For old school residents of the Bay Area, the concept of “street art” is synonymous with vandalism. It’s a reminder of those gritty, pre-tech boom days; an act of self promotion and communication that spanned the Bay’s many subcultures. While graffiti appreciation is at an all-time, historically it’s been treated with negativity by Bay Area locals — a holdover from an era when “tagging” meant defacing property (and a drop in property values).
Now, those stigmas are shifting, thanks to local art collectives like Dragon School.
Based in Oakland’s Chinatown, Dragon School is an an active, art-producing, volunteer-driven nonprofit bent on redefining what street art means to residents. They’re also part of an idyllic enclave in an otherwise restless city. Unlike most of the Bay Area — where neighborhoods are rapidly gentrifying and trendy bars pop up between dilapidated “painted ladies” — Chinatown feels united, striking the perfect balance between the old and the new. Traditional Chinese bakeries fill the streets with steam and the smell of rising bread, and buskers play steely songs on handmade guzhengzs, but the neighborhood is also decorated with dozens of intricately-painted murals, revealing the burrough’s decidedly untraditional acceptance of street art.
“Dragon School formed as an institution to provide young people a place to experiment with art,” explains Oakland street artist Michelle Chan, as she paints a giant panda on the side of an empty brick building. “You don’t have to be an artist to participate, and you don’t have to be young, but we do concentrate on giving a super cool artistic outlet to kids.”
While Michelle paints, an older man wearing a boat hat sidles up to her. He asks a question in Mandarin, pointing to the crown of her giant panda emphatically. She lowers her face mask, answers, and the old man smiles. You don’t have to speak the language to understand people enjoying art. It’s universal.
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