Oakland festival uplifts through street art

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Ariel D. Hayat/Staff

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Street art and hip-hop have long been driving forces for the vibrant and diverse Oakland community. The fifth annual “Life is Living” festival uses these artistic media as vehicles for social uplifting and youth empowerment. As a free event that took place Oct. 12, this year’s festival celebrated urban life through competitive mural paintings, spoken word, skateboarding and live music.

It is only fitting that a socially progressive festival would take place in the historic DeFremery Park, a key place of congregation for the Black Panther Party. The festival, circumscribed by the cozy West Oakland neighborhood, took full advantage of the park’s large, grassy outfield, playgrounds and skate park. There was an instant sense of camaraderie in the atmosphere, as there were plenty of helpful volunteers, free breakfast and speakers calling for justice regarding pressing issues such as immigration, racism and environmentalism.

The festival hosted the sixth annual Estria Battle, one of the largest public art competitions in California. Sixteen visual artists — some coming from places as far away as Mexico or Chicago — were given five hours to paint a mural of a certain theme in order to win 400 Montana spray-paint cans and a BMX bike. As a homage to Oakland-based graffiti artist Mike Dream, who was tragically shot and killed, the theme for this year’s festival was “dream.”

Many people plopped into chairs to watch and admire these artists’ creative processes. Some artists methodically planned out their pieces by making notes in their sketchbooks, while other artists went straight to the canvas with their spray paint cans. The public demonstration of the finished works of art on 6-by-8-foot canvas boards demonstrated the different and sophisticated techniques and artistic styles the artists utilized. As monuments for social justice, the pieces subverted any associations of graffiti art with vandalism.

On the other side of the park, six youth groups from Arizona, Los Angeles and the Bay Area participated in a battle for the best mural in the Youth Arts Competition. Through social media and its commodification into popular street apparel and accessories, street art has blown up in the 21st century. The countercultural ethos, however, remains and continues to be a trendy and compelling medium for the urban youth.

Producing director Joan Osato noted that the festival provides a stage to showcase talent for urban youth groups that often have been overlooked and lack the proper resources. One of the festival’s biggest goals was to provide teens from inner-city communities the opportunity to collaborate and actively engage in artwork. Some of the youth groups used grassroots fundraising methods, such as car washes, to finance their trip. Art gives them a creative outlet to express themselves in a positive and productive manner.

Children were also given interactive projects, such as the T-shirt stenciling workshop. Parents helped teach their kids how to hold and use spray paint for the first time as they created T-shirts with stencils of revolutionary figures such as Malcolm X, Cesar Chavez and Bruce Lee. The DIY spirit was also expressed in a zine-making booth, where zine publishers and enthusiasts taught kids how to create and circulate their own self-published works of art.

The word “dream” resonated throughout the festival from the completed murals and kids singing together onstage. It is not a dream deferred — it is an ever-present message of equality embodied in the sense of community among people passionate about art and social progress.

Contact Fan Huang at [email protected].