands out in the foreground. Two ships, halfway to shore, allude to the terrible reality of a colonized past.
In the photo-realistic A Love Letter to Oakland, Burke and his collaborators bridge two generations. On the left, two Oakland artists, Tureeda Mikell and James Gayles, reach out across the downtown Oakland skyline toward two emerging local heroes — well-known muralist DJ Agana and youth activist Samuel Getachew. Between them, a glow lights their faces.
A satellite view of Oakland streets extends across the concrete canvas like roots—an enduring symbol of the city. In an interview with the East Bay Express, Burke calls out the importance of the festival that allowed for his most recent collaboration: "[The mural] becomes part of their collective experience," Burke said, "and must reflect the stories, the diversity, the values and the histories of that community."