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The Social and Economic Roots of Oakland's Graffiti Boom

The Social and Economic Roots of Oakland's Graffiti Boom
YouTube/iamOTHER

The streets and walls and signposts of Oakland, California, are the canvas for a recent boom in street art. A new short film from i am OTHER looks at one Oakland graffiti artist's efforts to inject social commentary into the physical landscape and explores how social actions in the city are inspiring this boom.

The artist, who paints faces and writes "GATS" (graffiti against the system), says that his work is aimed at creating an outlet for the underrepresented people and ideas in the city.

"I can't think of a way that is a more direct way to speak to people than writing it on a wall," he says.

A collaborator, Roberto Miguel, argues that artists need to make the streets a conversation. "Which means that we have to be writing the things that we believe on everything. We have to take it to the same place that the ads are, which is fucking everywhere."

This is the first of the three-part series:

This rhetoric may sound familiar, but it's also evolved at a unique time in Oakland. The police shooting of Oscar Grant in 2009 and the violence surrounding the Occupy Oakland gatherings outside City Hall last year have inspired a broader culture of protest and social action in the city.

The film also touches on the downturn in the economy as playing into the surge of street art in the city. One of the people interviewed in the film, Estria Miyashiro suggests that graffiti and mural art in the city has blossomed because the city itself doesn't have the resources to go out and paint over, or buff, the art that has emerged. He also suggests that the city's seen an influx of artists, some of whom are moving out of more expensive places like San Francisco.

The dual conditions of social unrest and economic turmoil don't only exist in Oakland. But they help explain why the city's street art scene has taken off as it has.

Top image courtesy YouTube/

Nate Berg is a freelance reporter and a former staff writer for The Atlantic Cities. He lives in Los Angeles. All posts »

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