.Oaklandish Uprooted, Replanted

Once an epicenter of the Oakland scene, the arts collective stands divided.

The April opening gala for the Black Futurist Movement exhibit at the Ghost Town Gallery on San Pablo Avenue in Oakland had split into a high-school lunchroom formation. The alt-punk crowd that frequents the Stork Club and Mama Buzz Cafe was listening to live bands in one show space. The dreadlocked youth of the Black Futurist Movement had a DJ spinning roots in another room down the stairs and across the hall. This attempt to meld seemingly divergent cultures felt more like two separate events running simultaneously. Some people crossed the hall and mingled. Most did not stay mingled.

Graffiti artist Refa1, former codirector of the former Oaklandish Gallery, was one of the notable exceptions. That was no surprise. The gallery and movement he was part of seemed to have a second sense about where the many burgeoning art scenes of Oakland intersected and how to best thrive within their various shades of gray.

Standing in front of the battered speakers as the next band tuned up, the dreadlocked vandal brandished a business card bearing the ubiquitous Oaklandish logo. That insignia — which appropriated and stylized the city’s official oak tree logo, and added roots to correspond with its manicured branches — became the unofficial Oaktown logo from almost the moment of its inception.

The logo and gallery name were the brainchild of Jeff Hull, the founder and other former codirector of Oaklandish. Hull, who initially did his Oaklandish business under the pseudonym Bobby Peru, is an artist, organizer, and prankster now selling the same logo on T-shirts and paraphernalia at the Saturday Grand Lake farmers’ market.

But just when the Oakland arts scene most needs the cross-cultural collaboration that Hull’s logo has come to represent, the two major forces behind Oaklandish have broken with one another, perhaps to the detriment of the larger scene. Hull’s logo now appears on two competing Web sites, one operated by him and another under development by his former colleague, Refa1.

Oaklandish.org remains Hull, who was the initial financial backer of the Oaklandish Gallery and its umbrella guerrilla arts organization, Nonchalance. OaklandishArts.org is Refa1’s fledgling Web site and organization of the same name.

About three months ago, Hull demanded in writing that Refa1 cease and desist using the Oaklandish logo and name. In a recent interview, he said that he will reluctantly pursue legal action if Refa1 does not comply with his demands.

Refa1, in another recent interview, said the name and the logo may remain the same, but that is where the similarities end. He said the reason he chose to appropriate the appropriated icon was to “tell the story of how we are not a commercial venture. We are a movement. We’re trying to set that straight and let the folks know that the revolution ain’t over.”

“We never tripped on Jeff owning the name,” he added. “You can’t own an idea.”

The original idea behind Oaklandish was as an adjective meaning “Oakland-like,” although it quickly became better known as a humorous play on the word “outlandish.” The word was first used to describe the “Original Oakland Charm” displayed in a digital slide show of 130 unsung Oakland legends such as Gertrude Stein, Huey Newton, Bruce Lee, and Julia Morgan, which Hull projected onto the outside wall of the Grand Lake Theater building. Next came his guerrilla poster series of “Patron Saints and Sinners of The Town” with prominent figures such as Hell’s Angel founder Sonny Barger and Black Panther child-martyr Little Bobby Hutton pasted on used and unused, claimed and unclaimed urban spaces.

Hull’s insurgent Oakland-pride movement soon amassed a small, loyal following of art hipsters from Oakland and Berkeley. When he collaborated with the Aerosol Heritage Preservation Society for a graffiti art slideshow called The Legendary Eightees and met Refa1, the project took on a transcendent scope. “Jeff had some ideas; we had some ideas,” Refa1 recalled. “He had the funds, the resources, and he wanted to work. People who need access to that kind opportunity don’t usually get it.”

Refa1, being an Oakland native and subversive in his own right, saw a co-conspirator in the wheat-postering, tag-happy Hull. Jeff wanted credibility for his endeavors as much as Refa1 desired legitimacy for his art form. Though the collective had many transient, peripheral members, the two artists’ mutually beneficial relationship put them at the forefront of what became Oaklandish (the noun). Soon thereafter, the pirate-format Liberation Drive-In theater was born, which projected all manner of artistic endeavors onto a variety of empty downtown walls. Then Hull found a gallery space near Jack London Square at 2nd and Franklin streets. He named Refa1 the codirector of Oaklandish.

With Hull and Refa1 at the helm, the gallery gathered graffiti artists and B-boys together with the punk-decoupage-thrift store crowd. Exhibits and events ranged from a showcase of emerging Vietnamese artists to a hyper-cerebral Oakland history zine called Oakslander to the uplifting 4/20 Festival — a celebration of pot and pot heritage. Oaklandish grew a reputation as one of the hip epicenters of Bump City culture and garnered countless press write-ups and the undying devotion of teams of Oakland youth and artists. On certain nights, attendance rivaled any nightclub in Oakland or San Francisco.

When a personal tragedy took Hull out of the picture for ten months, Refa1 took on a default ambassadorship. His ties with Oakland’s established activist and hip-hop communities attracted people who didn’t traditionally attend events at art galleries. Because of this influx and Hull’s unplanned absence, Refa1’s presence became synonymous with Oaklandish.

But today, Hull blanches when Refa1’s name comes up. “I let go of the wheel and the gallery got hijacked,” he said. “Refa1 blew it up like it was a club. Without all those club fliers, with the booty-shake girls and all that, we could have ridden under the radar into the sunset. After OPD starting making stops around the gallery like it was a nightclub, I said ‘This is real business and real risk. And it’s all in my name.'”

In September 2005, the gallery closed its doors under mysterious circumstances. According to an article in the Oakland Tribune, the building’s owners had failed to obtain the required permits before leasing a space to Oaklandish, and the gallery facility thus did not meet city fire codes.

When the city moved in, Hull officially closed the space and asked Refa1 to step down as codirector. “He took the severance I gave him and started OaklandishArts.org.”

“The gallery closing was a bit of a heartbreak,” Hull said. “There were selectively enforced regulations in Oakland, especially for events that are regularly attended by young people of color. We got targeted. The city came down on us. I don’t want to sound too negative about the city government. I feel like they were apologetic, and we’ve built a positive relationship moving forward. There was beef and infighting. It was a bad period. We had to step away from it all, gestate and come back this spring with summer events all summer long.”

Now scheduled at Oaklandish.org for the summer are a continuation of The Liberation Drive-In, an urban version of “capture the flag,” and a July 16 Lake Merritt Radio Regatta — a City-approved short-wave broadcast event — at the Boat House.

As for Refa1, he said OaklandishArts.org will be more focused on art combined with activism than the Situationist thrust of Oaklandish.org. He is currently planning a June 10 block party at East Oakland Community High.

D. Scot Miller
Managing Editor of The East Bay Express, Former Associate Editor of Oakland Magazine and Alameda Magazine, Columnist-In-Residence at San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA)'s Open Space, Advisory Board Member of Nocturnes Journal of Literary Arts, and regular contributor to several newspapers, websites and magazines. Miller is the founder of The Afrosurreal Arts Movement through his publication of The Afrosurreal Manifesto in The San Francisco Bay Guardian, May 20, 2009.


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