From civil unrest to outdoor gallery: How local artists are transforming Oakland

Over the past two weeks, a battered downtown Oakland has been transformed by street art depicting messages of unity and resistance.

A pedestrian walks past a painted a message in downtown Oakland highlighting women victims of police brutality, created by local artist Gaia WXYZ. Photo: Pete Rosos

Last Friday, which would have been Breonna Taylor’s 27th birthday — Taylor, a Black woman, was killed in her home by Louisville police in March — artist Gaia WXYZ was in downtown Oakland painting a message on a boarded-up business at the corner of 14th Street and Broadway: “BLACK GIRLS DESERVE BETTER.”

Gaia’s mural, with its black lettering and lavender backdrop, is not as intricate or as grand as some of the public art pieces in downtown Oakland, but it sends a powerful message: the killings of Black women across the country deserve more attention.

“I didn’t have a master plan for this mural when I walked up to the wall. I took it as it came,” said Gaia, who has been out protesting since the first demonstration in Oakland on May 29, following the death of George Floyd. “I didn’t ask for permission from the business owner or anything.”

In the span of only two weeks, downtown Oakland has gone from looking like a war zone with smashed windows and remnants of rubber bullets and tear-gas canisters left behind after a week of massive protests, to a community clean-up site where artists are using boarded-up storefronts as blank canvases to paint messages of unity and social justice. Dozens of new murals now line the stretches of Broadway and Telegraph Avenue that just days ago were the epicenter of civil unrest in the city.


Two BLM murals on the corner of 8th and Broadway in Downtown Oakland. June 9, 2020. Photo: Pete Rosos

Directly across the street from Gaia on Friday, Lisa Williams also worked on a mural. Unlike the colorfully painted pieces surrounding it, Williams’ artwork consists of sheets of paper listing names of Black people who were killed by police but are not as well known nationally: Tyree Crawford, Carole Robertson, Randy Nelson and many others. Williams came up with the idea after attending last week’s demonstrations, where she’d handed out signs to other protesters with names of some of the victims of police brutality now included in her mural.

“I wanted to remind people, this is what we are here for,” said Williams about her decision to hand out the signs.

Williams asked permission from the person cleaning up the storefront to use the wall space and worked with the signs she had already created for the protests. “I wanted to memorialize those people because we don’t have memorials,” she said. “We have hashtags and Instagram posts, but those go away after a while when people move on to the next thing that is happening around the country.” 

One of the names on Williams’ mural is Nia Wilson, an 18-year-old Black woman from Oakland who was stabbed to death by John Lee Cowell in 2018 at the MacArthur BART station. As Williams was working on her mural, Wilson’s sister happened to walk by. “She took a picture of it, told us who she was, and told us: ‘that’s my sister,’” said Wilson.

Artwork by Lisa Williams with the names of Black victims of police brutality, on 14th St in Downtown Oakland. June 9, 2020. Photo: Pete Rosos

The cultural moment brought about by the tragedy of George Floyd’s death and the resulting protests have sparked a movement among Black artists, and other local artists as well.

Cece Carpio, a public art commissioner for the City of Oakland, manager of the San Francisco Arts Commission, and a member of the artist collective Trust Your Struggle, has been busy creating murals in downtown Oakland since this movement took off two weeks ago. One of her artworks, outside of the Chase Bank on 14th Street and Broadway, was featured in the San Francisco’s Chronicle. The mural only lasted at the location for a few days, until it had to be removed because the bank was reopening. The painting is now safely guarded in Carpio’s backyard. 

Local artist Cece Carpio painted this mural outside the Chase Bank on 14th and Broadway. She had to remove it after three days when the bank reopened. Photo: Azucena Rasilla

Even before the protests, Carpio and other artists from the Trust Your Struggle collective had been thinking of ways to create murals on some of downtown Oakland’s boarded-up business.

“We had already been talking about painting some of those boards, so the city and the Bay Area didn’t look so gloomy,” said Carpio. As the protests took off and more businesses closed down and got boarded up, they knew that they had to rush their plans. “We wanted to show solidarity with the Black community,” said Carpio, and immigrant woman. “This is an ongoing issue. Our Black brothers and sisters being targeted by militarized police.” 

