the Oakland Super Heroes Mural Project

By John Anderson

Everyone, come and look

A public mural, at any scale, can be a massive undertaking for an artist or group of artists. Often fraught with conflicting public opinions, a mural with any substantial content can quickly be politicized and sometimes watered-down. As Lucy Lippard poignantly states in her book Mapping the Terrain, “Culture is not where we come from, it’s where we’re coming from.” A successful public mural reflects the community in which it resides. The Oakland Super Heroes Mural Project (2015), an effort by Attitudinal Healing Connection (AHC), meets and exceeds these requirements. Heroes should be praised for its execution in uniting the community and its ability to negotiate Oakland’s complex political climate.

AHC is a nonprofit founded in West Oakland that seeks to break the cycle of violence through educational programs, workshops, events, and healing circles. A recent community project by AHC, the Oakland Super Heroes Mural Project is a series of three murals, all parallel to each other on West, Market, and San Pablo streets under the 580 freeway. Not far from MacArthur Bart Station, these murals reside in a quickly changing neighborhood nestled between affluent Piedmont and a rapidly gentrifying East Emeryville. For the purposes of this article, I want to focus on the middle painting along Market Street.

Oakland’s political state is rapidly changing as nonwhite, longstanding citizens are priced out of their hometown. Walking down Market to approach the mural, one cannot miss the signs of gentrification in this historically African-American neighborhood. A Mexican-American Seafood restaurant, perhaps even newer than the murals, has opened a few blocks up from the painting. Storefronts along Market Street continue to be renovated and painted.

No longer dreary, but magical
Before the mural went up, walking or driving under the freeway was dreary at best. Sitting across from the New Hope Baptist Church, it was a dark, dirty, and polluted, the worst kind of freeway underpass. As AHC painted the mural, each new layer seemed to create a sense of vibrancy and excitement where there had been none. Every time I walked by I wondered what was going to happen and what it would look like when it was done.

The finished product is vibrant, humongous, and stunning and you just have to stop and admire it. The colors, intricate patterns, and sharp portraits completely transform the shadowy space under the highway— it elicits a feeling of sacred quietness. Striking paintings of magical, 20-feet tall god-like people keep your eye moving up and down the block. It seems to depict a new urban American mythology—wizards, animals, musicians, forests, rainbows, celestial bodies, all with the city of Oakland as the backdrop.

There are four figures in the mural. An African-American Woman with short hair who plays a hybrid violin-saxophone that exhales a gigantic rainbow of dolphins, doves, lions, and a bear. Then there is a boy with short, light hair and pale skin. He wears a plaid vest and has butterfly tattoos fluttering off one of his arms. Under the sun is a Mexican-American woman with long dark hair. The fourth is a Jamaican man with dreadlocks exhaling a rainbow. His long dreads extend into flowers and the West Oakland city skyline.

It catches the world

According to the Super Heroes Mural website, all the figures have names and stories. Knowing the full story of these characters gives the mural an even greater depth and richness. These are the words and stories written by students from Westlake Middle School Village’s after-school program. Suzanne Lacy would admire how AHC tackled this project; in “Debated Territory,” she writes, “…to make oneself a conduit for expression of a whole social group can be an act of profound empathy.”

Local donors funded the project, most prominently the New Hope Baptist church across the street. Because it was privately funded, the enormous project was not limited in its ability to take flight and become a long lasting gift that reflects the concerns of the community. It is clear through the involvement with local schools that the directors and artists knew the importance of community outreach. They wanted the murals to be significant to the lives of the people who would them everyday.

In David Harvey’s The Right to the City, he cites urban philosopher Robert Park: “man's most consistent and on the whole, his most successful attempt to remake the world he lives in more after his heart's desire. But, if the city is the world which man created, it is the world in which he is henceforth condemned to live.” In harmony with Park and Harvey’s philosophy, the process of designing this mural based on stories written by citizens allowed them to genuinely reflect the hopes and dreams of the city.

©John Anderson and the CCA Arts Review

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