West Street underneath the 580 freeway in West Oakland isn’t big, but it’s busy: the onramp is right here. About 10 feet off the ground, David Burke is perched on scaffolding with a paintbrush in his hand, right in front of a block-long mural.
“I've lived here for 15 years,” he says. “This is my home. I love this city.”
He looks down from the portrait he’s working on, then wipes off some of the orange paint off his brush. The full mural is a West Oakland scene complete with Victorian houses, birds, tree-filled streets -- and four giant children. Students at West Oakland Middle School designed the piece, and each of these four figures are superhero children who use their powers to help keep the neighborhood clean, healthy and safe.
“I really feel like as artists it's our job to shape the communities we live in and share talents with those communities,” says Burke.
He’s the art director for this project and has been working on community murals for 20 years. This one is part of a set going up on underpasses all over the neighborhood. He met Antonio Ramos while painting the first mural in the series, just two blocks away from here on San Pablo Avenue.
“He rolled up on his skateboard and was really excited about what we were doing,” Burke remembers. “He was a really talented artist and also he brought smiles to everybody's face. He painted on anything he could get his hands on. He was a musician, he was a designer, he skated. He’s from the neighborhood, went to Berkeley High School, went to Berkeley City College. We really really miss him.”
On the morning of September 29th, Antonio Ramos was shot and killed while painting here. Burke remembers the moment it happened.
“I was here, but I was on the other end of the wall -– the wall’s 200 feet long. And so I heard the shot, I ran down and found my friend lying in the street.”
Like many people around here, he’s still in shock.
“Whatever exchange took place between Antonio and the suspect was so small that nobody working even had a chance to turn around,” he says. “It lasted a few seconds. And it was over.”
ADDING COLOR AND LIFE
When Ramos was killed he was painting a purple Victorian home. Now, in addition to the paint buckets, the entire length of the block is lined with flowers, candles, incense and memorials. There are security guards on each end of the block. People honk as they drive past. Pancho Pescador is one of over a dozen artists working on the project.
“People just stopping by giving condolences, bringing us food, water, people bring all these candles,” he says as he spraypaints flowers onto the wall.
Muralist Vanessa Espinoza, who goes by Agana, says that painting has been difficult.
“Working here without him is strange - we were the dream team,” she says. “It's kind of like this very dark, cold place now. We're adding color and life to it. But it's been a struggle.”
In addition to praying for Ramos’ family, she says she’s been praying for the young man that shot him, “‘cause something’s really missing from that person’s life.”
Just three houses down, James Pierce is less forgiving.
“He definitely needs to be off the street and never back on the street,” he says of the shooter.
I find him taking out his trash as people walk their dogs and ride their bikes past us.
“I live right here on West Street, maybe 100 yards from the underpass, been here since 1998,” he says. “But the murder of Antonio, I mean -- I've seen some things happen over the time that I've been here. But this is just really way off the chart.”
I ask him if it changes his feelings about safety in the neighborhood.
He pauses, then says no. “It doesn't change my feelings. I think the neighborhood is getting safer. But you still never know - you know?”
I tried talking with some of the business owners nearby. They didn’t want to say anything -- one of them because he was worried about his safety.
The nonprofit that commissioned the mural is called Attitudinal Healing Connection. It’s just two blocks away from the underpass.
“When something like this happens it hits really close to home because this is the very thing that you're trying to prevent,” says executive director Amana Harris.
She says it’s been hard to deal with the media coverage.
“It just shed such a negative light on Oakland, but it never talked about any solutions, it never talked about any of the people working hard to make our city better,” she says.
That’s why the mural shows those four superhero children. Each one has a backstory. For example, one reads:
“Emilio is a young Mexican-American boy who is the earth sign. He uses the music from his purple and blue car to spread joy peace and love. When Emilio plays this music, all who hear are lulled into peacefulness and don't want to fight or argue or commit crimes.”
Emilio is the child muralist David Burke has been painting -- putting the finishing touches on his orange beanie.
“As public artists, street artists, there's an unspoken contract between ourselves and the public that while we're working they're going to leave us alone, look out for us,” he says. “I don't feel any less safe today than I did the morning that we all came out here, Tuesday morning before Antonio got shot. We just have to trust that.”
Art, connection and trust: what everyone here hopes will keep these blocks safe and thriving.