Oakland artists and musicians create contemporary emblems of activism

franti
James Minchin III/Courtesy

Oakland street artist Eddie Colla immediately felt compelled to act as he witnessed the Occupy movement unfold. Overwhelmed by outrage over the issues that emerged and by the passion of those participating, he found self-expression inevitable.

In late September, Colla created a design that would appear in cities across the nation and overseas. Stamped across a black background is a villainous mask worthy of The Joker, filled in with an American flag. Below either reads “ninetyninetoone,” the name of his micro-movement, or “occupy” and the name of a specific city.

The mask, he says, became a symbol of Occupy Wall Street’s first participants, and also recalls a rebellion in the 1600s during which masked citizens attempted to assassinate the king. The sticker’s visual simplicity, easy accessibility and political legacy have helped to fuel the Occupy movement.

Colla is well known for politically aware street art and the widespread reproduction of his works on walls, posters and even T-shirts. One of his most famous images depicts an Asian girl squarely facing the viewer in in skimpy lingerie and a surgical mask, commenting on the fears of pollution and disease in an overly sexualized society. Like this shocking piece, the haunting “ninetyninetoone” image lingers flashing in your brain long after you first see it.

— Anna Carey

Fame hasn’t put Michael Franti on a high horse. In fact, this Oakland-born poet, activist and frontman of Michael Franti & Spearhead is so grounded, he hasn’t worn shoes in ten years as an act of solidarity with the underprivileged.

Although his recent music has taken a turn towards the sunshine-and-rainbows route, Franti’s older tunes had darker, political undertones, such as the 2000 Spearhead album Stay Human. The album is a biting denunciation of the death penalty, songs intercut with announcements from a fictional Stay Human Radio, detailing the story of an activist framed for a murder on the part of a right-wing governor.

Ultimately, Franti’s genre-defying music is hard to characterize, as it draws inspiration from hip-hop, folk, rock, reggae and jazz. Franti’s own sound has changed considerably through the years, from his industrial punk days with The Beatnigs to his break with the hip-hop group The Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy and finally to his commercially-successful productions with Spearhead. However, his aim has stayed the same throughout: to bring attention to peace and social justice issues around the world through music.

— Michelle Ma

Firefighters raising the flag on Ground Zero, Kent State war protest gone out of hand, The Beatles parading down Abbey Road. Many of the most iconic moments in history became so memorable because they were caught on camera. Armed with his Canon, a photographer straddles the line between artist and activist, becoming empowered to catch a moment in history for the public.

After running up to Sproul, news network photographers snapped pictures of the general assembly, speakers on the steps and the police backlash. These political photographs not only preserved important moments in history, but also often captured the emotions, the energy of the protests.

At Occupy Oakland, notable international photographer Tod Seelie snapped shots that caught the adrenaline-pumping intensity of the protesting through the lens of a skillful artist. Evenly bathed in amber light, the images look as though an artificial fluorescent lamp is shined onto the dissenters below.

The compositions in Seelie’s seven-photograph series vary widely, but all possess a palpable tension. In one image, an older man carrying golf clubs jams his gloved middle finger into the sky, mouth agape in angry shouts. Others in the background are performing a similar gesture, all below a green stoplight illuminated in the center of the space. Seelie’s photograph catches the protester’s extreme frustration, conveying fleeting moments to the public in a permanent form.

Anna Carey