What do giraffes have in common with Mexico? It sounds like a trick question, or a goofy one-liner. If you ask Google, you are pointed to a rather interesting spiritual society called “Free Giraffes in Mexico”, a recipe for “giraffes huevos rancheros”, and an unfortunate story of a giraffe dodging traffic on a Mexican road while trying to make a run for it from a local circus. So the better question to ask: what do giraffes have in common with Mexico IN OAKLAND? The answer is a section of town with two busy thoroughfares that run in one-way directions under Hwy 580. Oakland Avenue and Harrison Boulevard transect a portion of the lower hills; parallel roads that connect the northern tip of Lake Merritt with the highway, MacArthur Boulevard, and the Oakland Hills. Therefore, people often move fast; too fast. The statuesque giraffes have been a part of this confluence of intersections for 32 years. Aztecali, a casual neighborhood eatery with home-style Mexican fare, has just joined the area this year. Both give cause to slow down and appreciate craft in two different forms; it makes giraffes and Mexico synonymous in my book.
The giraffes that stand upon columns and walls underneath Hwy 580 on Harrison Street and MacArthur Boulevard are the work of well-known local artist Dan Fontes. In 1983, Fontes was inspired by the jungle-like land tucked under the concrete maze. He thought of ways to transform the cold walls and massive column structures; “Giraphics” was born. After taking over 300 ideas into consideration, from missiles to cats to even spaghetti, it was ultimately the green and overgrown plot of land and the gentle and graceful nature of these tall giants that inspired his final choice. A combination of a small grant from the Oakland Redevelopment Agency, donations from friends, and his own contribution funded the project; Fontes was able to complete the original seven giraffes in 1984. Each one took about a month to complete, and were brought to life with the help of images supplied by local photographer Rick Mannshardt. A festive celebration was held, and the early days of the Oakland mural movement found inspiration in the phrase “What would it look like if Oakland were more colorful?”
Original Rick Mannshardt photo of the pair currently being restored underneath 580;
splotch of red paint included :o)
Fast forward to the early 1990’s and the giraffes began to disappear, quite literally. The after effects of the Loma Prieta Earthquake in 1989 sent Cal-Trans into overdrive and the columns underneath Hwy 580 were added to the long list of retrofit work. Three of the original giraffes were encased in new steel and concrete shrouds that were added to the columns to improve strength. After seeing their beloved giraffes disappear, the children of Piedmont’s Wildwood School wrote over 300 letters to Cal-Trans, begging to bring them back. The local agency listened; in 1993 Fontes brought them back to life on the massive columns at the corner of Harrison and MacArthur, and below the freeway on Harrison.
I spent a bit of time with Fontes and his lead assistant Kristin Holohan on an overcast morning a few weeks ago. Fontes has recently been restoring the pair of giraffes on the underpass wall on Harrison, thanks to contributions from local supporters through a gofundme page. With an old folding table set on an incline, and a rather rickety set of scaffolding to reach the faces, necks and backs of the gentle giants, Kristi got underway cleaning the existing surface while Fontes and I chatted. He shared with me the joy he has received from the honks and waves he has gotten from passer-bys since he started the restoration work. He told me how one woman shared that her young daughter had named all the giraffes; I told him about how much I enjoy staring at the two on the columns on MacArthur whenever I am stopped by the red light.
The process to bring the vibrant colors back to life involves several stages. Cleaning with a heavy-duty solvent, scraping and dusting away chips, and priming any areas that are absent of paint is just the start. Once the surfaces are completely prepped a coat of oil underpaint is put down, followed by heavier oil paints once it is completely dried. Final steps involve adjustments to coloring, light, and shadow and edges are cleaned up. Multiple coats of an anti-graffiti sealer/varnish are added to allow for ease of cleaning if these giants ever do fall prey to tagging. My hope is that the gentle nature of their faces keep vandals away.
