The Dragon Mural project design, designed by Thomas Wong.
One fateful day last September, Lailan Huen, a native Oaklander, left her East Lake home looking for something.
Although what she had planned to look for that day was a cheongsam with her brother's fiancé at one of the few Chinese dress shops in Oakland, she found something else, too - a Chinatown building with a long-term graffiti problem.
The owner of the dress shop told Huen that the building's businesses were entrenched in a repetitive and expensive cycle: Painting over the graffiti (which usually cost about $400), watching the wall get covered, shelling out more cash and watching the money be wasted yet again.
"We looked up at this wall. It was this huge, beautiful wall. One of the few really big walls in Chinatown that was just blank," Huen recalled. "And all of a sudden I just kind of envisioned there being a mural there."
Specifically, after some discussion with Oakland-basedinternationally renowned graffiti artist Estria Miyashiro, Huen envisioned the Chinese zodiac's majestic dragon painted on the three-story, 50-foot tall and 40 foot wide space; a mural that would reflect and honor the culture and community of the area.
Last week, that vision is becoming a reality.
Power-washing was Monday, stenciling was Tuesday and all the painting will be completed by the end of October. Huen and others making the dragon mural come to life say they hope this mural will be the first of 12 - eventually depicting all the zodiac animals as their year comes. And not just in Chinatown.
"It could help link the different neighborhoods the Chinese communities here live in - San Antonio, the Laurel, East Lake - the Chinese diaspora of Oakland," Huen said. "And it's not just the Chinese, it's also Koreans, Vietnamese ... different Asian Pacific communities that celebrate Lunar New Year, too."
Huen had originally hoped to receive funding for the dragon mural project from the city through funds allocated for what's called "Facade Improvement." But thanks to Gov. Jerry Brown's drastic cutting of redevelopment funds in 2011, she had to get creative in her financial backing search.
Of the $16,000 raised to fund the project, half came from a East Bay Community Foundation's East Bay Fund for Artists grant. Huen stumbled upon the grant just three days before the deadline. She applied right away and was awarded the money the following week. Huen speculates that the East Bay Community Foundation was excited about the project because it's in keeping with their mission of expanding the donor base of people who give to the arts.
"I think the Chinese community doesn't largely see themselves as giving to the arts a lot," Huen said. "But you know, it's not just rich white people who can give to the arts - but people who see culture and art as value in our community."
Although Huen and her organizing team had imagined creating a larger donor base composed of smaller donations, the project reached it's monetary goal with 60 backers. Both Huen and the mural's lead designer, Thomas Wong (who is also the senior graphic designer at Eastside Arts Alliance) feel that the project has been a success in engaging lots of people, both with the art and with each other.
"I think being able to do cultural murals in culturally specifically areas is a good way for the community to get together and support something," said Wong, who has taught mural painting classes to elementary and high-school aged youth for more than 10 years. "One of the most exciting things for me is to be able to work with and meet new artists, elder artists, that we can make cultural connections with. That's the most enjoyable part of it and the most long-lasting part of it."
Wong's process has been a cycle of receiving feedback from the neighborhood and Chinese community, as well as older Chinese artists, and many visits to the East Asian Library in Berkeley. In addition, he has compiled a team of three other artists to complete the mural: Sylvia La, the Oakland-based painter and muralist; John Hina of 808 Urban, who has completed the largest scale mural in Hawaii; and Jose Garcia, who also works at Eastside Arts alliance and has worked on 25 public murals throughout the Bay Area.
Huen said that project organizers plan to involve local youth on the lower portion of the mural, which will include Chinatown history and landmarks. Having earned dual Urban Studies & Ethnic Studies degrees in her undergrad at the Columbia and having worked with youth for over a decade as well - in particular, with many young graffiti artists - she said that tagging and graffiti by youth often results from not seeing themselves depicted in the world around them.
"The bottom is the part that gets most tagged up," Huen said. "But if young people are saying, 'I did that!' then maybe their friends won't tag it."