David Burke is perched on the scissor lift, a crane-like machine that rises high up off the ground, a glob of paint dripping from his brush. Burke is putting the finishing touches on his latest mural project, Love Letter to Oakland 2. 

Down below, artist Joevic Yeban carefully checks how the expressions on the faces of the mural bounce light off the wall. Meanwhile, Pancho Pescador adds hues of purple to the flowers he’s painting at the mural’s base. Curious onlookers stop to take photos or see if they can recognize the faces on the wall.

The mural on 51st Street and Shattuck Avenue is the second in a series called Love Letter to Oakland. The first was painted on a wall at 4th and Oak streets, completed in 2018 as part of the Oakland Mural Festival

The Love Letter series, which will be a total of five murals spread across Oakland, depicts the act of the older generation “passing the torch” to the younger generation they’ve inspired and influenced. According to Burke, one of the goals is to “honor the people that have shaped the cultural landscape and paved the way for the next generation here in the Bay, in an attempt to establish a visual lineage of Bay Area excellence.”

For the second mural, the portraits of late Oakland Symphony conductor Michael Morgan and late Mills College professor and artist Hung Liu are depicted on the left, across from singer-songwriter and educator Kev Choice and young muralists Elaine Chu and Marina Perez-Wong of the Twin Wall Mural Co. The painting adorns the wall of a PG&E substation in Temescal.

“A mural like this is probably around $50,000,” Burke said about the cost of materials and labor. “And we are doing it for less than half. We are doing it on a shoestring—bare-bones.”

Life-like portraits, honoring remarkable lives

Besides its size, the most striking aspect of the mural is how life-like the portraits are. Joevic Yeban, who has worked with Burke in the past, is the muralist behind the work of bringing the faces to life, having painted them with his meticulous eye for realism.

Work on the mural started last year when Burke teamed up with photographer and cinematographer Steve Babuljak. Babuljak invited all the subjects depicted in the mural to his studio to take their portraits, except for Morgan, who passed away in August 2021. Shortly after Liu posed for a photo, she also passed away.

The passing of Morgan and Liu made the project feel more urgent, said the muralists, even though they lacked the funds needed to complete it. 

“Sometimes it isn’t all about the money,” Pescador said. 

One of the people featured in the mural is singer-songwriter, and educator Kev Choice, who learned from the late Maestro Morgan. Credit: Amir Aziz

Babuljak also recorded interviews with the subjects who are part of the second Love Letter series, and the people who will eventually be part of the rest of the murals in the series. 

The mural series project’s dedicated Instagram page includes snippets of the interviews. 

“Dave [Burke] is one of the few who doesn’t just throw up pretty paint. Everything he does has intention,” Babuljak said. “I’ve been trying to do justice by capturing it in some way.”

A history of memorializing local legends

Oakland is no stranger to giant murals honoring local artists, musicians, writers, and even just everyday people. 

Artists Daniel Galvez, Dan Fontes, and others painted the Street Tattoo mural under the I-580 overpass by San Pablo Avenue near the Greyhound Bus Station in 1982, depicting kids playing, a skier and wheelchair racer, and a firefighter. It graced the wall until years of neglect led to it being painted over. 

In 1983, Daniel Galvez, Keith Sklar, and others also worked on the Grand Performance mural under the Grand Avenue I-580 overpass. That mural features historic figures such as Julia Morgan, Jack London, and the Oakland Symphony’s first Black conductor, Calvin Simmons. 

“When I was younger, I was around 8 years old, it was those guys, Daniel Galvez, Dan Fontes. I saw those pieces when they were made,” Burke said, referring to the muralists. “There was a magic to seeing those murals, especially at that age.” 

While giant murals draw attention, Burke and Pescador don’t see enough support for artists to maintain them. 

“The city of Oakland can give grants to make murals, but there’s never a budget for maintenance. And I think that’s super important,” Pescador said. “The city needs to start respecting the cultural legacy that artists are leaving. I hate to see murals getting tagged and not being repaired, murals peeling off.”  

“The city loves to promote public art,” Burke said, “but, they don’t want to take responsibility for helping with the maintenance. 

Artists David Burke (left), Joevic Yeban (middle), and Pancho Pescador (right) pose for a photo in front of their mural-in-progress, “Love Letter to Oakland.” Credit: Amir Aziz

Burke, Pescador, and Yeban would also like to see veteran muralists get paid to upkeep their murals while supporting the new wave of young artists who need mentorship. 

“It’s not just about giving them an opportunity. That’s just part of it,” said Burke. “It’s teaching them history. It’s not just about putting your work out. It’s about the community and the place. The Bay Area Mural Project is doing a great job with that.” 

Despite the hurdles they see in maintaining the city’s many murals, the team is thrilled to have one more piece of art showcasing the history of Oakland. 

“There are a lot of people that are moving here that don’t know that there have been people in Oakland that had been shaping the culture for decades,” Burke said. “This is a way to show history and introduce the young people whose voices are emerging. It’s a way to introduce people to folks that have been doing the work.”

Azucena Rasilla is an East Oakland native, a bilingual journalist 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.