A Captive Audience 

Jet Martinez' new mural for travelers with a five-second attention span has itself been slated for demolition since before the paint was dry.

Few places feel more temporary than an airport. In essence, the airport is a place where people wait. They hunker down in stiff seats and play with their cell-phone address books. Sometimes they buy bagels and coffee, or trashy magazines they wouldn't even browse in the grocery line. "Really intelligent people come to the airport and just become something else," says Jetro "Jet" Martinez. "They want to be led around."

Martinez should know. He recently spent two months at Oakland International, and anyone navigating Terminal 2 through the end of December can see the result: a vibrant new mural tucked in behind one end of Southwest baggage claim No. 1. The 31-year-old artist's idea of the sun is a perfect circle, textured in gold leaf and set in a stained-glass-look sky, which darkens leftward in steady harlequin panels. It's night at far left, with a crescent moon hanging in a white-rimmed lotus flower of clouds. A rushing hum emanates from beyond the muralist's twenty-by-thirty-foot canvas, the sounds of a $600 million construction project it's his job to hide. And when the remodeled terminal rises, the mural must fall.

In late June, Martinez could be found sitting on the floor, painting scrubby jewel-green foliage onto his East Bay hills. Two doors were set into the wall beneath the moon, their silver handles left unadorned. At this point, Martinez had been working on his piece -- part six in a series titled Lo Llevas por Dentro ("You Carry It Within") -- for just over a week. Two middle-aged ladies approached in the early afternoon, squeezing into the alley between the baggage carousel and the TensaBarrier that marked off the artist's workspace. Martinez pulled off his headphones -- NPR -- to talk with them.

"They asked me if I did rooms," he jokes afterward. Actually, they'd asked him about the mural, what it was, and what it would be. Martinez does, in fact, do rooms, expensive ones in Marina and Marin County homes. He also does window displays for Banana Republic and high-end San Francisco stores, and interiors for one of Steve Wynn's Las Vegas casinos -- lucrative gigs that give him the means to do his public work, he explains. "This one's kind of a weird in-betweener, because it's through the Port of Oakland, and it's also kind of public."

Painting in the airport is different from painting on the street in the Haight or the Mission, where two of the series' other murals are located. It's also different from painting on the streets of Oaxaca, Mexico, which is home to his father's family, and another two of the murals (the sixth is in SF's Potrero Hill). "The main thing that's weird about painting in the airport is just the nonweirdness," Martinez says, "There aren't, like, drug users hanging around" like in the Mission. And people don't really stop to talk as much, he adds. Here they become passive -- if people stop to chat, he says, they want to talk about what he's doing, not their own lives: "There's nothing glamorous; that's what's really funny about it. When people talk to me, they're seriously -- some people treat me like, the closest thing I can think of is, how they must treat a rock star. I'm like, 'Dude, I'm just doing my job. My stupid, underpaid, sit-on-the-floor job.'"

Carousel 1 starts moving for Flight 247, arriving from Salt Lake City. A little blonde girl who has just excitedly announced that she ate three packs of peanuts on the plane catches sight of the mural-in-progress and points it out to her two equally blonde sisters. The girls linger as their parents, luggage assembled, attempt to steer them away.

"Mom," says the youngest, pointing, "look what they're doing!"

"That's nice, honey." Her mother takes her by the hand. "Now let's go."

Kids seem to enjoy the mural the most so far, judging by the exclamations of "Cooolll!" and "Lookit!" that ring out periodically. Martinez' second-biggest fan base is airport workers. It's not every day they get to watch someone paint a psychedelic landscape in a baggage claim. The staff of the Tully's coffee kiosk keeps the artist caffeinated, and the baggage handlers make sure people keep their bags away from the wet paint. Asked his opinion of the mural, a handler with a slight Caribbean lilt laments that it's coming down in a few months. "It's a waste of money," he says. "It's pretty. It should stay up."


If You Can't Hide It, Decorate It

"In terms of the waste of money, I don't really see it as that," says Harold Jones, communications director for the Port of Oakland, which runs the airport, and a member of the port's Public Art Committee, which commissioned the mural. "I think of the value of the pleasure that people got from it as they were passing through. But I haven't given up on the idea that that can be preserved somehow."

This wasn't the port's first crack at temporary art. In late 2003 the committee commissioned a mural for a wall covering a dilapidated pier. In that case, staff artist Lisa Ostapinski of the Museum of Children's Art led volunteers and West Oakland students from Cole Elementary's Project Yield to create a mural that remained for six months, then was demolished along with the pier. The perceived success of that project led to the Martinez commission, says artist Geoff Dorn, the port's public art coordinator. "If you can't hide it," he says, "then decorate it."

Wasteful or not, the port can certainly afford it. The committee Dorn oversees includes one port commissioner, five artist representatives, and a rep from each of the port's three lines of business, which fund the art committee's recommendations. One percent of the cost of any new public-space construction at the airport is set aside for public art; the port's maritime division kicks $150,000 per year into a public art fund for projects in Jack London Square and throughout the port; and a half-percent of the valuation of any new commercial property the port develops goes to fund public art at those sites.

Port Commissioner Darlene Ayers-Johnson, a second-generation Oakland native who sits on the Public Art Committee, bemoans the city's image as a crime-ridden place, and hopes Martinez' temporary mural and the art that will go into the newly expanded airport will help change public perceptions. "I think our art is going to put us on the map," she says. "I look at the Port of Oakland and the Northern California region as being innovators, so for me it's not so important whether another airport has done it."

Unlike the pier mural done by the schoolkids, this one is a professional job -- the port shelled out $3,500 to an up-and-coming artist to create an intentionally short-lived work. Martinez' previous murals have been temporary only in the sense that they are left to the elements and within reach of graffiti artists. But he brought his amped-up colors and make-believe trees to the grayness of Terminal 2 with full knowledge that, come year's end, someone will probably drive a Caterpillar through 'em.

Although the airport mural got tagged the very night Martinez began -- someone climbed the scaffold and drew a smiley face where the sun was going to be -- his other public works have remained relatively untouched. "I've been so lucky," he says. "Only one of the couple dozen murals I've done publicly have ever been tagged in a real damaging way. I put the work out there, and that's the end of my part -- I'm done with it. I have my documentation; it's not like I'm taking it home with me, anyway. But I want to make it so pretty they won't want to tear it down."

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