The Art of the Oakland Hustle

Town Business showcases the city's creative entrepreneurs and explores the business of surviving as a working artist in the East Bay.

On a rainy night in February 2012, the driver of a stolen Honda Accord fleeing police crashed into a parked car in West Oakland. Gregorio de Masi was inside his studio at the time when he heard a loud collision and went outside to see that his Subaru Impreza had been thrown onto the curb.

“I was so distraught,” de Masi recalled. He saw the suspects run away and quickly realized that his car was damaged beyond repair. As a full-time artist, de Masi relied on his car to ferry supplies and artwork. The tiny insurance check he later received wasn’t enough to allow him to buy a new car.

The loss could have been devastating for de Masi’s career, but it ended up inspiring what is perhaps one of his most impressive — and practical — works of art yet: The Bicycle Gallery. Built from a mountain bike that de Masi initially decorated for Burning Man, the cycling contraption included a trailer that allowed the artist to transport supplies for his paintings and other mixed-media projects. “I needed to be self-sufficient,” he said.

As its name suggests, however, The Bicycle Gallery soon became a full-fledged pedal-powered mobile gallery, with an attached four-by-four platform and eight-foot-tall plank that displays de Masi’s works. He pedals from his West Oakland home — which doubles as his studio — to Art Murmur and First Fridays, as well as gigs all around the city. He doesn’t have to deal with parking or gas money, and he exercises in the process.

The Bicycle Gallery is currently on display as part of Town Business: State of the Art Hustle, a group art show at Warehouse 416 that focuses on exactly what de Masi’s cycling invention represents: “It’s the marketing hustle and the business hustle,” said Trevor Parham, a local art consultant and the show’s curator. He brought together East Bay artists to explore a simple but fundamental question: How do you survive as a working artist here? “I tried to think of artists who were really pushing the boundaries, not with the artwork itself … but in terms of how they were marketing themselves.”

For de Masi, The Bicycle Gallery has become his trademark — as well as a money-saver. “It was just solving one problem after another,” he said, adding, “The Bicycle Gallery has really helped give me a platform.” He uses the bike to showcase his works, and, more recently, his merchandise (including hoodies, pillows, and tote bags), which helps supplement his income.

Town Business coincides with the launch of, a website Parham created that currently features interviews with the show’s “entrepreneurial artists.” He hopes to turn the site into a hub for creative local merchants of all types. “We’re getting closer and closer to the economic, entrepreneurial boom,” he said. “I’m trying to look at creative ways to do business: businesses doing things that maybe we haven’t seen before or maybe things we would only see in Oakland.”, he said, will profile artists and small businesses and eventually function as a database and directory.

Warehouse 416, located at 416 26th Street between Telegraph Avenue and Broadway, is a fitting location to examine the challenges of art marketing and the creative hustle. The family-run gallery sits in the district where Art Murmur and First Friday take place. Galleries and participants are now engaged in what has become a somewhat tense debate about the best ways to market local art through these kinds of events. As the Express previously reported, galleries don’t actually make a significant amount of money during First Friday — which is essentially a street fair — even though the monthly event has drawn more attention to the art scene.

“A lot of these artists have more creative ways of making money,” said Angela Scrivani, gallery manager and curator at Warehouse 416. “That’s the whole premise for the show.”

Scrivani pointed out that Warehouse 416, which her parents bought in 2000, was itself an inspiration for Town Business, for which she brought in Parham as a guest curator. She prefers to feature more affordable works of art at her gallery so that East Bay artists are encouraged to buy each other’s works and remain in the community.

“It’s important that the Oakland art scene reflect the Oakland that I know,” Scrivani said. “Oakland has a lot of pride. It’s a beautiful place and there are a lot of talented people from here who have grown up here or chosen to make it home. It was important to feature the diversity that is Oakland.”

With that theme in mind, Scrivani has hosted so-called “Small Art” shows featuring pieces under $200 — a business model that she said makes more sense than hustling to sell a single work for thousands of dollars. Projects like Town Business aim to respond to the fact that the Oakland scene is not as affluent as its San Francisco counterpart. “I have to sell stuff at a lower price point,” said Scrivani. De Masi agrees with her logic: “It’s the wrong approach to only make your art affordable to wealthy people.”

Themes like these are common in the East Bay, said Parham. “Artists in Oakland in some ways do have to make a choice: Do I take my work to San Francisco where it might sell better, or do I come up with something a little more creative that speaks to the economics of Oakland? I want to stay in the city and keep money in my city.”

Each of the dozen artists featured in Town Business has something unique about his or her individual hustle. On his profile, Adam Mitchell, an artist who has also spent time in Denver and Chicago, writes of the value of the “DIY ethic to art,” the do-it-yourself method of hustling in many different settings. “Galleries are not the end-all, be-all,” he said in an interview. “Cafes, restaurants, studios, selling on Etsy, Instagram…. It’s about taking it to the next level.” He said he was attracted to Oakland because “I felt it was the Wild West. There are not a lot of rules.”

As a show, Town Business has a frenetic energy to it, featuring a diverse range of media and styles: small sketches; a handmade, wooden “East Bay” sign; printed testimonials about the financial struggles of doing what you love for a living. The works line the exposed brick walls of Warehouse 416, itself a breathtaking space that features an indoor courtyard gallery as well as about six office and work spaces that artists and businesses can rent out.

Unity Lewis — who works in his family’s publishing and fine arts business, Unity Works, and whose grandmother, Samella Lewis, is a well-known artist and historian — said Town Business taps into a plain truth: “Art needs to be valued and people do need to understand that for many artists, it is a hustle…. The creative mind needs to be funded. It needs fuel. It needs cash to support itself and its family…. Come to the market, buy something, and support these artists if you love these artists. Keep these traditions and keep this culture alive.”

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