Imagine living in a house where the walls are covered with so many twisting colors and patterns that they feel alive.
At the Berkeley Student Cooperative, this fantasy becomes a reality. The 17 houses and three apartment complexes in the co-op system are known for the vivid and eclectic murals that cover their walls.
Some of the murals — such the painting on a wall of student co-op Casa Zimbabwe, or CZ, a replica of Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon cover art – have existed since the 1980s, according to former resident and former Daily Cal reporter Rachel Banning-Lover. Although the original artist of the mural is unknown, residents of CZ have kept the mural alive for about three decades, retouching with fresh paint when necessary.
Many of the murals in the co-ops are the result of individual initiative on the part of members. Marisa McConnell, a current resident of Kingman Hall, thought the designs on an LGBTQ+ poster she saw were beautiful and decided to paint the same pattern at the end of a hallway at Kingman.
Ryan Rasmussen, a current resident at CZ, only lived there a semester before painting the mural that is now the centerpiece of the house’s common room. The mural depicts a huge yellow castle, meant to represent CZ, against a brilliant sunset with the Golden Gate Bridge in the background. It’s full of small references to CZ house culture, including notable residents and traditions.
“When I moved into the house, all the weird nuances of CZ were hitting me all at once,” Rasmussen said. “I decided to take all of these things … and put them in.”
The mural, like many in the co-ops, was spontaneous: It began as a drawing Rasmussen made on a whim. When other residents saw the drawing, they encouraged him to paint it on top of another mural in the common room. Rasmussen – who had never painted a mural before – painted the wall white and got to work. The project was completed two weeks later.
Most co-ops have rules in place that require members to vote on large murals, such as Rasmussen’s, that appear in common space, especially when they cover old murals. Kingman Hall even has laws in place to protect the most beautiful of its bedroom murals. One of Kingman’s bedrooms is completely covered with a replica of Vincent van Gogh’s “The Starry Night.” Another room there contains a mural that depicts Earth as an avocado.
Likewise, Stebbins Hall has a room known as “The Womb” — its door is painted with a swirling vagina, and the room is traditionally occupied by female-identified residents.
For the most part, however, members’ rooms and doors are considered fair game for alteration. Cailyn Schmidt and Ashley Chrisman, two residents of CZ, painted a mural in their bedroom this semester that depicts various vegetables against patterned backgrounds.
The halls, bedrooms and bathroom stalls of various co-ops are also often tagged with various doodles and phrases. Some pay tribute to past or current residents of the house, while others offer advice or sarcastic jokes.
“You’ll go to pee and see a beautiful poem and it strikes you that this is a house of beautiful, living people,” explained Joshua Barish, who lived at CZ and Davis House from 2013-2015.
Barish, who currently works as a graphic designer in Los Angeles, added his fair share of art to the walls of CZ and other co-ops. His doodles at CZ are still visible all along the hallways, and a large mural of his occupies the main staircase at Ridge House. Barish said his friend Ryan called him up one day and said, “Hey, there’s a giant stairwell without a mural — go paint.” The result is a hodgepodge of brightly colored monster creatures that melt into each other and seem to fall down the stairs.
In the same way that new murals are constantly appearing in the co-ops, old murals sometimes disappear. In summer 2014, when the Cloyne Court Hotel was converted into substance-free housing, a temporary task force was charged with removing all references to drugs and alcohol from the walls. The task force also removed notable murals from two large bedrooms so that the bedrooms could become study rooms, according to Kelly Archer, who lived at Cloyne for three years and served on the task force.
These changes serve as a reminder that co-op life, although vibrant, is ephemeral. Different students live in the co-ops every year and add new art to the walls, where it remains long after they’ve stopped living there.
“Nowhere else in life will you ever be surrounded by the poetry, in any medium, of hundreds of people before you,” stated Barish. “What I took for granted was this beautiful idea where the personification of people’s feelings, the zeitgeist of people’s emotions, are presented to you in written form wherever you go.”
Contact Rachael Cornejo at [email protected].