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The Writing on the Wall

When it comes to graffiti and street art, there is nowhere in the world quite like Oakland.

A piece by Basq in an Oakland drainage tunnel.

Editor’s Note
: This is one of many stories San Francisco is publishing over the next month as part of the June 2018 East Bay Issue. To read stories as they become available online, click here.

For every one
of Oakland’s 78 square miles, there are 12 murals splashed across its fences, buildings, and underpasses, according to an estimate by Visit Oakland—and that’s before counting nine new ones commissioned for the city’s most recent Mural Festival, which wrapped up last month. That’s six times the concentration of similar works in metro Los Angeles. In raw numbers, at least, Oakland has become a national epicenter of street art.

Oakland’s laissez-faire approach to murals—zero regulation or oversight of private productions, a few publicly funded projects here and there—has fueled what’s been called a “public art renaissance.” According to Kristen Zaremba, the city’s public art coordinator, developers love murals because they’re a quick and affordable way to beautify old structures and integrate newer builds into the surrounding community. “It’s not by design, but it’s not completely unintended,” she says. Just as enthusiastic are small businesses, nonprofits, and community groups. “It really has become a gallery for anybody’s interests,” says mural producer Sage Loring of Fuming Guerilla Productions. “Whatever you dig, it’s there...abstract, political, nonpolitical, high-quality, well-done murals, some illegal graffiti and street art.”

But what at first glance looks like the triumph of artistic expression over the tyranny of city-gray wallscapes belies a much more complex reality. To some Oaklanders, the new developer-financed murals are the rainbow-hued result of gentrification. Among graffiti writers and mural artists (sometimes one and the same—it’s complicated), competition over prime wall spaces, and the prestige and paychecks that might come with them, can boil over into nasty feuds. And as the spotlight shines ever brighter on the art and its creators, there’s bound to be beef—about who paints what, where, and over whom.

We talked to some of these creators, from old-school writers to today’s most prolific mural producers, to decode the language, the lore, and the legacy of Oakland’s foremost art form.

Graffiti Green
In the commercialized graff game, it’s mo’ money, mo’ problems.

Bombing: A Glossary

Going Hard in the Paint
A guide to the most important murals running right now (and we do mean now).

The Buffman Cometh
Paint and money are flying in the war over wallspace—and the graffiti writers aren’t the only ones making a name for themselves. 


Originally published in the June issue of San Francisco 

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