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Not just wallpaper, murals make up a unique part of Oakland’s urban landscape

Tina Glengary

Suffice it to say that Dan Fontes is not afraid of heights. The Oakland-born muralist’s long resume includes the tallest mural in San Francisco-a 98-foot high Art Deco-inspired piece on the Bethany Senior Center in the Mission District-as well as a variety of murals and images all over the East Bay, perhaps the most famous of which are the seven larger-than-life giraffes that reside underneath the 580 freeway in Oakland.

These award-winning “Giraphics,” as he titled the project, almost didn’t make it through the city’s selection process for public art projects. They were just one potential subject among almost 300 others, including “everything that you could possibly paint from cats to spaghetti, from waterfalls to Nike nuclear missiles,” he said.

So how did giraffes get chosen? According to Fontes, a big part of public art planning has to do with the size of the surface and the way sunlight hits it at different times of day. He felt the massive scale of the freeway pillars required a massive subject-something that would be noticeable from a car. Because of the jungle-like ivy that drapes underpasses in the area, enormous giraffes seemed a perfect fit.

The 32-foot high giraffes have become a part of the landscape for many Oakland residents since they were first painted in 1983, and the fact that they appear on the 57 bus route makes them well known to Mills students. In fact, the giraffes have become so integrated into some students’ daily lives that they no longer look twice at them on their way to school.

“I don’t notice them consciously anymore,” said junior Anna Tome. “But they add a bit of light when I walk towards school.”

Such is the nature of public art-it becomes such an integral part of the scenery that it often blurs into the background.

Still, Fontes prefers his concrete canvas to any other medium. Reflecting on the difference between public pieces and gallery work, he said, “One [is] vibrant and unpredictable, one [is] quiet like a church. I consider galleries a sort of tomb where art goes to die.”

According to Fontes, public art bridges the often-distant relationship between artist and viewer in a way that gallery work does not. He values the connection he feels with passersby who stop to admire his work as he paints.

The responses Fontes has gotten to his many projects over the years validate his love for the craft, he said. As for the giraffes, public response has been overwhelmingly positive.

“People still kind of recoil in amazement when they connect me with the murals,” he said. “I think they’ve made people happy.”

The giraffes have become a personal landmark for many Oakland residents. Neighborhood children have made up special names for them (“long-neck deer,” for example) and one person even began trimming the foliage surrounding the murals to lend the illusion that the giraffes were eating.

Amber Hopkins, a freshwoman Mills student who grew up in the area, has found the giraffes to be a source of comfort.

“It feels almost like you’re being watched over in a place where you may not otherwise feel safe,” she said.

If the public responses that Fontes has received have taught him anything, it’s that cities like Oakland need public art.

“Public art sends so many positive messages-especially to our children. Ideas like being an artist is a viable career option,” he said.

“Even if the message in the art isn’t so lighthearted, you have to keep in mind that someone found the time and materials to produce it and to create this personally satisfying statement.”

Always busy, Fontes is currently collaborating with local artist Caroline Stern on another large freeway piece, this time along the 880, as well as teaching a class about mural painting to young girls at San Leandro’s Girls Inc. He is also consumed by his other passion-vintage pinball machines-and is gearing up to create the third annual Pacific Pinball Exposition’s poster.