DJ Agana in front of the 'You Are Beautiful' mural in West Oakland. <a href="https://www.instagram.com/carla.hr/" target="_blank">Carla Hernandez Ramirez</a>
DJ Agana in front of the 'You Are Beautiful' mural in West Oakland. (Carla Hernandez Ramirez)

Artist DJ Agana Sprays Meaningful Symbols Across a Changing Oakland

Artist DJ Agana Sprays Meaningful Symbols Across a Changing Oakland

The north-south median-divided street now known as Mandela Parkway is a microcosm of the changes at play throughout Oakland. Once, it was the site of the Cypress Structure, a 1.6-mile-long two-deck freeway that collapsed during the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake and killed 42 people. Now, Mandela Parkway is home to food establishments, industrial businesses and pathways, which in the pre-pandemic era filled with affluent residents walking through the neighborhood. But tucked into the side streets is another, simultaneous, Oakland, one that reflects the uneven effects of gentrification sweeping the Town.

Vanessa Espinoza, better known as DJ Agana, is well aware of the disparity present in these streets. She’s looking up at You Are Beautiful, a mural on the back of East Bay Resources recycling center on West Oakland’s Willow Street. “The mural is all trashed, I don’t know if this is going to work,” she says of a planned photoshoot.

DJ Agana is an East Oakland graffiti artist and a member of the women’s artist collective Few and Far. Agana is also an emcee, a 3D visual effects animator, a jewelry maker and an activist.

DJ Agana in front of her contribution to the 'You Are Beautiful' mural. (Carla Hernandez Ramirez)

You Are Beautiful, painted by Agana and Few and Far members in 2018, depicts women in all shapes and forms: pregnant, breast-feeding, voluptuous, in full tribal regalia. Its message is straightforward but emphatic—all women are beautiful. Agana’s contribution to the mural is a woman breastfeeding her baby, draped in a teal shawl, her feet surrounded by a maíz plant.

The image is Agana’s way of normalizing a part of motherhood that is often sexualized or seen as inappropriate in public space. “Breasts aren’t made for your sexual pleasure,” she says. “They are made to feed babies, they might be sexy, they might turn you on or make you uncomfortable, but I’m going to feed my baby when he’s hungry, and I don’t care who is around.”

Fans of Agana’s work will recognize the imagery of corn, a recurring motif in her practice. Before shelter-in-place orders shuttered the eatery, it could be seen in the mural that adorns the inside wall of La Guerrera’s Kitchen, a mother-daughter food establishment in Fruitvale (currently offering pick-up services from a nearby brewery, Friday through Sunday).

Agana’s maíz imagery draws from her Venezuelan roots and the knowledge that ancient civilizations in Mexico and Central and South America used the grain as a food staple until it was colonized by the food industry. She wants to bring awareness to this sacred grain in its natural form, not as corn syrup or other heavily processed corn-based products. “This is reclaiming what is sacred and keeping our traditions alive through our recipes, and our food,” she says. “That’s why it is my symbol.”

As Agana walks around the mural on Willow Street, she notices missing pieces and new tags. All that remains of the homeless encampment that once occupied that stretch of the street is the illegal dumping lining the bottom of the mural.

Few and Far's mural 'You Are Beautiful,' seen in 2020 on West Oakland's Willow Street. (Carla Hernandez Ramirez)

“The theme of this mural is ‘you are beautiful,’ which is super ironic considering the state that it is in right now,” Agana says. “But that was the state that [the area] was in when we first got here.” At the time, Willow Street was the site of a homeless encampment of over 100 unhoused people.

Meme, one of the artists in Few and Far, leads efforts to obtain permission from building owners to secure wall space for their projects. She reached out to the owner of East Bay Resources (who owns several buildings across town that often boast street art), secured sponsorships from Ironlak Spray Paint and Monster Energy, and the collective got to work.

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“When we started working on the mural, we made friends with the homeless folks, they had our back and we had theirs,” Agana says. “We shared food, we broke bread, we brought them clothes, whatever we could do to support [them].” The collective prepped and cleaned the area before they started painting. Now, the upkeep of the mural also falls on the artists, damaged walls, trash and all.

Today, the mural and its surroundings are a juxtaposition of the changing demographics of the city. Artists struggle to remain rooted, often a few hundred dollars away from coming up short on rent and losing housing themselves—even more the case during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

Talking about You Are Beautiful, Agana touches on the subject of who has permission to paint a mural and where. Controversy recently flared up over a Tom Hanks and Too $hort mural painted on the side of the building at Oakland’s San Pablo Avenue and Castro Street.

“We all get our walls different ways, but there is a thing about going over other people’s art,” Agana emphasizes. “Even if the owner gives you consent, that’s not enough, you gotta know what art was there before. Where it came from, who did it, you can sue, it’s disrespectful.”

Agana mentions a mural in San Francisco’s Mission District created by local youth under the guidance of the Precita Eyes Mural Arts Center. When it was painted over in 2017, it was perceived as an attempt as a way to erase the Latinx contributions to the neighborhood. “Folks that are rooted where they are from feel some type of way,” Agana says. “If an out-of-towner rolls up and paints a wall, there’s definitely tension.”

The clash isn’t just between local artists and those coming from out of town. Agana says there is tension even between artists who work in different styles. “There’s tension between the graffiti and street art, between who is native to the neighborhood and the Town, and who is coming to just get some fame,” she explains. When the artist isn’t connected to the site, she says, “People feel like they are gentrifying [a wall] and taking something that is sacred.”

Few and Far is a women's artist collective. (Carla Hernandez Ramirez)

For Agana and the Few and Far crew, there are even more obstacles than getting permission to paint on a particular wall. The world of graffiti and street art remains heavily male dominated; getting recognition and respect as women is a battle they continue to fight. “I’m putting in a lot of work, and the ladies in the crew are also putting in a lot of work where we gain respect, but it didn’t come easy,” Agana says. “There’s a stereotype of ‘she got good because her boyfriend taught her.’ There’s this assumption that you got good because of a dude.” She emphasizes the need to respect the artistry without sexist assumptions.

Agana’s work, sprayed across Bay Area walls, challenges the notion of who, and what, gets to take up space in the public realm. In her purposeful depictions of maíz, of different body types engaged in activities that represent her own lived experience—and the experiences of her community—Agana puts her own beliefs into large-scale practice.

As she says, “It’s not about putting your name everywhere and your own personal fame. It’s about everybody and what your art represents.”

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