Who Was That Masked Muralist?

Justin Artifice is on a stealthy mission to beautify Oakland's urban landscape.

It’s Saturday night. The iPod is plugged in. The speakers are turned up. The beer bottles have been uncapped and Justin Artifice is hard at work, which is to say, having fun in a West Oakland warehouse art studio. Surrounded by wooden beams piled on shelves, newspapers scattered over the floor, a gigantic cross-section of a tree, and plastic bottles of all manner filled with paint, Justin mixes his acrylics, trying to get the right colors.

Is Justin Artifice a real person? Not precisely. But the artistic entity with the curious name is the force behind murals that have been popping up on boarded buildings throughout Oakland since late last summer. Justin fancies himself a blight vigilante, installing beauty on shabby buildings without the owners’ permission. He marks each work with a logo in the corner — the silhouettes of two guys squared off as though engaged in a swordfight, except one is brandishing a roller and the other is armed with a paintbrush.

Indeed, Justin has a dual personality to match his logo. This is not a Jekyll and Hyde situation; rather, the two personas coexist, and often carry on conversations with one other. There’s Boy Scout Artifice, who possesses a lanky frame and clean-cut blond hair. And then there’s Hipster Artifice, who wears patched-up baggy pants, knit caps, and wraparound glasses. Therefore, let us refer to Justin’s two halves as Scout and Hipster.

Their work, like that of any graffiti muralist, is illegal — hence the anonymity. At the same time, their philosophy is more in line with the graffiti abatement crew than the twelve-year-old taggers it cleans up after.

Scout and Hipster believe in the “broken window” theory, first put forth by criminologists James Q. Wilson and George Kelling in The Atlantic Monthly in 1982. The academics argued that public disorder — symbolized by broken windows — breeds crime: One broken window leads to graffiti and more broken windows, then to people pissing in the street, and finally to stealing and robbing and shooting smack in doorways.

In the eyes of Justin Artifice, even boarded-up windows are still broken and lead to bad behavior. “You don’t see people selling drugs in a nice area,” says Scout.

“We’re hoping to give a different vibe to these areas,” adds Hipster.

Scout and Hipster scope out dilapidated buildings in high-traffic areas, and then get to work with their paintbrushes. Unlike their counterparts in the graffiti world, they install their murals in broad daylight, mostly undisturbed by passersby. The public displays debuted in August on a building at Clay and 7th Street, which Justin says is owned, ironically enough, by the California College of Arts and Crafts. Up went twelve four-by-four-foot plywood panels, each with a random pattern of lines and circles, like samples of wallpaper or gift wrap.

In September, a thirty-by-twelve display appeared at Broadway and 14th Street on a downtown building that had been boarded up for years. Against a background of red, blue, and yellow lines, the panels featured historical depictions of the same spot over the last hundred years. First came a tree, then a cable car, a dentist’s office, and a small office building. In October, the front of a building at Telegraph and 23rd Street became a mural of Jeanette Lee, a tough Korean-American professional pool player. Against a wall of bright red, Lee leans over the table, her long hair falling over her shoulders, brows furrowed in fierce concentration as she plots her next shot. “There used to be a pool hall there and here we are in Koreatown, so Jeanette Lee was perfect,” explains Scout. “We try to do something specific to each site.”

Two weeks ago, Justin began attaching smaller pieces, about a foot or two across, onto other sites such as the Fox Theater and an abandoned Taco Bell near the main library. The smaller pieces don’t present coherent images, but are random assemblages of newspaper images, layers of paint, and the Artifice logo. “Smart people will take them home,” says Hipster, encouraging the theft. Not that he makes it easy. “You need a drill to steal it.” The ones at the Fox were promptly painted over in gray by city graffiti abatement crews, but Justin took it in stride. “It’s like a dialogue with the city,” Scout says.

For the most part, the murals have remained untouched. In fact, only one of them has come down, and that was because Justin dismantled it: After three-plus months of exposure to the elements, the piece at Broadway and 14th had begun to warp.

The concept of Justin Artifice was born last summer as a reaction to the perpetual whining coming from Oakland’s art scene. “People are always waiting for something to happen,” says Scout. “You always hear from the art community that there’s not enough opportunities for art. Well, create your own.”

“I was interested in breaking out of the gallery scene because it’s so limited in how many people see it,” adds Hipster.

Their next project is the most ambitious to date. The duo has targeted a location on Broadway near a BART station. They’ve already photographed the building, taken measurements, and created a Photoshop image of what they plan to paint — a purple Cadillac, instead of a BART car, pulling up on the train tracks.

On this Saturday night, with the music turned up and a dog named Cosmo bounding through the room, the Caddy begins to come to life. Justin projects one segment of the image onto a four-by-four plywood panel, sketches the outlines in pencil, then starts painting. Each of the murals is made up of smaller segments that are created in the studio, then pieced together in the field.

Scout and Hipster spend several hours working on the panel. When they are finished, they’ll have another 23 panels to go before the Cadillac is complete. Justin would love to receive some funding for his work, Hipster muses, but he’s not counting on it. “Each place has its own quality and character,” says Scout. “Oakland’s is that it’ll never have any money. It’s a harsh environment to do any kind of art thing.”

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