He secured the walls surrounding the Cookies cannabis dispensary on 17th and Broadway for a mural. Credit: Azucena Rasilla

Last month, Oakland artist Jorge Bejarano (who goes by the name of “Abstract Oakland” on Instagram), posted an announcement that he would be taking pre-sale orders for his new board game, “Town Lotería.” Soon, comments and questions about the game began flooding his Instagram account. He started taking orders on a Saturday morning, and by Monday morning he had sold over 200 games.

The idea of creating his own version of Lotería, a widely popular Mexican board game, is rooted in his love for Oakland and his Mexican upbringing. Bejarano was born in Ecatepec, México, and immigrated to the United States along with his family when he was a toddler. The game itself dates back to the 1400s when it was played in Italy, and Spaniards brought it to Mexico in the 1800s where it was adapted. 

The rules of Mexican lotería are similar to those of bingo. The game is played with 54 cards. Each player gets a board, or tabla, which has a grid of images on it that correspond to the cards. The most recognized version of the Mexican game was developed by French businessman Clemente Jacques in 1887. Each card depicts an iconic image from that era of Mexican society: “La Rosa” (the rose), “El Músico” (the musician), “El Borracho” (the drunk), “La Dama” (the lady), and “El Caballero” (the gentleman), among others. When a card is drawn from the deck, players mark its corresponding image on their board with a chip or a rock. The first player to complete a row or other pattern is the winner.

Bejarano’s idea of creating his own version of Lotería, a widely popular Mexican board game, was rooted in his love for Oakland and his Mexican upbringing. Credit: Azucena Rasilla

Bejarano’s version gives us a glimpse of Oakland culture with cards like “El Coliseo” (the Coliseum), “El Mac Dre”, “El Cinco Ochenta” (the 580), “La Pulga” (the flea market), and other recognizable places and things throughout the Town.

In all of Bejarano’s art, Oakland’s rich cultures are vividly represented. His canvas paintings of abstract Oakland iconography are adorned with colors that make the images come to life. Bejarano, an avid Athletics and Raiders fan, also shows his local pride on his skin: the artist has a large tattoo of the Oakland tree covering his right hand. 

While his love for the Town is represented with the ink on his body, Bejarano is equally proud of his Mexican heritage. Some of his paintings depict the universally recognized face of Frida Kahlo. In one of his t-shirt designs,  the Port of Oakland’s cranes stand out against a backdrop of a Mexican sarape representing the sky. 

While his work hasn’t been showcased in renowned galleries, Bejarano has made a name for himself locally: Shops in the city have requested his artwork for their walls, and professional athletes have commissioned paintings from him. 

Discovering his talents in Oakland

Bejarano’s father moved to Oakland in 1989, fleeing poverty and searching for a brighter future. A year later, the rest of the family joined him.

“We landed straight into Oakland, close to the lake, and I grew up here,” Bejarano said. “I went to La Escuelita Elementary, went to Westlake Middle School, and then Fremont High.”

It was in high school that he developed an eye for art, and found a supportive mentor.

“It was through my really good teacher, Mr. Bronson,” Bejarano said. “Sometimes I would cut class and go into the art room. Mr. Bronson would tell me that if I was going to be in his classroom, that I had to paint. That’s how it all started.”

It wasn’t until Mr. Bronson saw his potential as an artist and tried to help him get accepted into the San Francisco Arts Institute that Bejarano realized he was undocumented. “He helped me send the application and it came back, because I needed to put my social security number,” he said. “I went home and asked my mom. She sat me down and broke down how my life was going to be different. She tried to explain it in the nicest way.” 

The setback of not being able to go to art school took a toll on Bejarano. “It shut me down completely,” he said. “When we realized we couldn’t do anything, art was dead. That was my only chance, and I just didn’t pay attention anymore.”

Bejarano is one of hundreds of thousands of children now known as “Dreamers,” who were brought to the United States by their parents and never formally obtained citizenship. Currently, many Dreamers qualify for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), a policy set forth by President Barack Obama that allows some individuals to avoid deportation and become eligible for a work permit. The Trump Administration tried to revoke DACA, but earlier this year the Supreme Court overturned the administration’s decision. Still, the Trump Administration has refused to accept new DACA applicants.and continued its push to end the program.

