The Streets Stay Talking: Oakland’s pandemic street art, one year later

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LIBERATED ‘During the pandemic, everything changed,’ Granillo said. ‘When you let go of working for others, it changes your perspective of what art can be.’

When I first reported on the artists and murals emerging from Oakland during the summer of 2020—as Covid surged at apocalyptic rates and outraged citizens stormed the streets in organized and unorganized uprisings against the unlawful killings of community members, including George Floyd and Breonna Taylor—the world felt violently and radically upside down.

It’s surreal to recall that moment when traffic stopped, businesses shut down and we were forced inside—as countless lives were tragically lost. It has been over a year since it all avalanched, and we’ve now had some time and distance to attempt our recuperation while looking back at our shared experiences.

Perhaps the most tangible, collective reminder of it all publicly remains in the art that was left behind. If anything, the artwork represents a silver lining from that historically ravaging moment—one which might forever alter the trajectory and perception of what art can achieve for a city, and how contributing artists are valued and compensated.

I wondered: Since last May, when the first pandemic murals went up in downtown Oakland, how has the public art scene changed? And what are these contributing artists up to now?

That’s when Chris Granillo pulled up. Literally. He scooped me up in his old, black Jeep and drove me around Oakland, pointing out locations where art first went up and where it sometimes came down after the start of the pandemic took hold.

For many artists like Granillo and the Ex Vandals, a historied crew of which he is a member, opportunities to paint the Town flourished during this period in a way he says he has never experienced in nearly 20 years of living here.

“It started out as doing free projects to help out businesses,” he says. “Then, over the year, it became a paid thing. It helps to pay my bills these days.”

After moving from Coachella Valley to attend Laney College as an art student in 2002, Granillo remained in Oakland, where his mother is originally from. For years, the Mexican-American muralist struggled to make a decent living in the Bay Area, where the rent is so exorbitant that Granillo, at times, resorted to sleeping on friends’ couches when he needed to.

But, that was his life before the pandemic, when things were drastically different. Like all of us, his workflow changed during Covid. Surprisingly, in the most dire of times, he experienced an overwhelmingly positive shift in his career, resulting from an unforeseen demand for his services.

Photo by Alan Chazaro

At the apex of sheltering-in-place, Granillo estimates he painted about 30 panels for local businesses, mostly centered in downtown. That’s in addition to commissioned murals, community work and other art-related jobs, such as screen printing and sign making, which emerged for him in abundance during that time. It’s a transition he is extremely grateful for.

“During the pandemic, everything changed,” he says. “I went from working for a company to actually creating my own, using my independent skills to create my own business. When you let go of working for others, it changes your perspective of what art can be.”

Granillo leveraged his chances by leaving his role as an “odd-jobs” freelancer in an unforgiving gig economy, and instead formed his own source of commerce, which he is now able to sustain full-time from inside his art studio—which just so happens to be on a boat in the Emeryville marina. 

His first opportunity came from Baggy’s By the Lake, a local dive on E. 18th Street, where he painted a hummingbird on a panel covering the bar’s window. From there, he went on to provide artistic services for various pubs and restaurants, including Telegraph Beer Garden—a.k.a. Beeryland—Luka’s Taproom and Sobre Mesa. He also got down with other clients, including the Volkswagen dealership on Broadway. His trademark style often involves a reference to his Mexican roots, surrealism, geometric aesthetics and animal wildlife. Though his art has previously been featured in notable places like Balmy Alley in San Francisco, he says he owes his increase in paid commissioned work to the pandemic’s unlikely twist of fate.

He wasn’t the only artist to thrive during this stretch, though.

Throughout our drive, he reminds me that he is merely one artist operating within a larger network of expressionists, or, as he calls them, his “art comrades.” He excitedly points out work from DJ Agana, Aeos, Irene Shiori, Rachel Wolfe-Goldsmith and Pancho Pescador—among others—all of whom contributed heavily in creating Oakland’s “outdoor museum experience.” They’ve all benefited, he believes, as a result of the pandemic’s art boom.

Arguably no other time in modern history has created such an organic intersection for public art, politics and social awareness to coexist, as the pandemic and uprisings did. It positioned artists with a chance to exist not only in the margins, but at the forefront of everything going on.

Also, according to Granillo, the protests brought with them an unprecedented amount of wood panels by creating pressure to board up businesses in a way that, he says, “changed our formula for expression.” It was a serendipitously unexpected combination that led to more art in the city—and one of the few uplifting outcomes from Covid. 

“During the height of shelter-in-place, the art brought life back,” Granillo says. “Art is meant for healing. So that’s what we tried to do with our work at that time. I was outside the whole time, painting.”

Since then, outdoor murals, barrier flourishes, panel galleries and overall recognition and respect gained for Granillo and other artists has encouraged some to pursue their artistic passions with more economic stability and confidence. Strangely, wood-panel artworks from the pandemic have become as normalized as the outdoor-seating patios lining the streets.

These pandemic-era murals became work that, more than other mediums, necessitated visibility and public interaction. When the pandemic was at its zenith, and the social uprisings were sweeping the nation, Oakland became an epicenter for that political frustration and communal anger, rallying various intersections of artists who might not have otherwise sought a space to engage with an audience beyond their usual gallery spaces. Ironically, during a time of physical separation, art became that communal language connecting us all.

“I saw artists out there who I knew were never on the streets, doing their thing and getting political,” says Granillo. “I think that was a beautiful moment, to be honest.”

Photo by Alan Chazaro

Unlike a gallery-curated painter, though, Granillo is a true street artist, someone who earned his stripes in the field when he painted his first Oakland-based mural in Solano Alley, off 18th and International in East Oakland, over 12 years ago. The mural is still there, hidden behind his old apartment building, and depicts a Latina’s cartoonish face accompanied by an Aztec-inspired eagle. Next to it is tagged the phrase, “For the community.”

The rugged alley, with potholed concrete, barbed-wire fencing and trash illegally strewn in heaps, emphasizes the vibrancy of the colorful piece even more, since it stands out as a declaration for the neighborhood’s beauty and resilience. It’s this spirit of rootedness and “healing” that Granillo proudly embodies and which can be felt when looking at any of his more-recent pandemic murals.

Even now, as signs of the pandemic begin to recede and a semblance of what was once normal begins to resume in varying capacities, Granillo receives consistent work as a muralist, painter, sign maker, t-shirt printer, designer and more.

Whether it’s a depiction of a migrant child grappling with the traumas of Immigration and Customs Enforcement for a wall curated by Beast Oakland on Telegraph’s A Taste of Denmark, or something less politically overt yet still relevant to our environment—like the heron he painted for the Lake Merritt Post Office, to commemorate the nearby lake’s natural ecosystem—his work is representative of the community in more ways than one.

For Granillo, like so many Oakland artists, it’s not about the money; it’s about the message that hasn’t changed since last year, and for many, long before that.

“We don’t get paid a fortune for these murals,” he says. “It’s about beautifying the community. We’re not trying to take anything from anyone. We’re just hoping to give inspiration.”
Follow Chris Granillo’s journey and artwork on Instagram @chrisgranilloart, and support his business at www.chrisgranilloart.com.