In early June, downtown Oakland looked forlorn and abandoned. The usually lively city center was still and quiet. A stark comparison to the noise of the previous nights, when protestors took the streets calling for racial justice and equality. These calls for reform eventually fell into larger cries for equality. Through vandalism and looting, the city felt the desperation of hundreds of years of racial inequality. A feeling that sat in the heart of the city for days—in boarded-up storefronts and quiet streets.
Then came the paintbrushes and life.
Artists from throughout the city took to the streets and set about transforming downtown into a massive, open-air art gallery.
Within a week or two, murals adorned buildings and boarded-up windows. Some artists painted murals to stand several stories high, looming over an entire block. Others chose to cover just a single doorway. Some were done by professional artists working on commissions, others were done as spontaneous, free-form street art. All bring beauty, expression, and unrepressed creativity to the heart of downtown Oakland.
How #BlackLivesMatter Murals in Oakland Created a Sense of Community
XQ Institute was part of the artistic revival, too. Working with Mayor Libby Schaaf’s office, XQ connected with several arts groups to turn boarded-up windows into vibrant, colorful murals—with youth at the center.
“We’ve always supported diversity and social justice,” said Eustace Conjoh, XQ’s community engagement manager. “And we strongly believe that when you bring people from different backgrounds together to beautify a community, you can bring about real change.”
For one mural, XQ worked with an all-volunteer nonprofit called Dragon School. Staffers from XQ joined more than a dozen young people to create a 40-foot-long mural at 8th Street and Broadway. Designed by artist Jasmine Quiroga, the mural features a stream of flowers and hummingbirds, interspersed with rising fists—in a variety of skin tones—coupled with the words, “Peace, Love, Justice, and Equality.”
The mural hopes to invoke “positivity and unity” during a time that’s been stressful for so many young people, said Sage Loring, executive director of Dragon School.
“There’s so much going on. And seeing all these storefronts boarded up can feel depressing. It has a psychic effect for people who live there,” he said. “But when you flip that and put art in that space, you don’t see a boarded-up building anymore. You see something hopeful, beautiful.”
Students Created #BlackLivesMatter Murals in Downtown Oakland
XQ also collaborated on a mural at 17th and Broadway, working with Oakland artists like Andre Jones. One of the students who participated in that project was Akaysha Calhoun, 18, who attended Oakland School for the Arts and now studies art at a community college.
For her, getting involved in the mural was a way to protest injustice and racism while staying safe. She avoided the marches and rallies downtown because she wanted to remain cautious of COVID-19, and the mural project seemed like a perfect way to merge her two interests—art and social justice.
As a Black woman, she said she was interested in creating images of Black people in high-profile, public art, especially those who are “trans, fat, queer, and disabled,” she said.
“Building up our communities by beautifying them with art is one of the best ways to communicate group thinking and pain, in this case, police brutality and the injustices against black/minority peoples in our systems,” she said.
“Art can be a way for anyone—no matter the age, gender, sexuality, race, ability, etc.—to express themselves without words,” she added. “The connection between change and art is the person creating it. I believe the power they hold can be limitless!”
Cheyenne Lewis, a recent graduate of Oakland School for the Arts, also worked on the 17th Street mural. Although her background is in fashion design, she jumped at the chance to paint.
“It’s not often you have the opportunity to do artwork for the public, and to beautify our city,” she said. “It was a chance to give something back. And it was a chance to put beauty within the fight for social justice.”
The mural didn’t just blend art with community work for Cheyenne—it expanded her own personal community, as well. While working on the mural, Cheyenne got to know other young Black artists in addition to the Black artists who were leading the project. She plans to work with them again, and stay connected to the network of Black artists in Oakland.
“Getting to know all these people, it was really fun,” she said.
Outdoor Murals Are Part of Oakland’s Fabric
Murals are not new to Oakland. Long a bastion for artists, it is Oakland’s goal to be a welcoming place for creative expression. In practically every neighborhood, visitors can see larger-than-life depictions of Warriors guard Stephen Curry, the iconic Port of Oakland shipping cranes, heroes of the social justice movement, or beautiful murals in solidarity with Palestine. There’s even an annual Oakland Mural Fest every May. And the visitor’s bureau offers maps, tours, and guides to the city-as-museum.
These days, more than 1,000 murals grace downtown Oakland’s buildings and window boards. And that number will grow in the next few months, as XQ embarks on two more murals downtown followed by murals in other neighborhoods like Fruitvale and East Oakland.
The timing makes perfect sense to Sage Loring.
“Art has always been at the forefront of social movements. Art starts the conversation,” he said. “And murals, which are so high-profile and usually require a group of people, are such a powerful way to connect to the community…Working together on a mural is like playing in a symphony. You can’t make that beautiful sound with just one violin.”