Artist turns trash cans into public art in Richmond and Oakland

Sep 25, 2014

We all throw stuff away—about four and a half pounds of garbage a day, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

We’ve gotten used to hearing the three commandments of waste management: recycle, reduce, and reuse. But recently, the term “up-cycle” has come into vogue. That’s the idea that you can take waste materials and turn them into something valuable and even beautiful.

Mosaic artist Daud Abdullah up-cycles pieces of trashed pottery, tile, mirror, and glass to make public art on garbage cans in Oakland and Richmond.

Daud Abdullah’s unconventional art gallery

Someone just threw a water bottle into Daud Abdullah’s art piece – but that what it’s for; it’s a trashcan. I’m on a tour of Abdullah’s unconventional art gallery, the streets of Oakland. Here in East Oakland’s Brookdale neighborhood, grates cover the windows on the one-story houses. The street is noisy with buses and cars – and it’s lined with trashcans. Square, dull, grey boxes that blend into the concrete around them.

Except for this one. It’s got an eye made out of mirror on one side above a red heart and the letter “U”, which also looks a lot like a smiley face.

Abdullah decorated this first can in 2006, with help from his nine-year-old son. Nobody paid him to do it, or even asked him to. And his materials?

“This was some tile,” Abdullah explains, pointing to one part of the trashcan. “I was walking down the street and found a whole box of [it].”

Abdullah says he was tired of seeing trash in the neighborhood and cleaning up other people’s garbage. He wanted to show that there’s potential in the things we throw away.

“Let’s show trash turned into treasure, that kind of thing. So there’s a lot of plates and cups and stuff on that,” he says.

He moved onto other cans around the area, lugging tiles, grout, and bladders of water for blocks to spread smiley faces, hearts, and peace signs around Oakland.

Some of his later pieces were made by request, by people who saw the work he was doing and liked it. Abdullah says a local musician drove past and saw him working “and said, ‘I want one of those done want one of those done at my house, could you do it?’”

The can has guitars, drums, maracas, and the words, “Oakland loves musica,” on two of the sides.

And then there’s a peace sign. Abdullah says while he was working on this can, the musician’s son was murdered.

“It was a shooting kind of thing,” Abdullah says. “I just decided, ‘Dude, I’m going to show respect and give you a peace sign.’ We need it. We don’t have enough of it.”

Abdullah takes me to the next spot near a bus stop on Seminary Ave. The storefronts are barred up and the only business that seems to be open is a liquor store.

“The reason I did the trashcans here was because, look at it,” Abdullah says. “They have no art. You go all around Lake Merritt, you go all around downtown Oakland, there’s a piece of art here and there—murals that are legal. You get out here, and there’s nothing.”

Abdullah adds: “The nickname of Seminary avenue is ‘Cemetery Avenue’ because of all the killing and stuff that is going on around here.”

But something else has started going on around here, too. As we’re driving along, we come across a huge mosaic flower piece someone has done on the front of their house. And to our left I spot another decorated trashcan, but it’s not one of Abdullah’s.

“That’s the ripple that it keeps going,” he says.

The ripple

Abdullah calls the spread of the art form, the “ripple.” He’s keeping it going by training a new crop of artists in his studio in nearby Richmond.

“If you don’t work with kids then the art form is going to die,” he says.

The place is called Bridge Storage, because it is just that—a storage business that decided to convert a number of its units into an art space, including Abdullah’s classroom.

Earlier this year, 12 teenagers from Gompers, the continuation high school in Richmond, came to Abdullah’s studio to learn about mosaic and help make the cities trash cans a little brighter.

On a wall outside, a mosaic mural is starting to emerge of the San Francisco Bay, with the Golden Gate Bridge straddling it. Abdullah tells me the bridge is like so much of the stuff he works with.             

“Somebody showed up with this bridge,” he says, “which was a part of SF University’s scoreboard. They were tearing it down. And somebody thought, ‘Oh, there’s this guy that will reuse it.’ And so here it is.”

This is where he showed the students different techniques using materials from glass to oyster shells. 

“I would hope and dream, with all the kids, that they take it to the next level. Next time, instead of a spray tag, maybe they’ll do a nice mosaic tag,” he says.

For the last stop on our tour, Abdullah takes me to see his most prominent can – in Richmond, anyway.

“We’re looking right across at city hall. I know this is amazing to have something here. Blew me away,” he says.

There’s a bicycle driving up one side of the can, out of a flowerbed made from broken plate pieces. And on another side is Richmond’s iconic face: Rosie the Riveter.

Dre says he likes Abdullah’s rendering of Rosie in blue and tan tile, under the words “Richmond” and “We Can Do It!”

“It definitely makes me want to put my trash into it,” Dre says. “Really, I appreciate the culture that Richmond has put down.”

In fact, a $3,000 grant from the city has helped fund a number of Abdullah’s cans. There are now 26 in the city, from Pt. Richmond to downtown. Dre’s friend Julian hopes Abdullah will do more.

“They should be all over Richmond,” Julian says.

And that, after all, is Abdullah’s mission. To give broken bits a second chance at beauty and replace blight with art.

See more photos of Daud Abdullah's work here. And find more about his art classes here.