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Protecting the Artist and Rejuvenating Community

mural artist oakland graffiti

The corner of Alice and 14th Street in Oakland has always drawn me in. When I moved back home to the Bay Area in 2000 I took dance class at Alice Arts Center. It was in a neighborhood I didn’t know, but as soon as I entered, it owned me. Alice Arts seemed like the heart of Oakland, and in its high flung rooms I felt I could fly. Years later when I had to move from Temescal (the house was about the collapse, I was told), I moved here instinctively, two blocks from Alice Arts, now Malonga Casquelourd Center for the Arts.

I don’t live here anymore, but find myself in the area now and then. Recently a mural arrested me. It flashed its colors and held me fast. The first thing I thought – “Of course” and “a long time coming.” Dancer Ruth Beckford’s image rises high from the center, surrounded by the neighborhood’s historic layers of arts and advocacy. I had only lived through a shred of it, and my stay coincided with tragedy – the murder of journalist Chauncey Bailey. By pure routine, on my way to BART, I arrived to the scene one half hour after the shooting.

Javier Machado shot photos while I spoke with Desi Mundo,  founder of the Community Rejuvenation Project (CRP) and one of the main aerosol artists behind the Alice Street mural. I usually take my own photos, but I wanted to listen to Desi tell stories of the images, stories of displacement AND resilience. You can find out about the Alice Arts Mural Project here (docu-trailer) and here. My conversation with Desi flowed from his beginning on the “yards” to CRP (a brief history in fast forward).

What was the motivation to formalize aerosol over time?
Protecting ourselves as artists from being arrested. I knew that would potentially get me arrested. And that’s the agreement in writing, I get to write whatever I want and you get to arrest me, beat my ass or kill me, depending on who it is who catches me.

But when we were doing something like some of our more elaborate work, pieces that were bigger, a lot of that stuff was in the yard (somewhat safer), which are these places that are kind of abandoned and taken over by the writers to paint, like a no man’s land.

Some of the pieces there might last for years. But, we were essentially just covering ourselves and each other up over and over again. I’d done that for quite a while and I thought there was a purpose to that, to develop. I didn’t always take pictures of my work. It’s just the act. You do it for the act and, then, sometimes it’s gone.

We were kind of painting for each other. At that time there weren’t a lot of people doing it. (Right now you have bazillions of people doing it).  Back then, there were a lot less. If I had taken what I did and stretched it out across the city it would probably be a mile or two of wall space. Instead, everything I did was going to get covered up by my own people and no one else was going to see it.

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I feel like what we do is a service, it’s not a bad thing, I don’t think adding paint to a wall was going to hurt it. I was like, man, let me see if I can go out in the street (out from the yards) and do this. What are things we can do to actually gather community support?  We don’t want the neighbors calling the police, we don’t want to have that conflict. What can we do to get community support, well, we can clean up the block while we’re painting it. Let’s pick up the trash.

Aerosol writers respond to letters, the community responds to images. We wanted an ally and not be an invasive attack on them. We want them to say, yes, do more, I’ll give you permission and tools. So we’d start our work and people would come out and help out, hang out, bring food and celebrate.

From there to here
At one point we wanted to go deeper into the battle, but in order to go into that battle around public policy and protections for artists, we would have to give up some of our freedoms to some extent. Because the issue we were coming up against – some people in the policy arena would immediately say, they’re vandals, don’t listen to them. We’re making the case that murals are a much more intelligent solution to the thing that you call a problem that is so-called vandalism.

We were doing something radical. We would go to these graffiti abatement conferences, there were police there and Private Abatement Consultants, people I call scammers, people who say, “keep paying me money to do this (abatement). Oh it didn’t work? Pay me some more.” And it’s never worked. And we don’t want it to work. We don’t want a sterile society.

At this point we generally get permission for our work, because we’re combating the assumption about us. If you’re going to invalidate us because you say we do illegal work, fine. You want us to get permission to do our work, fine. We still find spaces and places to be ourselves and to be creative. By avoiding that initial conflict, it gets us way further into the conversation about how to eliminate the bureaucracy for artists, to create more protections for murals and to take on gentrification.

Now we’re (CRP) allying ourselves with the larger artist community, not just the aerosol artists. With the dance, drums, music, everybody, because all of those folks are getting pushed out. Even the churches. Because we all have the need to exist in this space.

Desi then began his tour of the mural and also schooled me on the Hotel Oakland.

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_MG_3966 copyPhotos: Javier Machado

Map of the CRP murals.

2 Comments

  1. CRP does outstanding work throughout the BayArea. Their art always has a message for the people, about the people.

    • Haleh says

      We agree and look forward to more of CRP’s great work and the collective efforts it engages in for the benefit of community.

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