Featured Street Artist: Interview with David Burke

Featured Social Justice Artists

Thursday, July 15, 2021

Read more about David Burke's background, artistic inspiration and future plans in our interview below!

Interview with Social Justice Street Artist David Burke

David Burke in his Studio
David Burke at work
Can you share some details about your background as an artist?

I’m a classically trained painter. I studied visual arts at UC San Diego and then received my Master’s from Tyler School of Art in Philadelphia in painting.  My first paid job out of college was painting murals at inner city schools in Los Angeles. I spent 4 years in South Central, East LA, North Hollywood, collaborating with young people and community members developing murals and painting them at local schools. 

That was really where the seed was planted... this love of doing community driven art projects. I always knew I wanted to come back to the Bay where I was born and raised. I'm currently the Art Director with the Attitudinal Healing Connection in West Oakland and for the last 10 years we’ve been working on a series of murals in collaboration with local youth and community members called the Oakland Superheroes Mural Project.  We work with Oakland youth to design and conceptualize what their idea of a community super hero might look like and then we work with local artists to paint these super heroes on a large scale.  I’m also teaching mural painting at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco. 

I divide time between public art and working in my studio in East Oakland. 

What kind of impact has the Oakland art scene had on your career, and what makes Oakland culture so unique in your eyes?

I think part of what makes Oakland, the art scene, and artists here unique is this interplay between creativity, activism, and play. It’s a recipe that permeates fine art, street art, music, theater, dance, fashion. Activism is part of the DNA of the city of Oakland and artists here tap into that worldview and it drives a lot of the work that we see on the streets and in galleries.

So much of the art, fashion and music that people are consuming now is born years earlier in warehouses like the one I’m sitting in. There is this ongoing dialogue of music, dance, art, that we’re all having with each other. It all brews and percolates in art spaces, and we’re all bouncing ideas off of each other, and eventually it comes out into the world and it takes on a life of its own. 

I think along with that activism is this sense of play that is unique to the Bay Area, where we’re having fun doing what we love to do. We're able to address all these really serious issues that our country is facing, that our city is facing, and it’s coming from a place of love and play. This sense of play is part of what allows us to talk about these big issues in our work. 

We feel no one reps their city like people from Oakland, do you agree?

That’s so true! Even in the language, how we talk, and the vocabulary… It’s infused into everything we do. I went to school in Southern California and instantly everyone could tell I was from the Bay. I spent time on the East coast and abroad, and the more I traveled, the more I understood what it meant to represent the Bay… what it means to grow up here, be shaped by it, and how different it is even from other parts of the country. I traveled all around the world and always knew I was going to come back because this is home. Oakland is where I want to invest in my community and raise my children.

How have the recent political and social justice movements influenced or impacted your art, and what feeling do you hope a majority of people are left with when viewing your murals?

One of the things that I love about public art is that it has the power to address pressing issues in the moment. We all saw how quickly artists mobilized after the murder of George Floyd and all these plywood panels went up across Downtown Oakland. Within days local artists mobilized and painted powerful images that tapped into our anger, our sadness, our outrage that we were all going through at that time. 

When my team of Joevic Yeban, Dorias Brannon and I were planning the Black Lives Matter mural, there were all these beautiful murals of George Floyd around downtown Oakland. We wanted to paint something that complemented those, that honored the memory of George Floyd in solidarity with Black Lives Matter movement, but used different imagery to convey our feelings about what is happening in our country.   

I saw an image of a woman that was taken by a photographer in Minneapolis at the first George Floyd vigil.  The photographer’s name is Kerem Yucel; he’s a Turkish immigrant living in Minneapolis, and he captured this beautiful and heartbreaking portrait of a woman standing in front of the flowers and a mural of George Floyd. I was grateful that he gave us permission to use the image.  

For me, it captured the grief and vulnerability, the sadness and the rage that we were all experiencing, but there was also this quiet sense of optimism and hope in it too. We also wanted to celebrate the strength and power of women of color -- who so often carry the burden of seeing their sons, daughters and family members murdered at the hands of police on a regular basis. The image represents not just vulnerability and grief, but also the strength of BIPOC women in the face of constant struggle. 

Street artists, public artists, muralists... we’re visual translators for the community, and we have a responsibility to tell the stories of what people are going through here in Oakland and the rest of our country. There are communities in Oakland that are longing to have their stories told and have their traditions honored and celebrated. With a lot of my projects, I’m trying to tap into that. When I’m painting a mural, I want to be able to translate these big and important issues that often reflect the struggles that we’re going through, but there needs to be some optimism and hope to propel us and move us forward to keep fighting for change.

What has been your favorite reaction to one of your pieces?

That moment in downtown Oakland last year was really powerful, because you had a whole community of artists out there working side by side and talking. There was also a complex visual dialogue to accompany it because we had all of the protests happening simultaneously, and there were people in the community who were coming out as witnesses to it all. We were all in community with one another expressing the same sentiments of rage and sadness. 

Also during the pandemic, I painted a smaller mural in my neighborhood. During the pandemic, Oakland blocked off a lot of neighborhood streets to make the city more walkable because people needed to get outside to exercise while we were in lockdown. I felt compelled to paint something that my immediate neighbors could enjoy and come across during this moment of unknown fear around Covid-19.

