Nearly 30 years ago, in 1983, Dan Fontes was under Highway 580 at Harrison Street in North Oakland painting on a massive round concrete highway support beam. With cars speeding by, he diligently worked on his piece of art: a realistic depiction of a 30-foot tall giraffe craning its neck up toward the freeway. As Fontes painted, a police car pulled up.
Taking out his bullhorn, the policeman announced, “Those are really nice giraffes!” Then he took off.
Fontes tends to get the same reaction to the murals he’s painting today. Even though Oakland is a city with a longstanding graffiti and blight problem where painting on public walls has not always been appreciated, Fontes’ murals have been the exception. Much of his work is even commissioned by the City of Oakland.
Born and raised in Oakland, Fontes has been creating all sorts of murals for decades and is most well known for his depictions of gigantic animals in out-of-the-way spots or in places that need a little beautifying, such as underneath highways.
The family of zebras on Broadway under Highway 580, Fontes painted them. The landscape view of Lake Merritt on 27th Street and Broadway, he painted that, too.
“You can make the world a much more magical place by putting animals on buildings,” Fontes says. “You’re not looking at a rough, lifeless building anymore.”
On a hot sunny afternoon a couple of weeks ago, Fontes finished laying a turquoise base coat for a new mural he is working on with a partner, Caroline Stern, and crew member, James Swinson. After climbing down off a two-story high scaffolding, Fontes, who is in his 50s, set to work cleaning his paintbrushes. He had blue paint on his cheek and covering his hands.
This mural will eventually be a series of three 20-foot tall green-hued sea turtles that will appear to be swimming alongside Highway 880 in Fruitvale, Fontes explained as he carefully scrapped hardened paint off his brushes’ bristles. “It’ll be like a giant herd of sea turtles going in the same direction as traffic,” he said.
This project is being done on the wall of the last warehouse building on a dead end street. It’s a spot known for illegal dumping, drug use and gang graffiti, said Fontes. “Anybody can paint in Rockridge or Piedmont,” he said. “The kids out here in East Oakland and Fruitvale need to be inspired. Why should just wealthy people be the beneficiaries of the arts?”
This mural was first commissioned in 2009 by the Oakland Redevelopment Agency to be just one sea turtle, but was so well received that two more sea turtles were commissioned. When that first sea turtle was finished, Fontes said that kids who lived down the street came to check out the mural.
“They were saying, ‘It’s like Nemo right in our yard.’ They were so happy and appreciative,” he said. “It’s about the impact on the community.”
The reason the Oakland Redevelopment Agency commissioned this project was to curb graffiti. Fontes said that the wall was getting tagged at least twice a week for years and the city would send out workers a few times a month to paint over the tags. Eventually, the city recognized that murals are a good way of keeping away graffiti and the upfront cost of the mural would be cheaper than routinely sending people to clean the wall, he said.
Since the first sea turtle was painted, “It stopped the graffiti dead in its tracks,” Fontes said.
For Fontes, tagging is different than graffiti art. He says that he appreciates a lot of the graffiti painted around Oakland and that much of the illegal art being done with aerosol cans is making a similar contribution to neighborhoods as the murals he’s painting. “There’s gang graffiti and other forms of graffiti,” he says. “There’s artistic stuff, which I celebrate, then there’s vandalism.”
When Fontes first started painting on walls, he too did a few illegal murals. “When you’re young you have that internal urge to get out there and be seen,” he says. But over the years, he learned to navigate the system to do the work legally and get paid for it. Graduating with a degree in painting from Cal State Hayward, he did his first commissioned mural in 1981. It was a simple landscape painting of the Bay Area on Carson Street in East Oakland.
Over the years, he says he’s probably worked on 300 to 400 murals throughout the Bay Area and in other cities. He has also worked as an assistant and done collaborations with other muralists and artists.
“They’re site specific,” he says of how he decides what to paint, but it’s clear he has a special affinity for portraying animals, especially endangered species. Besides the sea turtles, giraffes and zebras, he’s also painted whales, tigers, elephants, jaguars and bears. “If you’re a living person on the planet and you’re seeing the invasion of the natural world by the human world, it becomes this imperative to wake up other people on what’s going on,” he says.
Now Fontes is trying to pass on what he has learned and inspire young artists to also make an impression on society. He partners with non-profits like Youth Uprising and Girls, Inc. to teach aspiring artists his painting skills and techniques. He has also led student delegations to China and Japan to learn different forms of art making and to paint murals in those countries.
As he paints new murals, like the sea turtles on Highway 880, others deteriorate with exposure to sun, rain and time. He estimates that 30 to 50 percent of his murals are already gone. But this is all part of the cycle, he says. “The beauty of murals is that they are like a butterfly,” he says. “They’re impermanent.”