Coloring in: Berkeley’s muralists, opposition

Photo of a Berkeley mural
Jonathan Hale/Staff

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For Berkeley muralist Nigel Sussman, a splash of color can make the foreboding approachable — a transformation needed to make a place feel like a home. 

Known for painting murals throughout the city, Sussman strives to make each work unique. There is one commonality between each of his respective murals, however, prompted by his desire to make the message of his works universal through simple color palettes and “confident” line work. 

“I try my best to present imagery that is universal, nothing polarizing,” Sussman said, stressing the importance of diversity and inclusion in his work. “I want everyone who sees it to relate to it in some way.” 

“Disrespectful both to the art and history”: Threats to Berkeley’s murals 

Murals have played a major role in the city of Berkeley’s culture since the 1960s, and some of the region’s murals have been around for more than half a century. According to the Telegraph Business Improvement District’s Mural Map, Telegraph Avenue is currently home to 11 murals, depicting everything from the literal to the abstract, the natural to the human-made.  

Despite their prevalence and historical significance, several murals and other works of public art in the city have faced threats of being taken down or otherwise disturbed. 

In October, both the Marvelous Miss Mars and the People’s History of Telegraph Avenue murals faced potential obstruction to make way for a public restroom. 

Despite agreement over the need for a 24/7 restroom, many communities voiced opposition to the proposed location, emphasizing the importance of public art in Berkeley. 

“You can look at the mural and you can follow the events,” said East Bay Community Law Center attorney Osha Neumann in a previous article from The Daily Californian. “You would never be able to step back across the street and get a picture of that mural, as it’s meant to be seen because right smack in front of it would be this toilet.”

Neumann added that the installment of the restroom would be “profoundly disrespectful” to both the murals themselves and the responsible artists and would take away from the historical events being depicted within each work of art.

“Brighten up a surface”: Support for Berkeley muralists 

While the city of Berkeley has taken a number of steps to support the artistic community, some muralists still struggle to make ends meet by way of their work, forcing them to take on additional labor for corporate entities. 

“A lot of my work ends up being corporate stuff,” Sussman said. “That’s what pays, even if fewer people get to enjoy it.” 

Still, Sussman strongly believes in the importance of encouraging and supporting public art in Berkeley and beyond. 

“Murals have always been an important part of culture and it’s an easy way to brighten up a surface that is otherwise unutilized,” Sussman said. “The surfaces are there. It’s just a manner of using them in a positive way that allows for different voices and creativity to be heard.”

Mallika Seshadri is the managing editor. Contact her at [email protected]