Left: Dan Fontes during the original project in 1984
Right: Dan Fontes during the restoration in 2016
While it may not seem to be a natural transition to go from 32-foot giraffes to amazing Mexican food, one just has to cross over from Harrison to Oakland Ave to enjoy another craft that is being meticulously created by its maker in a different form. I first heard about Aztecali after reading a piece done by East Bay Express in March, however it was the praise of a good friend who is close with owners Juana Ojeda and Claudia Mercado that finally got me in for a visit last week. “Get the tostadas!” is what I was told; so with an empty belly and my toddler in tow, I slowed down on the incline of Oakland Avenue as I approached Hwy 580 to find a parking spot in this mostly residential neighborhood.
Juana and Claudia are themselves members of this Oakland Avenue community, so the feel of Aztecali is inviting and casual, as a neighborhood spot should be. Juana has brought her twenty years of restaurant experience and her Guerrero, Mexico roots together to create a small but flavor-filled menu. As neighbors and friends came and went, Molly and I parked ourselves in a bright window table and enjoyed a couple of courses of the fresh, home-style Mexican cooking that Juana is turning out of the small space. Since a grill is not part of their kitchen set-up, she has based the menu around a series of “guisados” or stew-style meats. I am not a food critic, yet I love and appreciate food that is flavorful, authentic, and fresh; this is what I found at Atzecali.
The tinga tostadas were light and crispy with tender shredded chicken braised in a sauce of chipotle, tomato and onion. The guisado was piled on top of black beans with a bit of cabbage, avocado, Cotija cheese, sour cream, cilantro and house-made salsa verde. While I had high-hopes that my daughter would go for a basic burrito of beans, rice, avocado, and sour cream, she turned her two-year-old nose up and Claudia was sweet to accommodate her with a simple bowl of rice and avocado.
The interior of Aztecali is a lovely combination of bright light hitting light blue walls, homey touches such as vintage tin cups to hold forks and napkins, ball jars filled with the foam-topped aqua fresca, and festive patterns on the oil-cloth covered tables. A row of artwork is current on display; images by photographer Helen Pena paired with illustrations by Leticia Javier. Claudia shared with me that it is their goal to have a rotation of installations by female Latina artists.
The house made horchata and aqua fresca at Aztecali are a highlight. The hibiscus aqua fresca was tart and refreshing, made barely sweet with just a touch of brown sugar. The horchata is a delicious combination of rice milk, milk, vanilla, cinnamon, and sugar; it can be combined with coffee brewed from beans by local Highwire Coffee Roasters if a pick-me-up is needed.
I wasn’t quite ready to leave without trying a taco, so Juana made me a quick one with the Picadillo guisado; ground beef stewed with carrots, red bell peppers, onions, jalapeño, cilantro and mint. It was served with just a wedge of lime and it was delicious. The food at Aztecali feels simple in its presentation, yet the flavors are complex and different from what you might find at a corner taqueria. While this isn’t a spot for $1 tacos, I found the prices to be more than reasonable for the amazing quality and authentic style. I am not the only one who has noticed; the East Bay Express has just recently awarded Aztecali with a Best of the East Bay rating for their Chicken Pozole Verde. Served on the 3rd Sunday of each month, this home-style soup was described as “soul-warming” by the Express; I look forward to giving it a try as the weather cools.
So have I made a giraffes synonymous with Mexico in your mind? Maybe not quite; but in Oakland anything is possible. Remember that simple sign that was plastered on the underpass wall in 1984 which stated “What would it look like if Oakland were more colorful?” I think giraffes brought back to life with bright tones of brown and yellow, and vibrant Mexico food served on squares of blue and white with a side of deep pink aqua fresca are signs that 32 years later, color has definitely arrived…I can’t wait to find more.
UPDATE 10/8/16: I was notified a few days ago that Aztecali has had to close unexpectedly; the reasons are unknown at this time. While there is hope that they may re-open, for not their website states that they are “Permanently Closed”.
Fontes will have an upcoming show of his private works at Warehouse 416 this November, showcasing pieces that will speak to his 35 years of painting around Oakland. Keep an eye out on their website for details.
The gofundme page that was originally started for his Zebra mural known as “Animurals” is what is being used to also fund the ongoing restoration work to the giraffes. While he is very close to what he needs to complete them, every little bit helps so please consider a donation. The link to the fundraising page is here.
All images from the original 1983-1984 giraffe project were supplied by Dan Fontes
All other images by Adrienne Schell. Do not use without permission.