The uncertainty currently surrounding  the program has discouraged Bejarano from applying. “I was on board with the Dream Act, it would lead to citizenship,” he said. But then, he added, “I looked into it and realized that I needed to expose myself to get a permit. I knew it could be taken away. There’s no way I was going to come out of the shadows if I wasn’t guaranteed legal residency.”

Without most of the opportunities afforded to citizens, Bejarano got into street art. He began doodling on walls—including some that were property of the state Department of Transportation, which ultimately got him in trouble with the law. 

“It was a huge reality check for me,” he said. “Caltrans brought out a huge file that they had on me under my graffiti name.” Bejarano had to either pay over $25,000 in fines or serve time in jail. Unable to pay the fines, he served two months and was given five years of probation, including terms that he couldn’t carry any markers or aerosol spray cans. Facing the prospect of additional time, he set his artistic aspirations aside. 

Rediscovering his creative spark

It wasn’t until he was in his late 20’s that he picked up a brush again and reconnected with his creative side. It was the unofficial sidewalk art gallery at Oakland First Fridays, a monthly outdoor street festival in Uptown, which got him inspired again. Soon enough, he was painting again, and one of his first pieces on canvas was of the Port of Oakland’s cranes. 

“I painted two of them, went to First Friday and set up between two booths,” he recalled. “It wasn’t even 30 minutes in when a guy came over and asked me how much I was asking for it.” The customer bought the piece for $50—the first piece of art that Bejarano had ever sold.

From that moment on, his creativity was unleashed, and he became a regular vendor at the monthly street fair, renting out space for between $50-$75 dollars. “I would sell out my paintings almost every time,” he said.

Credit: Azucena Rasilla

His following grew and soon he was displaying his artwork at places like Crooked City Cider, a tap house in Jack London Square. The now-shuttered Movement Ink in the Laurel, and the pop-up gallery Oakland Artist Collective also displayed his works. 

As his popularity grew, Bejarano, being a Raiders fan, began reaching out to players via social media. Several former Raiders players and other athletes have since commissioned art pieces from him. 

When the pandemic began, and Oakland erupted in protest after the death of George Floyd in May, Bejarano jumped at the opportunity to show solidarity for the Black Lives Matter movement. He helped paint the “Black Lives Matter” banner on 15th Street between Broadway and Harrison Street, and like many other artists, Bejarano sought out empty walls and boarded-up businesses to paint murals downtown. He secured the walls surrounding the Cookies cannabis dispensary on 17th and Broadway for a mural, which depicts a black panther along with the phrase “Oakland Resilient Forever” and can still be seen today. Like many of the artists who created murals in downtown in the early days of the protests, he wasn’t paid for the artwork. 

Later, the owner of the dispensary commissioned him to paint the walls of his business on 17th Street. Bejarano painted three large squares, two of which became part of his Town Lotería: The Fox Theater sign, a snapshot of Lake Merritt under the stars, and the Bay Bridge.

The popularity of Bejarano’s Town Lotería set is leading to unexpected collaborations. Soon, the local retail shop Oaklandish will sell the sets at their stores downtown and in Dimond, as well as a t-shirt that Bejarano is currently designing.

“This is a one-time chance with them, and I want to do it right,” Bejarano said of his arrangement with the popular shop. “I want the best design to come out. They are going to put me in the eyes of people that I probably can’t reach. I want that design to have my signature, and I want people to look at it and say, ’Who is this? Where can I find him?’”

Azucena Rasilla is a bilingual journalist from East Oakland reporting in Spanish and in English, and a longtime reporter on Oakland arts, culture and community. As an independent local journalist, she has reported for KQED Arts, The Bold Italic, Zora and The San Francisco Chronicle. She was a writer and social media editor for the East Bay Express, helping readers navigate Oakland’s rich artistic and creative landscapes through a wide range of innovative digital approaches.