Small painted gnomes sit seemingly unnoticed at the bottom of telephone poles throughout Oakland. (Brittany Hosea-Small/KQED)
Every time Bay Curious listener Lauren Bresnahan takes her dog for a walk, she sees them. At the base of utility poles all over her Lake Merritt neighborhood are a collection of painted gnomes.
“I started taking notes about where they were, but then it extended my walk way too long because I was having to stop every 50 feet,” says Lauren.
She came to Bay Curious because she wants to know more.
“What is the story behind the little gnome paintings all over Oakland telephone poles?”
The artist has always worked anonymously, but after a few emails and phone calls I got him on the phone. We’ll call him Dan in this story.
“By maintaining anonymity, everybody gets to create their own story,” Dan says.
He estimates that he has put up somewhere between 5,000 and 7,000 gnomes all across Oakland.
“The original thought was, let’s just do my street,” he says. But soon the project grew.
It was 2012, and Dan was living on a hill above Lake Merritt in Oakland. He didn’t really have any painting experience, unless you count painting a house.
“To be candid with everybody ... I am the worst painter in the world,” he says.
But his roommate liked to paint, and one day Dan thought he’d give it a shot and paint a gnome.
“Who doesn’t like gnomes? That’s something all of us can appreciate,” he says.
He painted one and then a few more, all on little wooden boards a few inches tall. When he finished, he thought, why not put them up?
Inspired by graffiti he’d seen in San Francisco, he walked outside and found places to post them: the utility poles on his block.
That was that. Or so he thought.
Soon the neighbors started noticing. From his window, Dan could hear them talking about the gnomes. Kids from the nearby school were enchanted by them.
“The kids had each individually claimed the gnomes as their own, giving the gnomes names, and telling their parents stories about them,” says Dan.
Dan was tickled and decided he wanted to spread the gnome magic beyond his street. So Dan painted more gnomes ... many more gnomes.
He painted them in pretty much the same style — same beard, same hat, same belt. Then when he had a few paintings dried and finished, he’d wait for night to fall. Under the cover of darkness, he would take his dog for a walk. When he found a choice utility pole, he would kneel down and nail the gnome into place.
A passerby might think he was scooping up dog poop.
First Dan covered the whole Lake Merritt neighborhood. Then he went out into the rest of the city.
“I started doing Highlanders, and people in kilts, and things of that nature,” he says. “Just to add variety.”
He painted toadstools, girl gnomes, tattooed gnomes and firefighter gnomes with Dalmatians.
Within a year, there were hundreds of gnomes across Oakland. A reporter at the San Francisco Chronicle, Carolyn Jones, took notice and wrote a story about the gnomes.
“Reading about the gnomes in the Chronicle got me excited,” says Dan.
But the article included a quote from a Pacific Gas & Electric Co. spokesman, Jason King: "We'll be dispatching a crew to remove them. ... We can't have anything that could compromise the integrity of our equipment. ... The concern is that the gnomes could inspire additional people to place things on our property."
Dan was horrified, and gnome fans were horrified, too. Hundreds joined a Facebook group in support of saving the Lake Merritt gnomes.
At the risk of being exposed and punished for his graffiti, Dan went to City Hall to see if he could convince the company to change its stance.
The meetings had a rocky start. The head of the linesmen at PG&E was clear: The gnomes could be a hazard and he wanted to know where to find each and every last one so he could have them taken down.
But the neighbors were a powerful voice, and an Oakland city councilwoman knew how much her constituents loved the gnomes. As the meeting continued, the PG&E representatives warmed to the gnomes.
“What happened in the end is PG&E was very supportive,” says Dan.
In a public statement, King said, “We received a great deal of public feedback, so we're declaring the poles gnome-man's land. We're not going to remove them."
The gnome diaspora now reaches from Oakland all the way to Oklahoma. Dan moved there a few years ago and says he has painted thousands of gnomes that live on telephone poles across the entire state.
“I think I spend about an hour, maybe two hours a week, on this project. And you know I'm not going to change society in any way, shape or form. But I can't help wondering what our world would be like if everybody would just pick an hour a week to do whatever they wanted for the community,” he says.