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Political Murals Adorn City with Vibrance

Photograph Courtesy of Dan Fontes

For decades, the streets of Berkeley have been embellished with street art. As it made its way across the Bay, tagging — personalized signatures of graffiti artists   — covered everything from BART stations to highway overpasses to restaurant windows. What seemed like a vandalism problem evolved into a street art movement that led to the vibrant East Bay cityscape we know today. As the Berkeley skyline has sprouted new offices and University buildings, its walls have been animated by radiant murals.

In the corporate and industrial world we live in, the difference between a grimy brick wall and one concealed by culturally significant art, is that one affects the way people view their neighborhoods. “They create a focal point, a celebration and an identity for us all,” said local muralist Dan Fontes. Not only is the street art around the Bay Area beautiful, it also speaks to social and political issues. The politically relevant nature of street art aligns it in many ways with Berkeley High School’s (BHS) values. BHS has long been considered a hub for change and activism, and socially charged artwork has come out of the school as a result.

Eric Norberg is a BHS drawing and photography teacher. He has been involved with street art culture since he was a teenager and is a frequent contributor to the Bay Area mural scene. Norberg’s drawing classes include a unit in which students learn about hip hop and street art culture. Students watch documentaries of graffiti artists and are given an opportunity to develop tag signatures.

Joe Kesler, a BHS senior took two years of drawing classes with Norberg and was pleasantly surprised by the emphasis on street art. “The time spent working on graffiti really opened my eyes to how much of an art form it can be,” said Kesler. During his second year in Norberg’s class, Kesler, along with other students, had a chance to assist him in a mural. “It made me a more well-rounded artist and more aware of the street art culture that we see around us everyday.” Norberg finds importance in street art because it “often speaks of social change and revolution.” He teaches students to look past the misconceptions people have of street art, and understand its relevance. “Sometimes it’s not just pretty colors,” said Norberg. “It actually says something about the current situation of the world in which we live … whether it was done with permission or not.”

Streets like Telegraph wouldn’t be the same if it weren’t for their colorful walls expressing the rich history of Berkeley. Located on the wall of a PG&E building on the west side of Telegraph is a mural in honor of Chiura Obata, painted by local artist Rich Black. Obata, a Japanese-American artist, faced many struggles during his lifetime including racial discrimination and being sent to an internment camp. Obata taught a highly requested painting class at UC Berkeley, but he was forced to cancel his class and sell his paintings in World War II. Today, Obata is known for his landscapes of Yosemite National Park, which he was banned from entering for a time due to his ethnicity. Obata’s struggle and unique understanding of nature are both depicted in the Telegraph mural.

Despite their social impacts, the public nature of murals makes them prone to destruction. “Over thirty percent of my work is already gone,” Fontes said. Fontes has seen his murals come and go, and in turn has learned to come to terms with the transient nature of his most treasured art form. Murals are often painted over by big-time companies, but they’ve also been camouflaged by tagging. From this emerges a more complex question: Where is the line between art and vandalism? It is commonly understood that defacing somebody else’s art is vandalism, but the challenge is understanding the role of street art in Bay Area’s art scene. “Street art cultivates young creative minds,” said Black, who in addition to the Obata tribute is known for his Ashby stage murals, advertising their upcoming plays. “It’s a rebellious artwork that challenges the status quo while also enriching that inner desire for in-dividuality, anarchy, chaos, and mayhem.”

For many artists, it is much easier to find a place in the street art community than the typical gallery scene, “I found galleries to be an ugly reality – you have to make something that sells or you starve,” said Fontes.

Many artists flee this toxic commercial environment for public art forms that remind them why they create it in the first place. When artists turn to the streets as their main canvases, however, they often find themselves tangled with the law. Vandalism charges can result in jail time and serious fines. This is why mural culture is so important to less traditional artists. It is a safe medium between mainstream art and art whose sole purpose is to celebrate a community.  “You need to make work that pleases you. Otherwise go sell used cars, right?” said Fontes. “I enjoyed the challenge of making art that pleases both myself and the public.”

Street artists strive to produce pieces with magnitude that shakes societal expectations. “Murals impact everything and everyone,” said Fontes. “They are a loving reminder to make the world beautiful, they are everything from the talk of the town to the living heartbeat of the city.”