Last October young volunteer, muralist, and street artist Antonio Ramos was gunned down in West Oakland. He and his fellow artists were in the midst of painting an anti-violence mural that was meant to be enjoyed by the entire city. Designed by middle-schoolers, the piece was called “Self as Superheroes” and was part of a city-wide initiative to use the power of street art to talk about the challenges facing Oakland and its surrounding communities.
Oakland is a city of opposing ideas. At once a rougher city than the nearby San Francisco, it is simultaneously heralded as The Bay Area’s own Brooklyn but also a city of danger, of systemic problems, and one that has a long ways to go. The very act of shooting a young street artist for painting a charity-funded mural seems to speak to many of the problems the city faces, and has indeed become a testament to Oakland’s many challenges.
“Self as Superheroes” is part of the Oakland Super Heroes Mural Project, a six-mural project funded and started by local non-profit Attitudinal Healing Connection, which is dedicated to spreading messages of anti-violence. Every mural is painted on a freeway underpass and hopes to convey messages of anti-violence and peaceful resolution in a city where stories of gentrification are met with worrisome crime statistics.
Ramos’ death was met with widespread condemnation and a city that came together. A fund was started to help his family cover the funeral costs. Those who worked on the mural finished it in his honour, and many residents came to the piece, the place where Ramos died, to pay their respects and build a small shrine in his honour. His death has become a symbol of how far Oakland still needs to go in terms of crime, violence, and a community that needs to build with its citizens.
Of the many things that Ramos’ death has come to represent, from Oakland’s crime to arguments surrounding gentrification, is that art is still powerful, still relevant, and still very important. Ramos was gunned down while making art, while trying to communicate something very real and very important to the people of his town. The art, and the very act of scribbling it onto a wall, proves that street artists, as conveyors of important messages, are still feared and therefore tried to be silenced. And while the true motivations of the shooter are still a mystery, we can still see how Ramos’ passion for anti-violence lives on through his artistic contributions.