Bay Area Mural Festival brings color to, opens up discussions in communities

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Sarah Siskin/Courtesy

The first time I walked through the streets of Berkeley, I was surprised by the amount of public art that adorned the sides of buildings, the telephone poles and the windows of shops. Growing up in a very suburban area, public art had never been a part of my everyday experience, but once I moved to Berkeley, that drastically changed.

I became much more aware of community issues through the images presented to me on the streets as I walked to class. I would start conversations with people around me about the art we saw as we walked through our new neighborhood.

According to the Eviction Defense Collaborative’s 2016 annual report, since 2003, owner move-in evictions — cases in which landlords pay their rent-controlled tenants to move out of their homes, sometimes in order to profit off of new tenants instead of moving in themselves — have increased by 70 percent. Many people have been displaced as a result of this ongoing process.

In response to this upsurge in displacement, many communities have mobilized. Several Bay Area artists started BAMFest in order to address the loss of community that this increase in evictions creates.

This year marks the second annual BAMFest, which is supported by the Richmond Art Center, the California Arts Council, Earth Team and La Peña Cultural Center, which is partnered with Los Pobres Artistas.

“This is an artist-run and organized festival, so we know what other artists are looking for and what other artists want. … It’s really designed for the artists and the community,” explained BAMFest founding director Sarah Siskin.

Community beautification and engagement is extremely important at a time in which many long-standing community members are being evicted from their homes. But according to Siskin, beautification is not the end goal.

The hope is that these murals will start a dialogue between community members about issues taking place throughout their community and the world.

“It’s easy to sell people on the beautification of cities, but you know, everyone feels that their city is beautiful already. It’s not about the fact that it’s not beautiful. It’s about the act of making public art and the act of bringing people together,” said Siskin.

Community beautification and engagement is extremely important at a time in which many long-standing community members are being evicted from their homes.

An open call for artists was placed before the festival began this year. The one criterion for artists who wanted to become involved with the project was a history of community engagement, essentially a devotion to some community in the East Bay.

“The idea of murals isn’t that you just come into someone’s space and paint it and then you leave. It’s something that people using that space want to see every day, something that empowers them, something that gives them a sense of identity and community,” Siskin said.

Siskin wanted the artists to understand the community they were coming into. These murals are meant to connect to the people who live in these neighborhoods, which is why it is so crucial that artists and the community work together to fulfill the theme.

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Los Pobres Artistas member, muralist and BAMFest graphic designer Thomas Jones explained that murals are created in areas that no one else wanted to paint. Therefore, when muralists do go in to paint these spaces, their work brings the community much joy.

“When you bring your energy and your colors, people are super happy around it, you change the life of every one,” Jones said. “People will come up and say ‘hi’ to me (when I’m painting) … and share stories of what their city was like in the past. … It has a big impact on the people.”

This year, BAMFest is working to bring art to the community of Richmond. According to Siskin, the festival was held in South Berkeley, the idea being that the project moves around each year in order to bring art to a variety of communities.

“The idea is that we move geographically so that we’re not working within the same community every year, so that we’re giving the project new communities and new places … It gives a very unique feel every year,” Siskin said.

BAMFest closing celebration coordinator and member of Los Pobres Artistas Stephanie Hooper explained why Richmond needs more art.

“Richmond is having more grants for art because there was a lack of public art,” Hooper said.

Each year, the muralists of BAMFest are given a theme, a broad social issue, to respond to within their art work. Last year’s theme was gentrification and the migration of people. This year, the theme is the environment.

According to FracTracker Alliance, refineries and the petrochemical industry in the Bay Area’s refinery corridor create a large amount of air pollution throughout the East Bay. Therefore, starting a dialogue about environmental issues here is extremely important.

“Most of my paintings are related to environmental issues. … That’s my background and my concept. Four years ago I was traveling a lot, going to places and trying to understand different cultures, and then when I came here, I realized that there were so many environmental issues,” Jones said.

This year’s mural festival will bring together 11 muralists and two local youth organizations to decorate the streets of Richmond. BAMFest 2017 will take place from Oct. 2-8, with a closing celebration to be held Oct. 8.

Contact Grace Vogel at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @grace_vogel1.

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