Social Justice Street Art
Wednesday, May 19, 2021
Oakland is a mecca for street artists. Some of the world’s best muralists have covered once blank walls with explosions of colors focusing on themes of justice, diversity, and inclusivity. While there are thousands of murals painted all over “The Town”, there are certain neighborhoods where a concentration of artists’ ideas and collaborations have sprung to life, these street galleries bringing art outside of the traditional museum walls and into the lightness of the California sun.
Where to Find Murals in Downtown Oakland
Check out the neighborhoods below to go on your own self-guided walking tour of Oakland's murals!
Walls of Justice murals focusing on social justice and civil rights heroes such as Martin Luther King, Jr., John Lewis, and Oakland’s own Angela Davis are really concentrated in the downtown area. Spanning from 7th Street, beyond Grand Avenue to about 42nd Street along Broadway, murals run one after the other on both sides of Broadway. One block west, along Telegraph Avenue, murals addressing social justice and community involvement are also painted and displayed on some of the oldest commercial buildings in Oakland, including the 1929 Art Deco gem, Sears Roebuck and Company building.
Traveling northeast on Telegraph Avenue, we reach the Temescal neighborhood, described as vibrant, gritty, and eclectic. The Temescal is where one can find very local-centric artwork that mixes an East Bay point of view with the demands for action for positive reform. Along with social justice themes, this foodie corridor weaves diversity in food, physical activities such as cycling and paddle boarding, and the rich cultures of Oakland’s people as well as environmental justice murals and mural tributes to local victims lost to violence such as Oscar Grant and Nia Wilson.
The Laurel District
Another neighborhood filled with social justice street art and murals depicting peaceful diverse communities is the Laurel District. The underrated Laurel District is just northeast of Mills College and home to many locally grown artists. This melting-pot neighborhood boasts opportunities for young artists looking to gain some visibility and experience with some of Oakland’s “OG” muralists. The Laurel encompasses blocks northeast of I-580 between High Street and 35th Avenue. Many businesses have welcomed Oakland artists and commissioned pieces to bring their buildings to life, painting murals on exposed walls of these businesses. Murals in and around the Laurel District are directly focused on civil and human rights, the liberation of people, and honoring public figures who have fought for change for the good of all people. Not only do we get a sense of just how diverse this neighborhood is when taking in these murals, but also that Laurel’s residents take pride in creating justice on a global scale.
The neighborhood just west of Downtown Oakland where the last BART train stop out of the east bay is located, is known as West Oakland. In West Oakland, Afrofuturist murals grace many buildings and sides of businesses, and some murals cover entire homes. This neighborhood is a mix of old and new, with many surprises scattered throughout both the commercial and residential streets. Along Nelson Mandela Parkway, social justice murals span an entire block where many of the local well-known muralists collaborate and hold fund-raising events for East Bay nonprofits. Two murals stand out in this neighborhood as exceptional works that highlight the human rights activism that has long been a part of Oakland’s history and continues today. “The Future is Black,” located along 14th Street, spans 170 feet and runs a whole block. The brilliant use of color-blocking in the background is something out of a color theory class. The other exceptional piece is a home painted to celebrate the women of the Black Panther Party and their contributions to the People’s Free Food Program and breakfast program to feed underserved children. The West Oakland murals provide a history lesson through art, allowing us a glimpse of what was happening in Oakland during the civil rights movements of the 50’s and 60’s, while other West Oakland Walls of Justice offer a glimpse into the world of Afrofuturism, a future void of white supremacy and the structures that continue to oppress black and brown folks.
Check Out Our Oakland, CA Street Art Gallery
The murals in Oakland are ever-changing, so we created an online gallery dedicated to capturing photos of racial and social justice murals in Oakland. If this mural tour piqued your interest, be sure to check out our Oakland, CA Mural Gallery!
About the Author
Johnna Spikes is a legal assistant at the law firm Haddad & Sherwin, LLP in Oakland, California. She is a graduate of FIDM where she studied product development and has worked in sourcing and wholesale assisting emerging apparel designers and brands. Switching gears during the pandemic, Johnna decided to pursue a new career in civil rights law and landed a position with Haddad & Sherwin, LLP while earning her degree in Legal Studies at UC Berkeley. Johnna enjoys participating in Oakland’s local art scene where she volunteers for Bay Area Mural Program, participates in community art events, photographs local bay area art murals to upload to the Walls of Justice website, and enjoys writing blog posts for Walls of Justice.