This Creative Collective Is Building Community Through Street Art

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.

“My parents were horrified the first time they saw me painting the shed in the backyard,” Michelle says, pushing her face mask back up to shield herself from spray paint fumes. “They didn’t want me to even draw anything. They wanted me to stay super laser focused and become a doctor.”

The story is a familiar one: The idea that chasing art dreams is somehow “less than” and that anything but the conventional path would be a disappointment.

“Graffiti to me has always been a forbidden thing,” she says.

Michelle’s family was part of the Vietnamese “boat people” emigration — a mass movement of around 800,000 refugees out of Vietnam after the war. Michelle’s parents, uncles and grandmother all braved the open sea to escape their tumultuous homeland.

“They were on open water for about 17 days, and when that happens, your family gets split up,” she says.

Lives were lost; many surviving refugees settled in England, while others — Michelle’s family among them — went on to the United States. They came looking for a better life, and they wanted that for their children, too. Art is rewarding, but parents know that it’s rarely “easy.”

“How can you say no to people who went through such traumatic life experiences?” Michelle wonders, filling in a section of the panda’s paw.

The wall that Michelle is working on sits right across the street from a large Buddhist temple, painted bright red with a gold leaf trim. A block south is the freeway, and underneath rests a small tent city. A middle aged woman walks by and smiles at Michelle’s panda (now holding a freshly painted bamboo wand). When she’s gone, Michelle explains that the artists who work with Dragon School have fostered mutual respect with Chinatown’s residents and homeless community, which is essential for a program like Dragon School to thrive. When older members of the community talk to these artists, they respond politely “like we’re talking to an auntie.”

As a result of this respect, Chinatown’s business and homeowners have grown incredibly open-minded about the good that street art can do. On the one hand, this good is accomplished aesthetically, transforming the streets into a sort of public art gallery, with dozens of murals all over Oakland. But Dragon School murals are also serving a secondary purpose, one which makes the art collective popular with the neighbors: They protect local business owners against additional financial burdens caused by “bad graffiti” — the tagging of a name or symbol on a wall without permission.

“Even graffiti that looks super nice and colorful [but] that’s still someone’s name, that’s graffiti, as opposed to street art…” Michelle says.

Dragon School always paints with permission from business owners, and is most often commissioned specifically to cover spaces where tagging is common. According to Michelle, tagging entices further vandalism, and it’s also a reportable offense… against the business owner.

“A busy body walking around Oakland can complain and report business owners who don’t clean up graffiti,” she explains. “Most of these businesses can barely make it anyways, with their rents super high. They can’t afford extra fines.”

The building Michelle is painting on costs around $10,000 a month to lease. As insane as that might sound, it’s not uncommon for the Bay Area, and it’s a difficult burden for any small business to bear. Perhaps that’s why Dragon School is so important, and why so many people within the community defend their street art with pride.

“This guy… you’ll see him walking around Oakland,” she says. “I don’t know if he’s homeless or not, but he’ll come around and literally yell at people, ‘Don’t tag over the Dragon School!’”

There’s even a prevailing myth that anyone defacing a Dragon School mural will be cursed for 18 generations. Whether or not you’re superstitious, the curse is proof that Chinatown’s residents are protective of their street art.

“I used to do murals for Precita Eyes in San Francisco, but it wasn’t the same community message,” Michelle says, shaking a Krylon can. “Finding somewhere to volunteer your time … is kind of like dating, you know? When I found Dragon School it was a perfect marriage of art, graffiti, culture, community. All those are super important to me.”

They’re super important to Chinatown, too. By giving kids an alternative to vandalism, by improving the local economy, and by protecting constructive street art — not to mention providing a safe, legitimate space for artists to create — Dragon School and Chinatown have built a community that embraces change while respecting tradition.

Michelle continues to paint well into the evening, as the sun gradually sinks into the shallows of Lake Merritt. The smells and sounds of Chinatown shift, as families get ready for dinner.

“Street art is always changing,” Michelle says, packing up her paints. “I like change, I like seeing new stuff. I want to spread awareness: art isn’t scary. We’ve just got to think out of the box.”

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of building a better community through art.