Oakland Muralists Honor Victims of Police Violence – Even as Police Take Their Paint

3 min
Artist Brandon Ehieze (right) poses with his younger brother, Damarius “Poppa” Ross, in front of a mural honoring George Floyd in downtown Oakland. (Chloe Veltman/KQED)

A group of artists was busy outlining a massive yellow Black Lives Matter mural covering three blocks in downtown Oakland last Saturday night, when their work was suddenly interrupted.

According to Oakland's Cultural Affairs Commission, the artists had the city’s permission to be there. But that didn't stop police officers from taking the artists' painting materials.

A massive, three-block-long Black Lives Matter mural in downtown Oakland was interrupted when police took away the artists' painting supplies. (Chloe Veltman/KQED)

“I swear to God, blood, we just got robbed by the police!" said artist Brandon Ehieze in an Instagram video capturing the incident.

Downtown Oakland has become an open-air art gallery this past week, as muralists share powerful visual messages in support of Black Lives Matter — even in the face of this disruption.

A few days later, Ehieze stood at the corner of 15th and Franklin Street where it happened. Ehieze said they were just starting on the “V” in the word “Lives” when an unmarked white van pulled up in the crosswalk.

"I see 10 police officers jump out the van, grab the poles, the paint, the buckets," he told KQED. "And they start scrambling back to the van."

Ehieze said they eventually got their supplies back from the local police station and were able to finish the mural. The officers’ behavior left Ehieze with all-too-familiar feelings of frustration and rage.

"They were acting like rioters," he said. "They were the looters that night. Not us."

The Oakland Police Department did not respond to KQED’s requests for comment, though the city's cultural affairs department said there had been some confusion around permitting, which was resolved by the next day.

Despite the setback, Ehieze said he was thrilled to see so many fellow artists show up for the cause armed with brushes and paint.

"We called in everybody," he said, listing the names of many different local crews who contributed to the work, including his own cohort, Splash Gang Original.

Local restaurants handed out free food and Ehieze’s cousin’s band, Pocket Still Matters, helped to create the party vibe.

"We felt like it was family," Ehieze said. "Because everybody that came out, came out for the same purpose."

The corner of Telegraph and Broadway in downtown Oakland is covered in new murals, as are many other walls in the area. (Chloe Veltman/KQED)

Ehieze has been creating art in Oakland for about 10 years, so he’s well known around town. At Dope Era, an apparel store on Broadway, he stopped in to say hello to rapper and store owner, Mistah F.A.B.

"Man, I'm really proud of you and everything that you're doing, brother. You’re artists bringing the world together, man," Mistah F.A.B. told Ehieze. "To see some authentic art being recognized in the times that we're living in, that's amazing."

Ehieze is 35 and grew up in Oakland. He goes by the moniker Jamaica the Artist, even though he has Nigerian roots.

A mural in downtown Oakland depicting George Floyd, an unarmed man killed by a Minneapolis police officer who knelt on his neck for nearly 9 minutes.
A mural in downtown Oakland depicting George Floyd, an unarmed man killed by a Minneapolis police officer who knelt on his neck for nearly 9 minutes. The artists are on Instagram at @amendtdk @nvnovr @agentdecoy and @somarbar. (Chloe Veltman/KQED)

"People thought my last name was Jamaican because I had long dreadlocks," he said. (The artist wears his hair cropped short these days.)

He got his start making commemorative T-shirts for people in his community who’d lost loved ones on the streets of Oakland to violence. When Ehieze emerged from serving a three year prison sentence on charges related to a robbery and kidnapping, the artist made a commemorative artwork for Oscar Grant's mother. Ehieze said Grant, who was fatally shot by a white police officer at Fruitvale BART station in 2009, was a close childhood friend.

"I felt like I was able to give my talents to the individuals who some people may have forgotten about, or not even had a chance to recognize," he said.

A mural dedicated to George Floyd by artists 3Nolam and Irot. (Chloe Veltman/KQED)

Thanks to the new murals adorning the streets of Oakland and other cities around the world, the faces of at least some of the victims will now be hard to forget.

Walking around the neighborhood, Ehieze pointed out his favorite among the many portraits of George Floyd.

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In the artwork created by a pair of artists who go by 3Nolam and Irot, Floyd’s face, sensitive and frank, busts out through the middle of his name spelled out in chunky white and green letters.

"This piece right here, I like it," Ehieze said. "It gives out a lot of energy."

Ehieze also highlighted a couple of portraits depicting Breonna Taylor, another recent victim of police violence. He stopped to admire a work by The People’s Conservatory collective at Telegraph and Broadway. The riotously colorful image features Taylor surrounded by a crown of flowers.

A mural depicting Breonna Taylor by The People's Conservatory collective. (Chloe Veltman/KQED)

"I actually watched them do this portrait right here from start to finish," he said. "To see them knock that out, I was like, wow. It was beautiful."

Ehieze said art provides a non-violent way to share hard-hitting political messages. And it provides release.

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"There are certain things that you just can't hold inside. Like, you know what’s right from wrong," he said. "I'm going to paint what I feel."

There’s hardly a storefront in downtown Oakland that doesn’t have a mural on it at this point. Ehieze said this is just the start.

"We're not just going to let a situation just come and go," he said. "We're gonna keep the political artwork up. We're gonna keep the message going."

Meanwhile, Roberto Bedoya, the city of Oakland’s cultural affairs manager, said plans are afoot to conserve these artworks — and those to come.

"These murals affirm that this is a city of care," Bedoya said. "And that Oaklanders have a deep sense of racial justice that enlivens our artist community and enriches our daily lives."

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