Working the Grime Sublime

"Liberation Drive-In" wages a funk-punk-hip-hop campaign to shape Oakland's image -- on the streets, naturally.

What does it mean to devote oneself to the cultivation of “original Oakland charm” at a time when City Hall is marketing the city’s anniversary, taking out billboards to advertise its arts scene, and generally trying to transform Oakland’s funky image?

If you run with the arts crew Nonchalance, it means taking the city’s official oak tree logo and extending its roots, an Oaklandish design that has become the ubiquitous expression of East Bay cool. It means expanding the boosters’ vision of Oakland history with a poster campaign and slide show that features icons from the Ohlone Indians to the city’s first black police officers to the human foot found in Lake Merritt. And it means examining the stories behind these icons in public space by projecting them onto the sides of Oakland buildings.

This “Liberation Drive-In” features a growing cluster of projects — like Sean and Katie Aaberg’s archive of old Oakland signs and the Bay Area Aerosol Heritage Society’s must-see graffiti documentary, The Legendary Eightees — that dramatize the power of place in Oakland and create new avenues for people to discuss what’s changed during Oakland’s much-publicized “renaissance.” For these artists, Oakland’s culture is rooted in the city’s funk, punk, and hip-hop explosions of the 1970s and ’80s, and much of Nonchalance’s “take it to the people” urgency is derived from that era, when there were art classes in the streets and schools.

“Part of Oakland’s charm is being tapped into what’s going on in the community, because you’re part of what’s going on,” explains Refa One, whose stills form the backbone of the Eightees slide show. “You’re not going out, saying, ‘What’s going on?’ You are what’s going on [so] you know. And those of us that have grown up here have witnessed it.”

“And [don’t] complain that there’s nothing going on in Oakland,” adds Kemrexx, the other half of the Society, which exists to preserve and restore local “urban calligraphy.”

“Everybody from Oakland has had to defend Oakland all their lives,” says Jeff Hull, the Drive-In’s curator. “People [across the bay] thought Oakland sucked. So that’s why the images of things that scared people away show up in the slide show. It’s like, hey, remember when you were scared to come here?”

Nonchalance is pointedly not erecting a “scene” politics that says newcomers suck and natives rule. Neither does its penchant for presenting Oakland grime with the sublime lend itself to easy slogans or marketing credos. Part be-in, part bring-your-own-video potluck — with a new “popping, party tape mix” stitched together from various guerrilla media outlets — Nonchalance displaces the city’s official public relations campaign with a grassroots enthusiasm and accessible history.

“I’ve watched people looking and going, ‘Who is that? What is that?’ And then somebody else will start to tell a story. And then a dialogue begins,” explains Hull. “That’s the nature of street art, whether it’s a graffiti throw-up or burner or a stencil or a piece of toy glued to a box. It’s out of context for people, and they need to figure it out. Or not.”

“Liberation Drive-In” is Friday, August 23, and Saturday, August 24, 9 p.m. to 2 a.m., at the Douglas parking lot on Harrison Street between 15th and 17th streets in downtown Oakland. For program details and more information, see

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