Nestled between back entrances of laundromats and donut shops, large-scale murals emerge as an artistic space for cultural expression that lies apart from museums and galleries. While we are actively seeking out art when we go to a museum or gallery, murals exist in the periphery of our awareness. They then pull us in on our usual walk to class or work through vivid colors and overwhelming size; they offer us lessons about the community as it exists now and how it has existed in the past.
But therein lies the paradox with murals. Murals are the canonical example of public art striving for social change, especially relevant in sites undergoing rapid gentrification, like the East Bay. On the other hand, the murals have also been typified as a catalyst for gentrification. Scholars have claimed that the artist appropriates, or reclaims in some cases, a site during art production. The original intentions behind their art may then be repurposed by investors as a tool to radically transform the neighborhood into one that will attract wealth. We’ve seen this before with San Francisco’s Mission District. With this in mind, a few muralists based in Berkeley and Oakland shared their thoughts on the purpose of murals in the area and how this purpose is changing in reaction to gentrification.
On the exterior walls of Mi Tierra grocery store on San Pablo Avenue in West Berkeley, a mural allows passersby to reflect on the history of Berkeley’s residents of all cultural backgrounds and races, and it offers hope for positive transformation in the city. It references Berkeley landmarks, such as the Berkeley Bridge. Images of Native women harvesting the triad of corn, beans and squash remind us of the knowledge and skills held by those who were originally here prior to colonialism, while the cloth containing patterns from a multitude of cultures promotes integration. The person you are immediately drawn to, though, is a larger-than-life Latina woman defiantly ripping apart a chainmail fence. The mural “Vivir Sin Fronteras/ Live without Borders” gains all the more resonance with the current state of gentrification. It is a force that may not erect physical borders, but the invisible ones it constructs are strong enough to police who is accepted within a space and who is not.
Murals are the canonical example of public art striving for social change, especially relevant in sites undergoing rapid gentrification, like the East Bay. On the other hand, the murals have also been typified as a catalyst for gentrification.
The True Colors Mural Project, a Berkeley City College program meant to educate underserved youth in the area with design and painting skills while also “beautifying the urban environment,” painted the mural. Juana Alicia Araiza, faculty at BCC and director of this program, is a muralist with work on 24th Street in the Mission District. She has also attended Black Panther Meetings and worked in agriculture at the peak of the United Farm Workers movement. It’s not surprising that she’s a strong proponent of maintaining murals’ historical role as challengers of policies promoting inequality. I talked with her about the mural-making process. She emphasized the joint nature of it, saying, “We work collaboratively, taking direction and leadership from the client organization but using our aesthetic, historical, technical and intellectual skills to lead creatively.”
When asked about the changing nature of murals in the East Bay, she responded, “The changes I’ve seen over the past few years in the East Bay include a blossoming of street art in West Oakland and other blighted areas of our metropolis, (and) beautiful contributions from various mural collectives and individuals.” She also mentioned the impact of gentrification on what types of murals are in demand now, claiming that “as the Bay Area becomes increasingly white and wealthy, the demand by the new majority for decorative murals instead of politically charged murals definitely has its impact. I see this impact even among street artists, who sometimes compete to make pretty and decorative albeit whimsical statements, instead of powerful political statements more frequently found in other eras.”
When asked if she ever worried about her art being commodified by real estate developers, she corrected me, saying, “I don’t worry, I act. I continue to create works that challenge oppression and environmental degradation, and I actively oppose the unsanctioned use of our images for this purpose.”
Araiza places the onus on the artist to ensure that their work is not misused by others to pave the way for gentrification. But what about artists who are commissioned by a company or business to paint a mural for promotional purposes? With modern advertising, anywhere is a potential billboard.
