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.

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This is where members of the Alameda County Arts Commission meet one afternoon a month to dole out grants to public artists. The Wednesday after the big Telegraph Avenue bash, Rachel Osajima, the commission's executive director, reminds panel members that the murals will be nine feet tall and forty feet long, and will sit above basketball courts inside the new prison's security pods, where the inmates are housed. She runs quickly through slides of each muralist's work, and the commissioners rubber-stamp the ten finalists, who have been preapproved by subordinate committees stocked with local talent.

The commission has existed since the 1960s, but the 1993 ordinance, which sets aside 2 percent of all county capital-project funds for public art, brightened its star considerably. Since then, the commission has been able to support a small full-time staff and an average annual grant budget of around $100,000. Thanks to the new prison construction, the commission's 2005 budget is orders of magnitude higher than average, and more than double its second-biggest windfall.

The county's No. 2 arts-spending spree included a mural and dozens of local art purchases installed two years ago at Highland Hospital, whose new state-of-the-art trauma center is the primary destination for victims of East Oakland's knife and gun club. Which leads to a curious circumstance: Theoretically, come next year, the audience with the greatest exposure to the most expensive public art projects in county history will consist of juvenile delinquents injured while committing a crime.


Up the hill from the current Juvenile Hall, cranes raise gigantic prefab concrete slabs -- the makings of the inmate pods -- over exterior walls, while down the hill nine young men enter the cafeteria in a neat line and take their seats opposite the finalists. The artists beam huge welcoming smiles as though the kids had just won a spelling bee. It's their attempt to defuse the parole-hearing atmosphere: Everyone has notepads. Someone is transcribing. All eyes and ears are focused on the kids. They're wearing old shoes with Velcro straps. Faded, loose-fitting sweatpants with the words "Juvenile Hall" running down the thigh. Faded blue T-shirts or sweatshirts.

Arts Commission facilitator Herschel West -- an imposing man who looks as if he could drop two of the boys at once, should he choose -- tells the artists he has had a chance to talk with the kids the day before and that the kids are here to share their ideas. The young men introduce themselves, but it's barely audible: "John, James, James, Mark ..." They trail off into whispers. Rachel asks them to speak up. The artists introduce themselves briefly.

"Now tell them what we talked about yesterday," Herschel tells the kids. "Tell them what you'd want to see."

The room is quiet; then the least shy of the bunch pipes up. "We want to see something with color and life and positive images ..."

"Kids going to college, graduating from high school ..." another says.

"Doing something positive like winning a Nobel Prize ..."

"Maybe like Cesar Chavez or the United Farm Workers symbol ..."

Each glances at Herschel for confirmation that he's saying the right thing. It all feels rehearsed, and Keba and Tim bristle. Keba once proposed painting a lit bomb on the side of a cargo container destined for the port, and earlier this year he installed a photocollage of bullets and Bibles in the African American Museum and Library of Oakland. He quietly fumes at the idea of putting something as clichéd as Cesar Chavez or MLK in yet another mural, let alone one of his own.

An SF State graduate with a communications degree, Keba has been to Africa and Europe. And he notes that he's the youngest and only black muralist in the group. "Early on I didn't even know if I wanted to be in this thing," he admits. "Working for the prison system causes me pause, but a lot of prison activists work and teach art and writing at jails, so any apprehensions dissolved with some thought about it."

But that doesn't mean it's gonna be easy. "Any doubts of mine concern the audience and trying to find that line where work is accessible to young minds without being dumbed down. It also has to get past the bureaucrats, so it's an interesting path," Keba continues, making a snaking motion with his hand. "That said, they're saying what they want us to hear. 'Oh, I want to see Cesar Chavez up there and give him a Nobel Peace Prize.' Come on. They know the deal. With so many adults and authority in their lives, they know how to push buttons. ... All that MLK shit, no way. It's been done. One kid talked about Tupac, though. There's something interesting there."

Tim, sitting next to Keba, also dreads such clichés. "I'm interested in modernizing the mural," he says. "I was looking back over stuff by Diego Rivera, and the mural really hasn't changed since the '50s and '60s. It's a collage of symbolism and dramatic portraiture. We live in a different world. Young people know what Chavez did, but there's other great people since the '50s."

Among these four relative newcomers to public art, Tim's work has the most legitimate crossover appeal. Justin Artifice, his duo, speaks the language of the commercial billboard, but with a very pro-Oakland message. The son of a working-class machinist father and homemaker mother in Colorado, Tim remembers drawing and playing with photos from a very young age. His parents frowned on it as a career and he left for San Francisco in 1997. Real skills with carpentry led to furniture design and a small art output while he lived in Hunters Point. The dot-com bubble pushed him to the East Bay, where he teamed up with the other half of Justin Artifice and began taking West Oakland beautification into his own hands. "We all got tired of saying how crappy the neighborhood was and how no one was doing public art where people lived, so we just did it," he says. "We did these bright geometric shapes on four-by-eight-foot wooden panels and bolted them onto an abandoned building in broad daylight." That blighted building, the artist points out, was owned by the California College of the Arts.

Last year Justin Artifice scored $5,000 in grants to continue painting derelict buildings while doing fourteen gallery shows, the last of which made waves as far away as New York. Sunrise Over Oakland at the Richmond Arts Center soared fifteen feet high and screamed green and orange hues. The picture-perfect portscape complete with handmade cargo containers left many viewers in awe.

Tim and Geoff usually take photos of street icons -- hydrants, ports, cranes, jalopies -- and Photoshop them into arrangements and add a single-color background. They then print them out as transparencies. The duo uses a high-school projector to cast the images onto a wall, and then outlines, paints, and fills. The result is a striking and distinctive style, combining bright backgrounds with clean, crisp, professional designs.

Back in the prison cafeteria, things get more interesting when the discussion is opened up for questions. One of the artists asks what the boys wouldn't want. Without hesitation, they point to the ducks and fish on the walls.

"That. We don't want to see none of that ..."

"Ducks, fish, birds ..."

"No happy stuff ..."

"No rainbows, stars, moons ..."

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