If you look on the concrete walls where San Pablo Avenue passes under the I-580 in West Oakland, you’ll see a vibrantly colored mural depicting life in the neighborhood. It features three characters created by the mural’s artists—J’Khia the princess of knowledge, Josiah the messenger of fate, and DJ Justice—who represent the spirit of the Black experience in West Oakland. J’Khia hovers above a neighborhood block party hosted by DJ Justice, and Josiah walks in the street with his head high while carrying a glowing suitcase and a book.
If you walk further down San Pablo Avenue, where it intersects with Market Street you will spot two more murals. One is of a Black woman with an afro enveloped in bright green foliage, while the other depicts the Hoover-Durant neighborhood’s rich history of Black-led activism.
The mural under I-580 was created by the Center for ArtEsteem and students from McClymonds High School, who came up with the concept. The other two murals at Market Street were created by the Bay Area Mural Program, a non-profit organization dedicated to creating civic-minded art throughout Oakland the Bay Area.
Both arts organizations call West Oakland’s Hoover-Durant neighborhood home, and both create murals that reflect the Black and brown residents who have resided there for decades.
Founded in 1995 by West Oakland native and former OUSD teacher Amana Harris, ArtEsteem partners with schools to provide in-classroom workshops, as well as enlist students to create murals. The mural curated by ArtEsteem was the first of four “Super Heroes” murals, which are located underneath the 1-580 underpasses between 35th and 36th Streets. A fifth mural is currently in the works, and the design is being conceptualized by Pancho Pescador, a Chilean artist who has lived in Oakland for the past two decades. Pescador will be working with students from ArtEsteem’s West Oakland legacy project who are conceptualizing the mural.
“This mural specifically is going to be anti-capitalistic because their ideas coming from the youth that took me in that direction,” Pescador said.
“I really wanted these murals to reflect young people’s desires and dreams beyond the limitations of this mundane world,” Harris, ArtEsteem’s executive director, said. “It’s about magic in a lot of ways, using magic to solve our community’s greatest problems.”
The Center for ArtEsteem was founded as Attitudinal Healing in 1989 by Harris’s mother and stepfather Aeeshah and Kokomon Clottey in Hoover-Durant. As an offshoot of the original Attitudinal Healing group in Marin County’s Tiburon, the West Oakland group focused on applying the 12 principles of “attitudinal healing” to stop racism, violence, and poverty.
“We were doing things like hosting support groups, drum circles, and racial healing circles,” Harris said.
Aaron De La Cruz, an acclaimed artist who was the art director for the first super hero mural, said that the project was born out of Harris’ desire to preserve the stories of Hoover-Durant’s predominantly Black community.
“We canvassed the neighborhood and we knocked on doors talking to people, gathering stories for at least a year,” De La Cruz said. “One conversation Amana and I had back then was, ‘you have your Latino districts, your Little Italys, you have your Chinatowns, but there wasn’t really a strong visual presence of the soul of West Oakland.’”
The superhero murals are grand in size and in vision. Harris’ vision is that students who participate in making these murals become neighborhood stewards while also healing in the process.
“We bring art as a way to help young people understand the principles of attitudinal healing, but also build self-esteem, self-awareness, community, and social awareness,” Harris said.
Although they have not been in the neighborhood as long as ArtEsteem, the Bay Area Mural Program, a non-profit organization with offices on San Pablo Avenue, has produced about a dozen works of public art in Hoover-Durant. Andre Jones, BAMP’s executive director and co-founder, moved to the East Bay in 2011 after working as a professional artist under the name, Natty Rebel.
“I have a long, extensive history of doing murals in Philadelphia, New York, and East Africa, but I was at a crossroads of figuring out a way to live the lifestyle I was accustomed to but also provide for my children,” Jones said. “That’s when I founded the Bay Area Mural Arts Program in 2013.”
The ethos behind BAMP’s San Pablo murals was assembling a team of artists that would paint something that reflected the character of the community.
Shortly after founding the non-profit, Jones painted his first mural in 2014 on an abandoned burger stand at the intersection of San Pablo and Market Street. “I painted with a bunch of graffiti artists—Refa One, Kiss My Black Arts—and I was the only one out there with a paintbrush.”
Jones painted what he refers to as the “Afro Girl” character. This image was partly inspired by the energy he felt in West Oakland, and partly an homage to a character painted by members of the Oakland graffiti crew Punks, Thugs, and Vandals, or PTV.
“I didn’t want people to think I was biting their style because they got an afro male character that was similar to what I was painting when I lived in New York and Philadelphia,” Jones said, “so I thought, ‘if Oakland was to look like a woman, what would she look like,’ and that’s how I made afro girl on that first wall I painted.”
In 2018, ArtEsteem worked with Jones as well as artist James Gayles to create the “Senior Super Heroes mural” for St. Mary’s Center on Brockhurst Street. The center works with at-risk seniors in the area by providing housing and counseling services, and in the past has hosted art workshops for seniors dealing with addiction. Similar to the super heroes murals on the I-580 underpass, ArtEsteem consulted with seniors to come up with the concept.
All of these works of art are meant to display the longstanding essence of the community: It’s southern Black roots, and the culture created by the descendants of Hoover-Durant’s first Black settlers.
“This is a bigger conversation, but as Black and brown artists, we can’t just paint googly-eyed, silly characters because we have a community to speak up for, represent, and empower,” Jones said. “Painting something silly won’t have as much impact, as an image of someone we can connect to.”
The neighborhood is the former home of C.L. Dellums, one of the Black forefathers of labor activism in Oakland. Before it became affordable housing, the California Hotel, which towers over the I-580 freeway on the corner of San Pablo Avenue and 36th Street, was a hub of Black West Oakland, hosting the likes of musical greats like Cab Calloway and James Brown.
This history can be explored through the Black Liberation Walking Tour, but organizations like BAMP and Center for ArtEsteem are trying to merge the neighborhood’s past and present in a way that promotes community development. Longtime resident David Peters, who co-founded the walking tour, said Hoover-Durant was devoid of an arts scene when he was growing up there in the 70’s.
“Street art really is a new-ish phenomenon, and so I don’t remember seeing a lot of public art here. I don’t even know if there was a lot of graffiti,” Peters said.
He believes in the power of public art and its ability to preserve stories. Peters even commissioned BAMP’s Jones to paint a mural in his backyard depicting his family’s migration journey from Texas and Louisana to West Oakland. Most recently, Jones and BAMP artists completed a mural on Market Street celebrating the launch of the Black Liberation Walking Tour.
“I think it’s reflective culturally of the neighborhood, and I think Andre’s work is phenomenal,” said Peters.
While Peters is an advocate of Both ArtEsteem and BAMP’s work, he does share concerns about how murals can inadvertently serve as a tool for gentrification.
“Art makes it more of a place that people want to visit, which is great, “Peters said. “We just don’t want to be on anybody’s ‘hottest neighborhoods’ list. We’re trying to make this a place for people who live here, want to enjoy here, and most importantly want to stay here.”
Harris of ArtEsteem firmly believes that the murals they commission cannot be gentrifying forces because the artists and herself have deep roots in the community. She also pointed out that some newcomers to Hoover-Durant have criticized murals for doing more harm than good.
“I was at this community meeting some years ago and this woman was talking about how, ‘The art is gentrifying this community,’ and my thought was, people really undermine communities of color as if we don’t bring art to the table,” Harris said. “They probably don’t know that these murals were born out of this community.”