The trains run in West Oakland once again. That’s certainly how it feels when you face a stunning locomotive-themed mural-in-progress that spans over 8,000 square feet on the Wrist Ship Supply building. And that’s how long-time Oakland graffiti artists Norman Chuck (a.k.a. “Vogue”) and Mike “Bam” Tyau like it.
Before you rises a full-scale and historically accurate depiction of railroad cars from a bygone era, displayed under the golden banner “West Side is the Best Side,” a riff on a lyric from Tupac’s “California Love.” In addition to those tremendous train cars, the mural also features a massive ship—in homage to Wrist’s status as “the world’s largest ship supplier” —and the iconic cranes in the Port of Oakland.
Located at 1611 17th Street in Oakland, the entire three-wall mural is spectacular in both rendered scale and applied skill, and it is unlike anything you’ve seen before. It is also unlike anything either Vogue or Bam have done before, making it that much more breathtaking. It is “aerosol art,” Vogue shares proudly, that “push[es] the spray can to its highest level.”
A prominent Bay Area graffiti artist who was most recently commissioned by the Oakland Museum Women’s Board to contribute to an aerosol mural for their White Elephant building, Vogue created the vision for this current mural by playing off of the proximity of the historic 16th Street train station in West Oakland. Now, he, Bam, and four student interns are in the process of executing that vision, with an expected completion date at the end of August.
Vogue has long been inspired by the locomotive history of Oakland, he reveals. And with some yet-visible vestiges here of the old train tracks that once led right up to Wrist’s warehouse door, this mural project seemed a serendipitous creative match.
The mural is also unlike anything Wrist’s West Oakland neighbors have witnessed in their midst, making people in the community stop in their tracks. For instance, on a recent weekday afternoon, in the span of an hour or two, several cars slowed down or stopped completely to take in the scene. One older driver was so taken by the image of the trains in progress that she stopped to pop her head out of her car. Smiling, she asked, “Are you gentlemen putting up that ‘West Side is the Best Side’ mural? You need any help? I’m retired twice but I’m always working.” The artists paused in their efforts to laugh and chat with her.
That “immediate response from people” and occasion to pause is something that Vogue is keen to provoke and foster with his art. “I want people to think about what Oakland really is,” he shares. “People don’t [often] spend the time to even stop [in their daily routine]. They are busy in their lives. They get up, eat their breakfast, [and] are off to work. They come home and [then] they are just in their little world. I want people to reflect on the art and, as you can see, people do stop. Even if it is just ten seconds, it affected them somehow and maybe they’ll think [about what Oakland is].”
“I want to affect people,” he continues, “and let [them] know their history. As I get older, I feel like it is more and more important.”
Greg Mayeda, special counsel at Wrist, concurs, “History is important. As a lifelong resident of Oakland, [I know] Oakland is rich in history. We [at Wrist] are not trying to gentrify the neighborhood. [For that reason,] we didn’t want to put up some big, weird, abstract, postmodern piece of art. We wanted to work with local artists [who] share our appreciation for the city, and stay true to the character of the neighborhood and the city.”
Generating community-rooted awareness and positive change is a key part of what motivates the company’s commissioning of the mural, and it continues to motivate them in their other rehabilitative efforts in their community.
“We are also trying to work with the city,” Mayeda shares, “or alternatively with local artisans, to get benches installed, hopefully around the trees [in front of our building]. Because across the street is the food pantry, and you come here first thing in the morning and there are a bunch of little old ladies, kind of hunched over, sitting on makeshift boxes and things, waiting for the services of the food pantry. We thought it would be nice if they had a more comfortable place to sit [where they] could wait with some dignity rather than having to be slumped on the sidewalk.”
In addition, Mayeda continues, “We’re [trying to] have the City install some garbage cans on each of the four corners here because [this space] used to be a big dumping ground. People would dump mattresses and couches. It just became one of those places where it was acceptable for people to do that so we are trying to change the overall tone of how people view this neighborhood.” This impact is meaningful to the company, he adds, because “we’ve been in this neighborhood a while and we plan to stay, so we’re trying to be good neighbors.”
That sense of “good neighborliness” and community permeates every aspect of the collaborative creative effort as well, explains Bam.
“What we’re doing here is changing space,” he observes, “and how the community of [that] space appreciates [it]. We took something that was trashed and just a canvas for out-of-town graffiti artists to smash their graffiti on [and transformed it into] a mural that not only makes the community proud of it but [also] the common graffiti writer that sees it.”
Ultimately, he shares, “What we’re hoping is to inspire and show younger graffiti writers that if they stay at it, or go to art school, or improve on their art, they can aspire to paint something as big or as beautiful as this mural. They don’t only just have to write their names anymore. They can actually learn how to do murals and change spaces themselves. We want to show them that successful murals involve the community.”