A Captive Audience 

Things get pretty weird for young cutting-edge muralists when their audience, and their potential funding, are products of the juvenile justice system.

The gang hanging out in the lobby of Alameda County's juvenile hall this August afternoon doesn't fit the profile. Most of the 270 kids locked up here are probation violators, runaways, petty thieves, and drug offenders from East O. The staff tends to mirror the inmate demographic, and visitors usually look a lot like the young woman standing in the foyer, wearing a tight pink halter top and a confused look on her face. She bends down to the receptionist's hole and asks, "Who are all these people?"

The plump receptionist shrugs. "They're here for art."

The woman backs away and stares at the odd collage of wrinkled Caucasian faces, T-shirts, jeans, white name tags, and horn-rimmed glasses. It looks as if a community college teachers' convention got lost on I-580, wandered into the San Leandro hills, and ended up in this dilapidated stucco building.

Some do, in fact, teach at community colleges, but only to pay the bills while they bide their time for a chance like this. These thirty or so people are finalists in the biggest public-arts competition the East Bay has ever seen. A 1993 ordinance states that any new county building means new money for the arts -- so the 60-acre, 370-bed Alameda County Juvenile Justice Center under construction on the hill above the old kiddie jail has minted $2.3 million for art and art programs at the new facility, including $1.6 million in potential public-art commissions to be doled out this fall.

And the artists have flocked: Heavy hitters like John Werley, Daniel Galvez, and Johanna Poethig stand center stage on the black marble-colored linoleum making chit-chat. Younger, darker, edgier artists with worse chances of hitting the big money observe from the wings. Burdened by the irony of the prison-industrial complex playing the Medici family, some of them are feeling ambivalent. "There's a lot of contradictions," says Oakland's Keba Konte, a photojournalism-trained montage artist with credits from Spin and Vibe who is trying to cross over into public murals. He also actively fought to stop construction of the new $133 million juvenile facility. "My fourteen-year-old cousin was giving me shit, like, 'You working for the jail!?'"

Konte isn't the only one who feels weird about it. Muralists Catalina Gonzalez and Tim Martinez sit next to him while cartoonist Isis Rodriguez tries to work the room. Their four unique visual styles make for some of the most cutting-edge murals in the Bay Area. Consequently, they'll have the hardest time getting their work through the miles of red tape, 45-plus bureaucrats and public critics, and a banal public review that ends up before the county's Board of Supervisors. Rarely have artist and censor seemed so destined for a showdown.

Catalina Gonzalez' off-the-rack, white button-down sleeveless shirt and quiet demeanor belie her toughness. She's a self-taught photorealist who fled life as a Modesto farmworker to catch her first break doing nude portraits for San Francisco strip clubs. She has called neighborhoods like Hunters Point and West Oakland home for more than a decade.

Tim Martinez also plays it low-key in the lobby while sporting twin tattoos of fire and water underneath his long-sleeved sweater. His guerrilla muralist team, Justin Artifice, has stealthily zapped dozens of blighted Oakland buildings with a grab-bag of instantly recognizable urban forms against vibrant neon backdrops.

Isis Rodriguez is the only finalist with flowers in her hair. Her black T-shirt featuring one of her cartoon characters references the curves and lines of graffiti. A former stripper with a fine-arts degree, whose résumé includes several murals in SF's Mission District, numerous cartoon exhibitions, and work in Low Rider magazine, she was featured in the 2002 book Vicious, Delicious, and Ambitious: 20th-Century Women Artists.

While they wait, these long shots among the ten mural finalists calculate the personal stakes of this meeting. Officials will pay $15,000 each for a dozen murals, and an artist can win up to four -- a $60,000 purse. "I can barely survive," Catalina explains. "This is life-changing money. I could pay off some credit-card bills, fix my car. Honestly, the first thing I'd do with my share is maybe go buy some new clothes and a new collar for my dog. I'd like to save some for a down payment on a house, too."

"Honestly, I'd just like to get better materials," says Tim, an accomplished carpenter who recently bought a 150-year-old house with his girlfriend on a sideshow-marred block of Chestnut Street in West Oakland. "I could paint you the most beautiful piece of art with the right materials. I'd buy the best Colorfast paint, and when it comes off the brush, the strokes, the quality of the lines -- it's so much better than the garbage you buy at Home Depot."

Isis doubts she'd profit that much after expenses, but she has other motives. "It'll really benefit my career as an artist," she says. "It's a hustle out there, and you gotta be a person who's willing to take on a project that might not pay shit and have a good attitude about it. You don't know what the project will get you."

All four know what they're likely to encounter during today's focus-group-slash-parole-hearing mashup: Kids from their own neighborhoods who have too much time and not enough supervision. The same kids who skip school to hang out at Walgreens. The ones with absent parents. The ones who've broken into their cars, tagged their stuff, scared off their neighbors, and tried to sell them drugs.

One of the artists asks Robert Calvin, the juvenile hall manager, what to expect. "The children you'll meet today have been chosen according to their stated interest in art," he replies, then adds, "Of course, behavioral concerns are taken into account."

Deeper within the facility, beige walls, fluorescent lights, and fishnetted glass hijack the aesthetic. Heavy wooden doors are locked and unlocked. The sounds of keys and industrial air-conditioning units echo down long hallways that bend out of sight. The artists and staffers collect in one such passage so guards can lock them in and then usher them to the large cafeteria, whose only salient features are bad renditions of ducks and fish on the walls, along with a sign that reads "O.C. Pepper Spray Is Used In This Institution."

"We ready?" Calvin asks his burly staff member, once the artists are in place.

"They're coming in right now."

The heat brings out the freaks on Friday, August 5, the night of Oakland's biggest art event of the year. All around Telegraph Avenue and 23rd Street, young white twentysomethings with thrift-store clothes and choppy haircuts mob the sidewalks. The drug dealers that once dotted these walkways have yielded over the last five years to squads of underground art fans smoking weed and drinking beer, doing the hipster equivalent of a pub crawl. Five galleries in a five-block radius host openings tonight to celebrate the neighborhood's transformation into ground zero of the underground art scene.

Tim Martinez and Geoff Dorn -- coconspirators of Justin Artifice -- hold court in 21 Grand, a onetime meth den turned art gallery, which tonight sizzles with bright red and yellow from their latest mural. Friends and scenesters saunter in, pay tribute, have a Sierra and a few smokes, and talk about the other work they've seen before staggering off into the night. The party lasts past 2 a.m. -- even visiting artists from Berlin and London are amazed at the vitality of the scene.

But the accepted reality of Oakland visual art is that almost all of it is pro bono. Everyone showing tonight has a day job of some kind that pays for their materials and time. "This was $400 out of our pocket," Martinez explains. "That was PG&E money. Food money."

If Oakland's underground artists all were to quit grant-writing or teaching tomorrow to pursue making their foam monsters and photorealistic murals full-time, they'd be as homeless as the vagrants who once roamed the gallery district in droves.

Two independent but parallel art worlds run through Oakland: the bright, sexy, edgy, very visible underground scene, and the near-invisible world of older designers who make a living stocking hospitals and government buildings with the artistic equivalent of tapioca pudding. Seeing that world requires a trip to the sixth-floor conference room of a gleaming government tower on the shores of Lake Merritt, where the glass doors have gilded handles, and the carpets are the color of money.



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