Typically when artists paint murals, we paint and then we move onto another project in another area. Even if you paint a mural in your own city, you don’t often get a chance to see it on a regular basis.  But in this instance, I painted this mural and I got to see people discover it and interact with it. I was able to witness the moment of discovery and wonderment.  To be a silent observer of that kind of interaction with the work is special because it affirms all of the things that I’m trying to do with my work. I want to bring beauty to the community and give people a reason to stop and pause and look and dream.

Do you normally work on a timeline when you’re creating these large projects?

It varies, and what people don’t realize is that most of these projects are years in the making. If you’re working on a wall that’s owned by Caltrains and the city, you have to go through many steps of approval and review boards. 

We’re planning the fifth mural for Oakland Superhero Mural, and we started working on it in 2018. For the artists, getting to the wall and painting - that’s the good stuff, that’s the part we’re always excited to get to. All of the work and planning that leads up to a mural is the part people don’t ever see. As I get older, I’m learning more and more how to just be patient with the process.  

The final image on the wall is what everyone sees. For me, it’s the stories that unfold during the mural process, all the interactions with the community that take place, that makes each project special. All those stories for the people that are involved are embedded in that mural and the more people that are involved, the more the community understands the art and the more they respect it. We often bring young people out to paint with us and it gives them an opportunity to contribute to the visual landscape of the city.  

The commonalities and the stories you get to share when you’re watching someone create their art, especially on the street… that just brings you into your community so much more. 

It’s true, it’s personal. I started studying biology in college and I was minoring in visual arts. I found myself spending all this time on art projects and far less time on science classes exactly because of how personal it is. And then when you’re out on the streets, there’s an intimacy with the community who is curious about what you’re doing. 

Your murals are impressive in size and detail — are there any mental hurdles you encounter when taking on public projects of that magnitude?

I think a lot of people have this romantic idea of mural painting, “Oh, you’re a muralist that’s so cool. You just get to go outside and paint everyday, right?” But there are all of these things that we as artists are always doing...from grant writing, to fundraising, it’s a lot of administrative work. The work itself is physically demanding too.  If it’s hot out you’re hot, if it’s cold you’re cold. You’re exposed to all of the elements.  

And because your back is to the street, you're really vulnerable. There’s almost this unspoken contract you have with the community that they’re not going to mess with you while you’re painting. There’s this vulnerability, you’re exposed to the world that is unfolding behind you. Oftentimes we’re working in deep intercity communities that have their own daily challenges. So you’re focused on the painting but you always have to be paying attention to what’s going on around you because anything can happen. 

What or who have been your greatest influences, and how do you find yourself staying inspired?

Back in late 70’s early 80’s, there weren’t as many murals in the city like there are now. I saw my first one at 9, and it was a mural painted by Dan Fontes. My mom was taking me to the hospital in Oakland because I had just broken my wrist and I was really upset. We get off the freeway and we’re at the stoplight and there in front of us is this giant giraffe that’s painted on one of the columns underneath the freeway. I was like, “Holy shit, what is that? What’s this giraffe doing in the middle of Oakland?” For a brief moment, I forgot I had broken my wrist and I was going to the hospital. It transported me to another place.

Right around that time, there was another mural painted near Lake Merritt by Daniel Galvez called “The Grand Performance”. It’s a majestic East Bay landscape filled with artists, musicians and dancers all floating in the sky. At the time, I didn’t know it, but those two murals planted the seed for me. When I first started painting murals years later as an adult, I was drawing on that experience of seeing those paintings as a young boy. 

Today we’re in the midst of a renaissance of street art, and there are more opportunities for young artists. Every day I leave the house, it feels like there’s a new mural that’s popped up. Local artists are doing such amazing work, and they continually inspire me to evolve and improve my craft. We’re having this conversation on the streets everyday with each other even if we’re not seeing one another in person. It’s not just with murals, this is a conversation with taggers, the graffiti writers, the aerosol artists, the muralists, and we’re all in this ecosystem. Some of it is sanctioned, some of it isn’t, some of us work during the day, some of us work at night. We’re all just bouncing off of one another and influencing each other and that’s really cool to be a part of. 

Were you a creative kid? When did you begin painting and drawing?

I was, especially in high school and even in college. I'm a pretty hyperactive person, and painting centers me and calms me down. On a Friday night when all my friends were out partying, I’d just be at home drawing because it felt like that’s what I wanted to be doing. There’s something about that solitude and that focus and listening to music and painting. It’s a state of flow and there’s really nowhere else I’d rather be. I’m at my best self when I’m painting regularly and if I'm feeling anxious or grumpy, I realize, “Oh shit! I haven’t painted in like two weeks! I need to go to the studio and do something right now.” 

What are you looking forward to creating next, and where can people follow along?
David Burke, social justice street artist
David Burke in front of Love Letter to Oakland mural

I’m currently working on a project called Love Letter to Oakland (@lovelettertooakland). We’ve painted one mural and we’re planning four more. The project is about celebrating different generations of local artists and activists. We want to depict the older generation of artists in Oakland passing the torch to the younger generation. We’ll start painting the next one in the Fall and we’ve brought in some amazing people from Oakland like Boots Riley, Rafael Casal, Hung Liu, Ayodele Nzinga - poets, artists, and musicians celebrating this lineage of art and excellence in Oakland. 

My personal Instagram is @hungryghoststudio, and my website is dburke.org!

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