Headphones in place, I barricade myself from the world that surrounds me, totally engrossed in an episode of the New York Times “Modern Love” podcast. Like a racehorse with blinders on, I power walk along the streets of Berkeley with absolute tunnel vision, careful to avoid meeting the eyes of passersby. As with many other students, my self-absorbed unawareness causes me to be blind to many of the not-so-hidden treasures of the Berkeley streets. One such treasure I often take for granted is the extensive street art culture Berkeley has to offer.
Street art has a paramount role in the history and culture of Berkeley. Once disregarded as mere vandalism, street art is now considered to be a prestigious field of art. One would be hard-pressed to find a public wall in Berkeley that is free of at least one form of street art. Every power walk to class, journey to the grocery store or trek to the BART station is not unlike a stroll through a prominent art gallery.
As such, I present other students who, like me, have fallen into the pattern of ignoring their surroundings, with a “Beginner’s Guide to Berkeley Street Art.” The tour takes place along Telegraph Avenue and adjacent streets and may be completed within 45 minutes.
As with any subculture, street art has a specific dialect. Thus, before embarking on this tour, it is crucial to define some terms necessary to the field of street art:
Street Art: art for public viewership that is often created illegally. Street art tends to exist in nontraditional art venues.
Graffiti: drawings, writings, or scribbles that have been painted illegally on a public surface. Most graffiti writers work anonymously, leaving just initials or a tag to claim the piece.
Mural: a large-scale work that may be created by an individual or team of artists. Some murals are created on legal walls. Muralists are often commissioned by businesses or governments to create murals in public spaces.
Paste-Up: the creation of a poster, drawing or painting on paper that may be adhered to a wall with a paste. This method is relatively cheap, fast and makes disseminating an image easy.
Sticker-bombing: may also be referred to as sticker slapping, slap tagging, and sticker tagging. This method uses easily reproduced stickers to tag public spaces (e.g. lamp posts, bus stops, fire hydrants, etc.).
Stencil: a form of graffiti in which a stencil is created, usually with cardboard, so that a work can be easily reproduced. The stencil is then filled in with spray paint or markers.
Tag: a stylized name or signature that allows artists to claim their art.
Buff: a way to cover up graffiti and street art. Typically, buffs are large, irregular blocks of paint. Some street artists integrate buffs into their works as a way to reclaim the public space.
Bomber/Writer: a person who tags.
Throw-up/Chuck-up: also known as a “throwie,” this is a quickly executed tag that is simple in complexity and takes minimal time. Throw-ups are typically used by bombers who wish to create a large number of tags.
Location #1: Vacant lot at the corner of Telegraph Avenue and Haste Street
Type: Collection of street art
Once the residence of the Berkeley Inn, which burned down in the 1980s, the vacant lot has become the home to a vibrant collection of street art. The art within the lot is in a constant state of evolution. Currently, the street art present exudes a theme of peace, love and Berkeley pride.
The anonymous artist blends the techniques of hand-painting and aerosol-painting to create the artworks, employing vivid colors and psychedelic patterns that are reminiscent of the hippie movement. The artworks include numerous phrases to display appreciation for the city of Berkeley as well as the state of California, such as: “you are Berkeley” and “California is life.”
The collection of street art also poses a handful of political messages. On a large billboard in the center of the lot, the artist declares that politicians, Democrats, Republicans and rich millionaires are synonymous with being “anti-human.” In this way, the artist asserts a sweeping nonpartisan message that rejects politics and wealth. This message may be considered a parallel to the anti-establishment sentiment expressed by the counterculture of the 1960s.
Location #2: Parking lot at the corner of Telegraph Avenue and Haste Street
Type: Graffiti, tags, throw-ups
Just behind location No. 1, one can find a treasure trove of graffiti art and tagging. Unlike the legible writing in location No. 1, graffiti writing is often purposely elaborate so that only individuals with expertise in the field can decode the messages. In this way, grafitti can perpetuate a culture of in-group versus out-group, as the art form excludes those who lack literacy in the field of graffiti.
Not all of the tags are impossible to read, however. For example, on a cement block, there is a tag by a graffiti artist known as “VandO” who frequently tags in Oakland, San Francisco, Alameda and Berkeley. VandO’s tag can be thought of as a reappropriation of the word “vandalism,” which is a common criticism of graffiti art. In addition to tags, there also exists a number of throw-ups in this location. Throw-ups can be identified by being relatively simple, composed of easy-to-paint bubble lettering that has one fill color and one outline color. Throw-ups are intended to be easy and fast to allow artists to further disseminate their name.
Location #3: People’s Park
Type: Graffiti, murals, sticker bombing
Many students tend to avoid frequenting People’s Park, as it has developed a reputation for being dangerous. Despite this, People’s Park is an epicenter of creativity, art and expression. On the outer periphery of People’s Park, one can find a collection of dumpsters that have been covered in a collage of graffiti tags. One of the tags is that of a street artist known as “Dert,” who is well-known in the South Bay as a member of the graffiti crew HYSU, which stands for Have You Seen Us.
In addition to graffiti tags, People’s Park is home to an array of murals. Painted on the public restrooms is a large mural detailing the creation of People’s Park. The mural depicts protesters marching with picket signs with lyrics from Leon Rosselson’s 1975 song “The World Turned Upside Down,” encouraging people to stand up against the rich and powerful. Above the protestors is a painted history of People’s Park, which describes how the students occupied the vacant lot and planted flowers and trees to create a space that would tie communities together.
