Street Art: Polarizing Images.

One of the most controversial issues facing Oakland today is the application of spray paint to public and private property. This form of self-expression, known as street art, has been going on in our cities since the late 1960s and opinions about it ebb strongly and deeply, both for and against.

There are multiple forms of street art, ranging from professionally painted murals to graffiti. Graffiti, itself, comes in a variety of forms, from artistic, visually appealing caricatures and abstract designs to the spray painting of spray-writers’ pseudonyms or logos (this is known as ‘tagging’ – there’s a spectrum of tags, too, but that’s a story for another day).

Opinions vary as to whether a specific exhibit of street art is considered ‘public art’ or ‘vandalism.’ To me, deciding whether a specific creation is art or the defacement of property is situational and has to be filtered through some criteria. My criteria include:

  1. Did the artist have permission to create his or her art on the wall, fence or whatever form of ‘canvas’ was used?
  2. Is the resulting image attractive or meaningful?
  3. Is the image offensive?
  4. Did the artist deface something in the process (e.g., tagging over a freeway exit sign)?

Here are some recent examples of street art in Oakland. How and where do you draw the line? IMG_6136 IMG_4169 IMG_9678 IMG_4788


IMG_0190 IMG_1897 IMG_6084 IMG_8931


IMG_0649 IMG_4708               Photos by E. Saltmarsh  


The Greek philosopher, Plato, once said, “Beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder.” That’s definitely true when it comes to viewing street art, especially if your property is involved.

I, for one, favor most street art. I appreciate that people artistically express themselves and freely share their expressions with the community. When done with permission and in reasonable taste (another relative attribute), I find that street art makes Oakland more interesting and edgy.

That said, I would ask that street artists respect others’ property and feelings and work within the spirit of keeping Oakland beautiful, taking pride in their community and seeking to make it better.

If the intent of someone’s street art is driven by a need to vent frustration or flaunt authority in some public and disrespectful manner, I would challenge those individuals to find more productive and less harmful outlets to resolve their issues.

While some may wish to abolish street art, I think that’s unlikely to happen. It’s too prevalent in our cities and it’s been around for ages. After all, isn’t cave art really the first street art?

Ancient Hands 08-03-14

Hands, El Castillo Cave, Spain, estimated at 40,000 years old, possibly the oldest-known cave painting.

If anything, the attempt to eradicate street art will only drive the artists underground where they’ve historically proven to be ingeniously stealthy.

My personal preference is to promote street art and encourage appropriate exhibitions of it, so artists focus on projects that are acceptable to the community, providing the artists with opportunities to express themselves and perfect their craft, possibly even developing their careers. There are some amazing artists in our area and we’d benefit from seeing more of their work — albeit within agreed-upon parameters!

Keeping Oakland Beautiful is everybody’s business.

We encourage you to share your thoughts in the reply section. We welcome the dialogue and learning of others’ perspectives.

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