“Upon the Closing of a Child’s Eyes, Sleeping Giants and Titans Rise” : Ernest Doty and the storytelling of street art


“Upon the Closing of a Child's Eyes, Sleeping Giants and Titans Rise”

“Upon the Closing of a Child’s Eyes, Sleeping Giants and Titans Rise”

Depending on your perspective, monsters or heroes flex their muscles in the new fairy tale family portrait at the corner of 24th St and Mandela Parkway in West Oakland. I had the pleasure to speak with Ernest Doty, one of the three artists that collaborated on the mythic mural on the Buchanan Auto Electric building. The epic 70ft x 32ft wall took Doty and his collaborators, Griffin One and Skinner, an astounding 165 cans of paint (generously donated by All City Paint) and only three weeks to transform.

Having seen Doty’s work around town, I noticed while watching this piece develop that even as the bulky decapitated warrior at the center holds his own head, the tone of the piece seemed to be a bit lighter than his other work. The image itself, Doty explains, wasn’t worked out ahead of time but rather a product of intuitive collaboration. As each artist painted their respective characters, slowly nudging closer together, an inspiration inevitably developed.

While Doty acknowledges that most of his work speaks to an adult audience, this piece is meant more for children.  Creating a Grimm-inspired fairy tale,  the bright colors and graphic, whimsical creatures invoke an uninhibited sense of  wonder and excitement.  The artists, as socially-challenging trickster figures, ask the audience to imagine, to play, and to dare.  As in traditional fairy tales, there is also an element of the macabre, which Doty acknowledges as part of our innate childhood process in “working through our own darkness.”  It is this time in our lives when we learn to balance our own innocent idealism within the scope of the world’s realities.

Detail of “The Last Caravan of Eden”

Having recognized and responded to Doty’s distinct aesthetic, I had to ask him about the recurring symbols in the various collaborations he has worked on in the Bay Area. Quite often he creates a richly dystopian landscape as in “The Last Caravan of Eden,” located at the street art oasis on Laguna and Haight Streets in San Francisco and completed with the help of Griffin One, Skinner, and Eon 75. The post-apocalyptic scene is juxtaposed with evocative characters sporting multiple eyes and exaggerated skin that lend an air of internal wisdom, spiritual evolution and hope in the face of physical destruction. One sage-like character in the caravan protects the last bit of nature from Eden as they set out, suggesting that there is room to hope as the human species gains generational spiritual insight. Besides the heavy, philosophical meaning, Doty admits that figures with multiple eyes function to “draw people in” and make them more likely to engage.

This seems to get right to the heart of why Doty does what he does, besides what seems to be an overwhelming passion and personal compulsion to paint. Creating public art is very much about engaging people and provoking dialogue while expressing oneself. Publicly expressing self-empowerment, imagination and the courage to take up space in the world encourages others to do the same. Man-made laws are secondary to the laws of basic human nature and general spiritual health.

Detail of “Upon the Closing of a Child’s Eyes, Sleeping Giants and Titans Rise”

Perhaps that is part of the reason graffiti, regardless of its varying forms, is broadcast as such a threat. The graffiti artist is the ultimate Trickster figure woven into every mythological tradition, the seemingly isolated Coyote or Raven that maneuvers stealthily through each tale saying what needs to be said.

What one might not realize is that they run in packs. I got the ironic impression after speaking with Doty that graffiti artists are instinctively social animals. In order to do what they do, a cooperative and collaborative network evolves; there are unspoken rules of etiquette and respect, all of which naturally evolve outside the confines of an imposed legal cloud. And in Doty’s case especially exists a profound amount of gratitude for his community. They are a pack of modern spiritual warriors, often unconsciously poking at the world’s sleeping third eye so that we might remember the complexity of life that comes from a natural dose of entropy and the wonder we once felt as children when the world felt like it could be anything.

Keep an eye out for the film from, detailing the making of  “Upon the Closing of a Child’s Eyes, Sleeping Giants and Titans Rise.”  For more info on the artists mentioned, check out their websites, , ,, www.MaxEhrman.comAnd of course, keep an eye out on the streets for more prolific inspiration!


