If you were to ask me what I miss these days, my answer would be traveling abroad. Tight budgets and two little ones have kept my feet local in recent years; I have mixed feelings about it. While I have re-discovered my own town and all its nooks and crannies, I ache for the adventures of international travel. Discovering the nuances of other cultures by wandering the streets of a foreign city is not only an unforgettable memory, but an invaluable learning experience. Not knowing what to expect, to be pleasantly surprised by stepping a bit outside of your comfort zone is a growing experience. I once had a day like this in the bustling city of Shanghai. Abroad for business, I had one day to myself. I studied my map, stepped outside my hotel feeling a bit nervous and hesitant, and I walked. It became one of those days I have never forgotten. At the end of the day while I had logged miles, viewed temples, drunk tea in a historic tea house, taken in the architecture of the French Concession district, what has stayed at the forefront of my memory is the unexpected. A hapless wander through a city park where I photographed people sitting on the park benches; couples, families, friends in the midday bustle.
I recently spent a morning wandering the streets of Oakland’s Chinatown; a visit that also had me stumbling onto the unexpected. I was inspired to spend some time there after reading an East Bay Express article about the amazing food in this historic neighborhood of Oakland. With a couple of hours in the meter and a pineapple bun in my hand, I zigzagged the streets between Broadway and Madison. While I initially intended to compile a post about the history and culture of the area, what grabbed my attention was the artwork. It started to catch my eye just ten feet from my car; the first picture I snapped was of a vibrant fish on the back of a truck, on its side a clever depiction of a panda bear. Next was deep pink flowers on the side of a van just down the street.
As I kept walking I found that it was the artwork that my eyes were looking for. It was easy enough because it was everywhere; sides of buildings, vehicles, doors, even dumpsters. I started to notice the same name on many of the murals and pieces; Dragon School. A quick google search on my phone and I realized that I was looking at the work of a local group of artists aimed at empowering youth through street art.
Dragon School was started in 2015 with the goal of painting 99 dragons throughout Chinatown. The non-profit is the brainchild of street artist and medical student Luke Dragon, aka Doctor Dragon. Grassroots at heart, the movement started when he recruited kids off the playground of Lincoln Community Center to help him finish up a mural. Within weeks a movement was born. With a dual dose of luck at play, the symbolic dragon and lucky number 9 quickly allowed this grassroots group to take off and surpass their goal. With prominent local street artists Anderson Gin and Steven Anderson supervising collaborative pieces, Dragon School has taken off in the two years since its inception. Recently the group was granted permission to paint a huge wall on 7th Street near Broadway; a great opportunity to be noticed outside the Chinatown borders.
The difference between graffiti and street art is a curious one and many opinions exist. In doing a bit of reading one distinction that resonated with me has to do with the target audience. Graffiti is often created by individuals or crews with the intent to speak to other graffiti artists. Street art is typically geared at the public; an invitation to engage with it and to promote community. The team at Dragon School defines graffiti and its origins as one aspect of urban hip hop culture and its lifestyle, whereas street art is itself a method. Chris, a coordinator for Dragon School, shared with me that their group is not against graffiti per se, but seeks to help graffiti artists “channel their talents into constructive community acts.”
One such success story was shared with me. A young graffiti artist from East Oakland showed up at an event last year, very unsure of what to make of the Dragon School group. When he saw that many respected graffiti artists were involved, he was inspired to use his talent in a positive way and has returned to participate again. He worked with a friend to paint a mural on the side of a pizzeria on the corner of Harrison and 13th which was suffering from poor business.
Dragon School promotes street art with etiquette in mind. Graffiti and tagging are a controversial issue in Chinatown; store owners are constantly painting over uninvited work. As such, many local businesses have dedicated their walls and storefronts to be a canvas for Dragon School pieces; a mural is less likely to be tagged. Dragon School participants are taught to never paint over someone else’s work, and they wait for walls to be properly buffed before they begin.
Events are organized at least once a month. Not limited to only youth, both teens and adults who are curious to learn more the creative process behind street art can attend. A lead artist will guide the group through a collaborative effort. Chris shared with me that close to half of the participants are female.
Chris estimated that about 95% of the artwork seen in Chinatown is either directly or indirectly related to Dragon School. Of the dozens of works that I photographed, only a handful fall outside their scope. A city grant funded a huge blue dragon mural in one location; work of another group of artists in 2012. It’s likely that some have begun to try to emulate what Dragon School is doing. Examples I came across are large mural which depicts the Great Wall of China winding behind a large panda, a woman in a doorway, and a vibrant mural tucked in the corner of a parking lot.
So while my morning in Chinatown took a slightly different turn, it was the unexpected that left me pleasantly surprised. A new understanding of this corner of Oakland, another nook and cranny of The Town discovered. I invite you to step outside and wander around. Whether inside your comfort zone or not, it is undeniable that you will learn something new and be the better for it.
You can learn more about Dragon School and how to attend one of their coordinated efforts via their website, www.dragonschool99.com
If you would like to take a walk and view the amazing pieces of artwork the group has created, a map of their primary works can be found here.
Dragon School is a non-profit funded entirely by contributions and donations. The group is currently raising money for the large wall project mentioned above on 7th Street. Please consider making a donation to the group via the donation link on their website, located here.
Thank you to Chris of Dragon School for his help and assistance.
All photos by Adrienne Schell, please do not use without permission.