San Jose seeks cultural beauty through colorful murals

Under a non-descript overpass in San Jose, artist Jesse Hernandez uses upwards of 200 different cans of spray paint to apply his talents. Once blank walls are transformed into canvasses honoring Native American and Mexican culture.

“I hope people feel the power and the strength of the traditions of the first nation people here,” said Hernandez, who prefers to go by his social media handle “Urban Aztec.”

For decades, city officials say the blank spaces at the underpass at West San Carlos and Dupont Streets – known as the “Walls of Fame” -- were a haven for graffiti, tagging, and blight.

“In 2017 and 18, there was 225 tags of 500 square feet or more that had to be cleaned up,” said San Jose Public Art Director Michael Ogilvie.

He said the city was spending more than $2 million annually on graffiti abatement at all the blight hotspots in the South Bay hub. So in 2019, 3rd District city councilman Raul Peralez secured a $100,000 grant to fund painting murals.

“We’re trying to change the attitude who are living in that neighborhood. And to insure that they have a sense of ownership and responsibility for their safety, safety for their streets and what it looks like in their environment and their neighborhood,” said Prof. Kelly Snider, a lecturer in the San Jose State University Dept. of Urban & Regional Planning.

A team of 75 artists are doing similar work to Hernandez’. They’re taking what were once targets for taggers, and turning them into pieces of art.

“It kind of takes an area of the city that, in a way is sort of in a stasis,” said Ogilvie, “And it activates it. It can create a place. It can create a destination.”

Experts say the outward change in the environment produces a positive change inside residents.

“Certainly we know from a variety of research projects that one’s environment can impact mood and uplift folks,” said Dr. Thomas Plante, a Santa Clara University psychologist.

Hernandez estimated it’ll take him two months to complete all four murals here. He said his work is highlighting a little known link from downtown to southern neighborhoods as it also creates a corridor honoring cultures of old.

“You’re turning a space that’s neglected and forgotten often times, into a landmark,” he said.