On an adjacent wall is a mural depicting all of the flowers and trees that were planted by the students. In between both murals, the city has obviously buffed out a previous mural or tag with white paint. Another artist, however, has reclaimed this buff by writing on top of the white paint: “we didn’t ask permission … we just got busy …” This message may be interpreted as the manner in which the original creators of People’s Park did not ask the school for permission to occupy the space — they just claimed the park and got busy planting flowers and growing a community.
A final notable feature of People’s Park is a telephone pole across the public restroom that has been slap-tagged with a number of clippings from various consumer goods. For example, the pole is covered in cutouts from Trader Joe’s boxes, KFC buckets, Chinese food takeout boxes, American Spirit cigarette cartons and Starbucks cups. Although the message of this slap-tag is not specified, it is possible that the collage of labels is asserting an anti-consumerist message.
Location #4: “A People’s History of Telegraph Avenue” along Haste Street
Nested between Amoeba Music and the now-closed Remy’s Mexican Restaurant stands a large-scale mural titled “A People’s History of Telegraph Avenue.” This mural is a Berkeley landmark and was painted in 1976 prior to being restored and enlarged in 1999. The mural was designed by Osha Neumann and was painted by O’Brien Thiele, Janet Kranzberg and Daniel Galvez on the bicentennial of the American Revolution as a way to highlight the revolution that was happening in Berkeley during the 1960s. The mural depicts images of Mario Savio speaking at the 1964 sit-in on Sproul Plaza, Vietnam War protestors, Black Panthers, the street scene on Telegraph Avenue in the 1960s, the creation of People’s Park, “Blood Thursday” (in which protestors and police clashed on the corner of Telegraph Avenue and Haste Street) as well as the shooting and consequent death of onlooker James Rector by Alameda County Sheriff’s deputies. Beyond just Telegraph Avenue, this mural serves as a history of Berkeley as a whole.
Location #5: “In Tribute to Chiura Obata” on the corner of Telegraph Avenue and Blake Street
Further along Telegraph Avenue stands a colorful tribute mural to Chiura Obata (1885-1975), a well-respected Japanese American artist. The mural was painted by artist Rich Black, with help from Obata’s granddaughter, who together created a rendition of one of Obata’s sceneries, using a color palette reminiscent of the vibrancy of traditional Japanese art.
Obata was a faculty member at UC Berkeley from 1932-42. His studio and gallery, located at 2525 Telegraph Ave., remains a Berkeley Landmark. After the attack of Pearl Harbor, bullets were fired at Obata’s studio. The studio was closed in 1942 when Obata and the entire Japanese American community were forced into internment camps, including 450 students of the University of California. While in the internment camp, Obata taught at an art school and was sent art supplies by numerous UC Berkeley residents. Black attempted to symbolize the imprisonment by painting the mural behind an existing metal gate.
“Creating the Obata tribute was not only a huge honor, but was also a bit nerve-wracking,” Black said. “Creating the balance between the beauty of nature and ugliness of the internment camp while still being pleasant on the eye was challenging. I mean, how does one make internment pretty without being insulting?”
According to a plaque on the mural, Obata’s art and instruction helped give fellow internees a sense of calm and normalcy in a horrific situation. When the war concluded in 1945, Obata returned to Berkeley and continued to paint in his studio. Despite being interned by the state, Obata primarily painted scenes of California’s scenery.
Location #6: “Love Not War” next to Buffalo Exchange
This tour concludes just outside of Buffalo Exchange where a large mural stretches to the top of the building. The piece was painted in 2016 by Bay Area muralist Dan Fontes. The mural depicts a group of demonstrators of different ages, genders, races and ethnicities who are holding up a sign that states “Love Not War.”
“I chose the ‘Love not War’ image because of its vintage look … (and) timeless message,” Fontes said. “The art was meant to be a modern/living reminder of (people’s) power sentiments that could be found in an anti war march then and/or today.”
The entire mural is in black and white with the exception the word “love,” which is painted in a muted red. This color differentiation grabs the audience’s eye and sends the message that love is the focal theme of this piece.
On an adjacent electrical box, the artist has also painted another sign that states “war is over if you want it.” This phrase was coined by John Lennon and Yoko Ono in December of 1969, when they launched a massive campaign to end the Vietnam War. Posters and billboards with this message were hung in 12 major cities: New York, Los Angeles, Toronto, Rome, Athens, Amsterdam, Berlin, Paris, London, Tokyo, Hong Kong and Helsinki. The phrase remains prolific in peace protests, as evidenced by Fontes’ mural.
Bonus: “Berkeley Stands United Against Hate” and “Everyone is Welcome Here”
Throughout the tour, keep an eye out for “Berkeley Stands United Against Hate” and “Everyone is Welcome Here” posters hanging in the windows of local businesses. The “Berkeley Stands United Against Hate” poster was created by Berkeley Mayor Jesse Arreguín in collaboration with local artists. The poster was created to demonstrate the city’s opposition against hate, racism and bigotry. The “Everyone is Welcome Here” poster was created by Micah Bazant, a trans visual artist who is active in social movements. The poster, which depicts a Muslim woman, was originally created in partnership of the organization Muslim and South Asian activists in the Bay Area.