Oakland's 'Paint the Town!' mural project beautifies, encourages community collaboration

Image 1 of 4

With so much ugliness in the world it’s nice to see a project focused on beautifying Oakland.

The ‘Paint the Town!’ mural project isn’t exactly a mural on a wall though. Street murals painted for and by the community can be placed entirely at intersections or at the mid-block of streets, or potentially on an entire block’s length.

The pilot program is run by Oakland’s fairly new Department of Transportation (OakDOT). 30 applicants, who don’t necessarily have to be artists, had a three-month window of time that concluded last November to apply. The program even included six application clinics at local library branches to assist applicants that needed help.  

“You don’t need to be a professional artist,” said Lily Brown, transportation planner with the City of Oakland and the program’s organizer, over the phone. She described the project’s inception as a way of “re-imagining streets” saying “they can be canvass” and “foster a sense of belonging.”

The murals are temporary and the designs are intended to represent the community.

“We have an extraordinary community of local artists,” Sean Maher a spokesman for OakDOT said over the same speakerphone conversation.  He said Oakland’s changing population and gentrification have been at the forefront of conversations, adding that “now more than ever” a program that embraces unique artistic expression is needed.

The funding doesn’t come from the city of Oakland, but rather from a non-profit organization, Oakland Fund for Public Innovation. They provided all applicants with liability insurance to close the streets if need be, and a $300 gift card for paint and supplies to create the mural.

The program relies on community members to maintain the murals. In fact, much of the project’s focus is on community with how they pitch the mural ideas and the actual painting of the art work. Additionally, the feasibility of the mural's location has to be taken into consideration.

So far three murals have gone up. One at Arthur Street between Dashwood Avenue and 78th Avenue was done in a darker colored scheme, featuring hues of blue and purple. Brown said that mural was done by a nonprofit after-school program called Earth Team

The theme is about the environment with a depiction of hands picking up trash in a waterway. 

Another on 39th Avenue between 12th Street and San Leandro Street is boldly done in primary colors, showing off flesh tones against the Golden Gate Bridge's fire engine red and includes a message about unity. It was done by an ASCEND Elementary School art teacher and their students. 

Andrew Waggoner participated with about 40 other neighbors on a vibrant mural at Ayala Avenue and Hermann Street in the city's Rockridge area. He said neighbors met their two main objectives of bringing the community together and to slow traffic. 

"We live off Highway 24," near on and off ramps for Telegraph Avenue and Claremont Avenue he said. "People are constantly zipping through our neighborhood to access those ramps. It's difficult to let your kids play outside. It's a lot of Uber and Lyft drivers looking at their map apps." 

The mural is triangular shaped with three trees that symbolize the earth against a bright-yellow background with fall-colored leaves interspersed throughout. 

Waggoner said he's lived in the neighborhood for eight years and is now noticing drivers passing through are slowing down to look, even stopping to take photos. 

The idea has worked out so well, he said he's excited that his same neighborhood group has taken two other slots out of the 30 applications and are approved for two other murals at different locations. 

Organizers said there is no timeline for when the rest of the murals will go up, but they hope to have all 30 painted by this fall. 

The next mural is set to go up this Saturday afternoon at 25th Street and Northgate Avenue just north of the Uptown area. Mayor Libby Schaaf will be on hand at the event around 2 p.m. 

Organizers said they hope the pilot program encourages those in the community to take ownership of the neighborhood in a positive light and that it has a ripple effect of community-based collaboration.