Evolution of a West Oakland Mural

Oakland, CA Born with insight DEC2012When I first moved to Oakland about a year ago, I was instantly fascinated by the prolific street art. One of the first buildings I encountered was this bright pink building just as safely enclosed with chain link fence as the yard of beautiful chickens next door. A year later, I finally found the time and inspiration to do drive around town documenting some of my favorite pieces and found this building to have changed its message. After some research, I can only presume that the original slogan, “It only takes a pair of gloves,” was present until sometime this August. I found a great blog post from Oaktown Art illustrating the mural’s original message. The original empowering image, fashioned after the stance of two African American Olympic medal winners of 1968, remains the same but the caption now reads, “born with insight a fist,” an abbreviated version of lyrics from the 1992 song by Rage Against the Machine, “Know Your Enemy.” The lyrics were originally “born with insight and a raised fist.”

Image from Oaktown Art blog article January 2012

Both captions are abstract enough to keep their meanings elusive. While the original seemed to have a more empowering and positive slant, it appears the times have changed enough for optimism to dim a little. What was once, in my opinion, a celebration of an empowered moment and sign of progress has become a call for another act of boldness. Rage Against the Machine’s lyrics are often anti-war and anti-authoritative sentiments, which considering the political dynamics in not only Oakland but the entire nation, are not surprisingly poignant. The image on the side of the building, a robot succumbing to a natural entanglement, keeps the hopeful glimpse of progress alive through the statement’s evolution. What seems so mighty can be overthrown. Nature has it’s own usurping power.

Whoever is responsible for this building has something to say. The community is paying attention.

Dueling Murals in downtown Burlington, VT

Visiting my old stomping grounds in Burlington, VT this past week, I came across the new paint job (as of 2011) hiding on the back wall of the Handy’s service center across from the UPS Store on South Winooski Ave.  Unless you’re coming out of the parking garage, you may miss this one completely.

Every time I’m in town, I like to stop by this spot to see what’s going on there.  There isn’t much other graffiti found in the city that has any staying power.  I very much appreciate the new apocalyptic cerebral theme sporting a portrait and quote from Albert Einstein, “to let the people know a new type of thinking is essential…”

With a little bit of research, I discovered an article in the Burlington Free Press in which the artists, Brian Clark and Scottie Raymond, were featured:

Raymond and Clark tapped into a controversial issue last October when they helped create a mural behind Handy’s Texaco facing the Bank Street entrance of the parking garage in Burlington. The mural, inspired by the artists’ opposition to the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant, features a giant green-faced Albert Einstein and incorporates Mother Earth, windmills, and imagery referencing the atomic bomb in Hiroshima.

“The concept behind that piece was about nuclear energy and the power of knowledge,” Clark said of the mural. “It isn’t the knowledge that is dangerous; it is how you use it.”

Einstein’s quote is from his plea while acting as the chairman for the Emergency Committee of Atomic Scientists in 1946 at a time when atomic weapons were becoming the new destructive force on the horizon.  It’s not just a time of military dominance and war anymore that promotes overall world chaos.  We’ve entered an age in which real patriotism is equated to terrorism, real food is scarce and GMOs thrive in its place.  There is a reason society is currently obsessed with apocalyptic themes.

In extreme contrast, not more than 500 feet away, on the other side of the parking garage is a new mural (as of August 2012) commissioned by the Church Street Marketplace depicting 400 years of Vermont history in a realistic trompe-l’oeil style.  This gargantuan, 124-by-16-foot mural, stands as the epitome of traditional patriotism, labelled “Everyone Loves a Parade!” and gleaming with the bright colors and sharp lines of optimism.

I find the trompe-l’oeil style quite suitable for this particular piece considering the general idea is to give a sense of three-dimensionality to an obviously two-dimensional medium.  But what is interesting is just how flat it falls ideologically.   While his technique is undeniably amazing, Pierre Hardy’s over-the-top smiling portrayal of all the major Vermont success stories is very difficult to swallow.  It leaves the viewer no space to contemplate but I believe that’s the point.  It’s supposed to be pretty and attract the eye of tourists and consumers, people who will stop for 30 seconds, take a few photos and feel enriched, walking away to go buy something and think nothing more about it.  Among all the congested beaming smiles spewing off the wall, there isn’t room for critical thinking.  And let us not miss the irony of this piece being produced not by a Vermonter but a Quebec artist.

Compared to Clark and Raymond’s piece around the corner, it becomes quite clear the extreme dichotomy between what we are really facing as the economy fails and general entropy builds and what is socially acceptable and promotable.  The rift between the rich and the poor, those in power and those that are not widens with each seemingly unconscious decision made by even the local governments.  I feel art is not the luxury that it is widely claimed to be but rather an indicator of our current situation, socially, economically, etc.  Take a walk through those back alleys once in awhile to gain some perspective.  The truth is around the corner!