Oakland Street Art in National Geographic

This week, National Geographic turned its lens away from the exotic Sahara and deep into an alley way in East Oakland. In the piece “Sneak Attacks of Beauty in a Tough Town: Street Art in Oakland, California,” long-time Oakland resident and UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism professor Cynthia Gorney highlights Solano Alley —and the people who have painted it— for Nat Geo’s new “My Town” series.

Gorney was inspired to write the piece when one of her students, Pendarvis Harshaw, presented a video project surrounding the death of Oakland graffiti legend Mike Francisco aka “Dream.” She asked “Pen” to give her a glimpse of Oakland’s graf world, and eventually ended up in the alley with local artists Chris Granillo and Salvador Cortez.

Gorney writes: “Riding alongside Pen all morning, through the alley and down into the train yards where Dream and his spray-paint crew conducted most of their surreptitious work, I began to see what my younger friend set out to explain about the city we have learned how to love: that in Oakland, like so many urban places in which gift, ambition, rage, and frustration are all crammed in together, there’s an additional language that lives on outdoor walls. It’s coarse. It’s defiant. Frequently it flouts property rights, social sensibilities, and the rule of law. It’s legible, though, once you start learning its alphabet, and has developed its own internal rules of conduct and a widely understood skill ascension ladder that starts with tagging, as Pen taught me to call it, and rises—sometimes—to art.”

[jump] Gorney’s retelling of her visit, and accompanying description of the Oakland graffiti and street art scenes, is remarkably refreshing. She doesn’t romanticize it as some underground artist dreamworld, or exoticize it as a grimy, vandals’ paradise. Rather, Gorney manages to pin down the nuances involved with entering spaces like Solano Alley, where so many defining aspects of Oakland intersect, and remain a respectful appreciator rather than an urban tourist. 

More from Gorney: “Solano Alley, in Oakland. Should you happen to find it, don’t dump your garbage while you’re passing through. Don’t tag other people’s work. Don’t paint over anything that’s better than what you could do. And don’t snap a couple of quick cell phone pictures from inside your rolled-up windows before speeding anxiously away, either. Salvador and Amy have seen people do that, locked into their cars as though gawking is acceptable but everything else—this place, these visuals, this language, this story—is too scary even to try to explore. That’s just wrong. People live here.” 

Chris Granillo and his collective Elefont Artists began transforming the alley in 2011, bringing in more artists over time. Eventually, the group also exhibited a show at Rock Paper Scissors Collective in October of 2012. Below, check out a video of the alley made for the RPS show by participating local artist David Polka. 

Solano Alley: Under the Radar from David Polka on Vimeo.

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