For many, graffiti carries the stigma of crime, violence, and decay. But for one artist and activist, graffiti is just the opposite. Favianna Rodriguez is the co-founder of the East Side Arts Alliance in Oakland, California, a cultural center dedicated to providing an artistic haven for the local community. Through music, dance and art, ESAA preserves a creative environment wherein all locals can advocate for positive social change. One program in particular, Visual Element, is a graffiti art program provided for high school students, where they can practice their art on legally commissioned walls. A staunch political artist in her own right, Rodriguez’s work has been exhibited all over the world. And now with food and environmental justice as her hub, Rodriguez maintains that we may not all be artists, but everything we do has intrinsic political power. And that power means change.

» HalogenLife: Tell me how East Side Arts Alliance got started.
» Rodriguez: In 2000 I was approached by a few other activists who were artists and culture workers. They asked me, ‘Do you want to start a cultural center?’ East side was a really inter-generational community. There was La Peña in Berkeley, but at that point there was no place for young people and art and on stuff that we found relevant. Graffiti, jazz, black music those are the things that honor the diversity in Oakland. There are over a hundred languages spoken, especially in the neighborhood I live in. And in creating ESAA, it was finding out how art can play a role in the economic development in the area. Why do we need art? We need cops and teachers, right? But we’re looking at how when artists come into cities they establish cultural zones. Gentrification is also a part of that. We [the ESAA] became a priority for the San Antonio neighborhood. And we’d also go to the state to support us. We were evicted at one point for our views on anti-police brutality. We had office spaces then, and it’s taken us seven years to get a building. There’s sixteen units of affordable housing, a soundbooth, library, performance space, and spaces for Visual Element.

» HalogenLife: What’s visual element?
» Rodriguez The best way to meet a young person is to meet them at their level, so that’s why we chose graffiti as a basis. So we thought, what’s the political history of graffiti? Its origins are in hip-hop. And also, what’s the history of muralism? It goes back to the tradition of Mexican muralists. Visual Element is about combining those two. Visual Element is how young people can collectively get together, doing large-scale productions art jams, schools, and have a unified message around gentrification or stopping a war.


Virginette Acacio