On the corner of Acton Street and University Avenue lies Ledger’s Liquor, on the side of which is a mural by Brendan Monroe. It depicts black and white minimalist, surreal mountains. They transport the viewer to a sort of dreamscape in which it appears these mountains have just erupted, knocking about small, faceless Black figures. Monroe, more often a painter or sculptor rather than muralist, wrote in an email, “You might not know this by looking at it, but it’s actually a commercial piece. I did that mural for Converse to use in an ad. They picked the spot and actually that wall was a designated ad placement spot before.” The mural was later placed on the back of Juxtapoz, an arts and culture magazine. “If you look really closely, you can kinda see a pair of Chuck Taylor shoes, abstracted and making the shape of one of the mountains.”
Monroe’s mural brings us to an important point. Artists often have “cultural capital” but are lacking in financial capital. This makes them have a powerful position in society to have their message heard, but also a susceptible position. They may produce pieces just to make ends meet or as an avenue to gain greater cultural capital that later down the line will allow them to have greater freedom in the pieces they produce. Large companies, such as Converse, are beginning to tap into the authenticity that our generation is purportedly obsessed with through evoking street art while hiding commercial intentions. Sure, these murals do beautify the environment while still being accessible to the public, but they have a specific audience in mind, and those audience members are the newcomers to an area, the ones who have money to spend. These commercial purpose murals can become entities that demarcate where potential consumers are allowed to be, and non-consumers may not be. Thus, the area becomes rid of the original culture that brought newcomers in the first place.
“You might not know this by looking at it, but it’s actually a commercial piece. I did that mural for Converse to use in an ad. They picked the spot and actually that wall was a designated ad placement spot before.” -Brendan Monroe
The last muralist I spoke with was Steve Ha, half of the “illuminaries” street muralist duo. Ha and his partner, Tim Hon, got their start with graffiti. “It was an outlet for us to vent our frustration, get some fame and just be mischievous. Obviously, as you grow up, you realize your energy and talents can be put to better use. By better use, we mean putting up art that has a message and is meaningful,” said Ha. Typically, they are hired by small business owners who want “murals to liven up their space or to showcase art that the community can respect.” Monroe discussed the changing landscape of mural painting, saying, “There seems to be an active movement to find blank walls for artists to paint now. Building owners and city officials are being proactive in populating their space with art, probably because they see the popularity of it.” Ha stressed, “The purpose of our murals is to bring new energy and beautify a space. With that in mind, we know the surrounding community will be largely affected by our art. Ultimately, the art has to be appealing to us and something we are proud to put up.”
Ha’s answer illustrates the delicate process for a muralist working with businesses while also trying to maintain artistic values. Again, we can see the aims of businesses commissioned murals being an uncertain combination of commercial aims and true care for community beautification. It’s hard to disentangle whether a business truly cares about making a community safe and beautiful or whether this expressed care is just another strategy to increase consumption.
A quick assessment of whom a business is trying to serve can help us unpack this. Could the people who have been living here for decades prior buy these goods/services? Is the business owner a part of the community? If the answer is no, then this mural may just be another accomplice in the gentrification process. In other cities, muralists have chosen to take down their own murals because they saw them as becoming complicit in the strategies of wealthy investors. In Berlin, the artist Lutz Henke famously painted over his own mural, which had become a characterizing feature of the city, after the building it lay on was bought by a wealthy real estate developer. In Bologna, the street artist Blu removed all his murals once he found out that landlords had removed them from their original site and sold them on the art market.
Murals and other type of art can be outspokenly political and didactic but also just as easily commodified. How are we as consumers of these murals supposed to make the distinction? Just stopping to fully process the mural is the first step. That can be enough to figure out the intention behind it. If it’s on the side of a business, is the business who commissioned it a local institution providing goods or services in the budget of people who have traditionally lived in the area? If people are represented in the mural, do they look like the people walking on the streets around it? If it’s hard to figure this out, maybe learn about the city’s history. Most of us have just arrived in Berkeley, and some of us may leave just as quickly after graduation. It can be easy to brush off our role in the East Bay’s gentrification and believe it’s outside of our power. But, it’s just as easy for us to try our best to learn about who and what was here before we arrived.