“Black liberation is directly tied to our liberation,” she added. “And their fight has paved ways for us to be part of this movement.”

A mural honoring the memory of Breonna Taylor at the corner of 15th and Broadway. June 9, 2020. Photo: Pete Rosos

Artists said the process of deciding which businesses to paint has mostly happened organically. But, in recent days, some storefronts have been tagged as “reserved,” which most likely implies that a particular artist has asked the business owner for permission to use the site for their artwork. There have been past incidents of artists from outside of Oakland using spaces reserved for local artists.

None of the artists contacted by The Oaklandside that are painting murals downtown are being paid for their work, beyond those who said they’ve received some free art supplies. Carpio said the moment is about supporting the movement, not expecting monetary compensation.

“This movement has a real strategic target — like defunding the police and demanding for this administration to resign; demands we all need to pay attention to and push for,” she said.

A man in a mask makes his way down Broadway walking past a BLM mural on the corner of Broadway and 13th. June 9, 2020. Photo: Pete Rosos

While the artists create, others are working behind the scenes to preserve their work so future generations can see how Oakland communities came together at a historical moment.

Sage Loring, executive director of Dragon School, a nonprofit art school that started in Chinatown in 2015, said there are already ongoing conversations about how to preserve the work, including six murals that artists from Dragon School painted. Loring said he has already reached out to the Oakland Museum of California and to Jean Marie Durant of Oakland Art Murmur to discuss fundraising and other strategies to make sure the selfless work of countless local artists finds a permanent home.  

This week, The Unity Council, a nonprofit that supports small business owners in the Fruitvale, put out a call for artists to transform the blank plywood covering a number of the neighborhood’s storefronts. Although The Unity Council is not providing monetary compensation, artists have jumped at the opportunity.

A city worker sweeps up on 14th Street at Broadway with a George Floyd Mural in the shadowed background. June 9, 2020. Photo: Pete Rosos

Well-known local artist, Timothy B., whose recent works include a mural at 1255 7th Street of Oakland R&B singer Kehlani, and another on 12th Street and Broadway that pays homage to Black women, has also been involved in the current downtown mural movement. One of the most attention-grabbing works from the last week is a collective piece he spearheaded with other local artists: Kiss My Black Arts, Natty Rebel, Bay Area Mural Program, Brandon Ehiezeng, and Pancho Whoo (in collaboration with local businesses Good Mother Gallery and bar The Hatch). The piece, which was painted directly onto 15th Street between Broadway and Harrison, reads BLACK LIVES MATTER in bright yellow lettering.

For Whoo, it was important that the project was led by a local Black artist and not paid for with corporate or government dollars. “Tim is one of the most prominent artists in the Bay Area,” said Whoo. “He is a leader in the community. He catalogs our joy, our sadness, our rage — everything that is beautiful about being Black, he has managed to capture all of that.” 

Once the concept was in place, the work moved quickly. The six artists got together last Saturday afternoon, made some phone calls, and posted a request on social media for volunteers to show up at the project site. In under 24 hours, the artwork, which stretches out over three city blocks, was already completed and making the rounds on social media. Timothy B. and Whoo estimate that around 400 volunteers worked on the painting.

“#Black” is painted and spelled out along 15th St between Harrison and Broadway. June 9, 2020. Photo: Pete Rosos

One of those volunteers was Oakland artist Jorge Bejarano, who goes by the name of abstract Oakland on Instagram.

“On Sunday morning, I went to get coffee, and saw someone that I follow on Instagram posted about it,” Bejarano said. “I finished my coffee and went over, and they were already working on the word ‘matter,’ and I asked if I could be a part of it.” Bejarano went back home to get his supplies, and by the time he got back, the number of volunteers had doubled. 

Bejarano, who has dealt with police mistreatment personally, said he knew he had to participate.

“For me, being from Oakland, understanding injustice and how crooked the system is, I needed to be there,” he said. “Being brown, being from Oakland, being an artist, I needed to be there. Putting that paint down meant a whole lot.”

Azucena Rasilla reports on arts and the community for The Oaklandside. Email: azucena.rasilla@gmail.com.