Oakland is for the Artists.

I am not an artist. I am a hacky, mid-range open-micer with a lot of hard opinions and no punchlines to back them up. I have strong emotions, and I try to use them to connect with people. Here’s the thing – I can connect with people about as well as my phone can connect to WiFi: occasionally when I’m at work, and not at all at my parents’ house. While I am not an artist, I am lucky enough to spend time with many artists. In fact, if there are two things the Bay Area is currently flooding with, it’s artists and the delicious tears of still-bitter Giants fans. As a native Oaklander, both of these things make me very happy.

Oakland and San Francisco were safe spaces for artists long before they were the homes of companies that created applications for your phone. Now, I’m not saying that being a software developer or graphic designer at a startup necessarily makes you less of an artist. I’m just saying that there’s a clear difference between the treatment of the guy who paints murals on overpasses and the guy that designs Salesforce’s marketing materials. One artist is considered a valuable asset to the Bay Area’s current tech boom and can probably afford to live comfortably in a nice apartment in the Haight. The other artist might have to share unsafe warehouse spaces with other artists like him. They’re both artists – they both use skills that the rest of us don’t have to create something out of nothing and connect with each other and the rest of the world. It doesn’t make sense to me that one artist lives in squalor as a result of a housing crisis that another artists helped instigate.
I think that most of us start out our lives as artists. We learn to sing songs in school; we learn to make art with crayons or macaroni and glue. And it’s cute for a while, as the adults let us pretend that creating art has any real value past these formative years. After a while, they take away our crayons, pile some math and science textbooks on us and tell us to get “real” about our future. Sure, we can sing, draw, or tell jokes for fun, but if you want to make money and be of real value to society, you had better get a goddamnned real job. Now, I’m not dissing “real jobs”, but is that really the only way to measure the value of a human being, or their contributions to society? By how much money they make, or how many people they’re in charge of?
36 Oaklanders died this week because Oakland doesn’t support their artists the same way they support the tech industry. Gentrification is now such a big problem that it is literally killing Oakland. Artists can’t afford to live here. Hell, most normal people can’t afford to live here anymore, unless you make that sweet, sweet tech money. I’ll offer you my unpopular, unwarranted, but honest opinion: Art is as essential to the survival of the Bay Area as tech, if not more. I think tech has become such a big part of our identity in the Bay that we’ve forgotten our roots. Oakland was created on the backs of the disenfranchised – the black, the Latinx, the queer, the different – who took that feeling of marginalization and did the imaginable: they created beautiful things. They combined art with Oakland’s street life and created the Art Murmur. They combined art with Oakland’s history of science and tech to create the Chabot Space and Science Center. Street art was reborn in Oakland, and rap music was perfected here. The media called Oakland the worst city in the world, and the artists helped make it beautiful. Now the whole world wants to live here, and there is no room for the people who helped make the town what it is. These artists loved this city so much that they couldn’t leave – so they continued to create but moved their studios to basements, warehouses, and any place that could support them for the little money they had. Underground, they connect amongst themselves and continue to try to find ways to help us connect with each other and the world at large. We owe them our gratitude for helping to keep Oakland’s culture alive, and in my opinion, we have become a little spoiled and ungrateful.
As a result of the Ghost Ship fire that claimed the lives of these Oakland artists, some people are suggesting that we rectify these inequities by offering stipends to artists to prove that their contributions have value. It’s a real sweet idea, but it’ll just open up the floodgates for people to complain that their “tax dollars” are going to help some hippies who don’t want to get “real jobs”. To save us all the inevitable frustration of having that conversation with Uncle Jeff at Thanksgiving next year, I have another solution; it’s a totally new concept, you probably haven’t heard of it. We could support our artists by – get this – buying their art. We could commission painters to create murals over our graffiti–ridden buildings and alleyways. You can buy a book of poetry from that spoken word artist you caught at that open mic in the Laurel District. The art is everywhere, and thus, the opportunities to support these artists are – you guessed it – everywhere.
We’ve defunded, refunded, and re-defunded art programs in schools. We’ve shut down comedy clubs due to lack of turnout. We’ve all but told these artists directly that they have no value. (I take that back. I’m sure someone has said that somewhere down the line.) As an Oakland native, you can believe me when I tell you that Oakland IS art – therefore, Oakland is for the artists. The gentrifiers made the town pretty and “safe”, but the artists made it great. The techies created social media, but the artists made it possible for us to connect with each other in real life. If we’re not careful, we will lose the artists, and Oakland will lose a big part of its identity. To the non-artists like myself, I say this: if you’re going to live in the Bay Area, immerse yourself in our culture, or we won’t have any left. To the artists of Oakland, I say this: Thank you for your work thus far. I am so sorry for your loss, and I apologize for how ungrateful we’ve been. Don’t stop connecting us with each other. Don’t quit your passion for a “real job” just to make ends meet. And please do not, I repeat, do not let the adults take away your crayons.

One comment

  1. This is such a beautiful sentiment. The richest people are the cheapest bastards having parties in art galleries and buying no art. We should stop “window shopping ” from local artists like we do at Hot Topic and Spencer’s. One will be here tomorrow and one may not. I’m like super jazzed now, I’m gonna go force someone to create something so I can buy it off them!

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