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Oakland’s Street Art Explosion Has Spurred an Entire Street Art Economy

In the commercialized graff game, it’s mo’ money, mo’ problems.


ABG Art Group (formerly Athen B. Gallery) commissioned murals from Joshua Mays and Zio Ziegler along Broadway.

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Joshua Mays rolling Beacon: Frequency Reader at 1700 Broadway in 2017.

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14th Street Supply in Oakland.

Photo: Kelsey Lannin

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Students from Graffiti Camp for Girls.

Photo: Courtesy of Graffiti Camp for Girls

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Editor’s Note: This is one of many stories San Francisco is publishing over the next month as part of the June 2018 East Bay Issue. To read stories as they become available online, click here.

Read more about Oakland's street art explosion here.

In a surreal
fine-art-meets-street-art moment, the Oakland Museum of California show Respect: Hip-Hop Style & Wisdom (running through August 12) features a painting on wood by Oakland graffiti writer and mural artist Vogue. It’s a photorealistic depiction of a BART train stopped at Fruitvale station and emblazoned with green-and-purple graffiti letters spelling out “Dream.” Most people mistake the painting for a photograph and are doubly shocked when they learn the whole thing was executed with spray paint. Vogue attended Academy of Art University and has been writing graffiti for more than three decades, and the first-time inclusion of his work into a major museum is exemplary of the morphing local market for graffiti.

Had Vogue actually thrown those letters up on a train—and gotten busted for it—he could have faced up to one year in prison and a $50,000 fine: Painting a train in the state of California can be a felony. Instead, OMCA paid him a respectable sum to create the painting. There was a time when he had to remove all graffiti-related works from his house because cops were stopping by so often, trying to connect him to the rash of “Vogue” tags across the city. But today on his website, you can commission one of his “custom creations” or click through a photo gallery of his murals. There is also a link to his Pinterest page.

It would be crazy for an artist like Vogue not to market to the masses—street art has become a commodity, sought after by collectors, championed in museums, celebrated in festivals, and commissioned by corporations. Couple that with local regulations that earmark large sums of money for public art (in Oakland, 0.5 to 1 percent of a private development’s budget must be set aside for publicly accessible art), and you’ve got a group of artists poised to profit from a form of expression that used to land them in handcuffs. Vogue says he’s never seen the city so filled with wall-born art, but he notes that writers are undoubtedly conflicted over the commercialization of it.

It’s the age-old struggle over creating art authentically—between trying to pay the bills and selling out your principles. For years, Vogue has earned a living through various writing-related ventures (owning a graffiti shop, recently closed, for about a decade; executing custom pieces on motorcycles), but often when he gets approached about large corporate or city-sanctioned gigs, he’s torn. “I’m like, man, I’m part of this problem,” he says. “But if it wasn’t me [taking the job], it would be somebody else. At least I can portray it in my own words, my own images, that I feel might reflect the history or the culture or the neighborhood.”

In recent years, Oakland graffiti and street art have reached a new level of saturation— and have generated an economy to match. There are youth-focused graffiti classes like Dragon School and Graffiti Camp for Girls; mural production outfits like Fuming Guerilla Productions, ABG Art Group, and Illuminaries that offer custom murals to corporations and developers; and graffiti supply shops like 14th Street Supply and 1AM, which also touts team-building workshops that promise to school desk jockeys and tech workers in the art of the spray can.

But more work and more money means more competition. Artists emphasize that it’s still a challenge to be paid fairly, if at all. “The rise of street art and murals has been fantastic, but it’s created the dynamic that the work has gotten cheapened,” says mural producer Sorell Raino-Tsui of ABG Art Group, who has handled commissions for the United Nations, the City of Oakland, Twitter, and Uber. “Early on, it cost $100,000 to try to do a mural—that was kind of the going rate.... And then street art changed all that, because all of the sudden artists were finding cheaper, faster ways to do it.”

Another pain point, Raino-Tsui says, is an ongoing street-art-versus-graffiti beef, exacerbated by the popularity of “anti-graffiti murals” as an abatement technique. Business owners have begun using the rules of the street to their advantage: Once a piece by a respected graffiti writer goes up, other writers aren’t typically going to tag over it, saving the business owner the time and money it takes to constantly buff out smaller tags. “I feel like more and more I’ve been getting contacted by people that are like, ‘We have a real graffiti problem here—can you just paint something?’” Raino-Tsui says. “We had an incident recently where we were hired to do a mural on a building that had just been bought and redeveloped. There was a ton of graffiti that had been there for a long time. So when we came and did the mural, the graff artists freaked out and were threatening us.”

There’s a limit to mainstream acceptance of graffiti-forward work, even though most writers consider it the foundation of the genre. The fact that tags are labeled vandalism while murals are hailed as street art is a dichotomy the artists struggle with. “People come up to me and say, ‘I love what you’re doing, but I hate that thing across the street,’” Vogue says, referring to traditional lettered graffiti work. “And then I have to break it down to them. Without that, there is no me. That’s where I found my identity.” Although Vogue has no shortage of commissions and is in the midst of his museum moment, he feels that major art-world success still evades him. “I don’t understand where I fit in this,” he says. “Why can’t I make money doing this? Did I miss the boat?”


Originally published in the June issue of San Francisco 

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