His iconic trash cans in Oakland are urban examples of artistic activism. By making these mundane objects extraordinary with his unique representations of wildlife, he supports neighborhood and community transformation.
If you frequently walk around central Oakland you might have noticed the increasing number of mosaic tiled trash receptacles placed on corners. Many of those boxes have a similar style. This grass roots block-by-block can by can beautification project is by and large the result of several independent artists and various members of the Oakland community. We meet with one artist Juan Lopez of New World Mosaics at his studio to learn about him and the boxes.
Juan Lopez is of Cuban heritage from Miami. He spent most of his adult life in Santa Fe, New Mexico as a tile and stone independent contractor installing stone, glass and ceramic tiles in high-end residential construction. He honed his skills tiling bathrooms, kitchens and floors. After 25 years he was ready for a change and moved to the SF Bay Area five years ago at the suggestion of his son who had already taken up residence. He did not know what his next step was when he arrived but life takes different twists and turns and he found his new career by happenstance shortly after his arrival.
One day while exploring Lake Merritt he came upon a group of people grouting and tiling several city trash cans with simple mosaic patterns. Given his background, he stayed to help them and discovered they were with the Adams Point Neighborhood Group. He enjoyed the experience and signed on to volunteer on several more boxes that lead him to designing and completing one on his own. That one he had complete creative control pondering the design and how to visually cover three sides that can only be viewed 2 panels at a time. The boxes are after all utilitarian so the fourth side has a metal service door. The result was a Van Gogh inspired Starry Night box located on Harrison at Grand. He did another one by that is Hokusai inspired.
Lopez discovered a creative outlet where he could bring his years of experience to small pieces of art that could subtly impact both the itinerate person passing through the neighborhood and the local residents.
Unknown to him the Temescal Business Improvement District was interested in tiling their boxes and had noticed the Adams Point boxes and specifically the Starry Night box. They reached out to the Adams Point group and contacted Lopez out of the blue inquiring if he would be interested in tiling their boxes. Although their budget was limited they managed to cover over 40 boxes between 38th St to 66th Street. They did not have a pre-conceived theme in mind but ended up with several unifying concepts. They kept the design simple with star shapes on the side panels and a focal design in the middle panel. That panel varies from International themes to ones relating the box placed by business who sponsored them.
These opportunities lead to others. Kono District contacted him to do a few boxes with rainbow themes.
Old Town lead by resident Tiffany Eng took note and did crowd sourced funding (Old Oakland Mosaics) for 30 boxes that have a nature theme. The Audubon Society also donated money. All these boxes depict birds and visually have a wrap around theme with the main concept still in the center panel.
Neighboring Chinatown also sought him out for several boxes that were to be kid friendly with a teaching component. For them he designed a lion dancing box, a dragon boat and rabbit and moon box.
While the City of Oakland has not supplied funds for these projects they have been helpful in the placement of the boxes and having them face in the proper directions for optimal viewing.
Through out this time Lopez developed a process for creating the mosaics that take several days to create in his studio with several hours to install. He finds images on the Internet then blows them up to the size of the boxes that are approximately the same size and shape. He breaks the images down to line art and lays them on his workbench below plastic and fiberglass mesh. He breaks commonly available ceramic tile and larger floor tile into several pieces and adheres them to the mesh. The mesh and grouting supplies are brought to the site where he preps the box and attaches the mosaic.
Creating the mosaics has been very rewarding to Juan Lopez. He has been able to adapt his technical skills to a creative process that has a very positive impact on public space. Where in the past only the owners critically reviewed the craftsmanship of his work, now pedestrians express their joy of watching him install the art and how the boxes cheer up the neighborhood.
Mosaic Trash Boxes
Enhances an cement object on the street that is an eyesore and attracts graffiti “as is”
Create a sense of place and space
Attracts peoples attention to the box, thereby increasing usage
Bring art to parts of the city in a small-unexpected way
We asked Juan what next? Through the trash boxes the Oakland Schools approached him to create large-scale murals in four elementary schools: Lincoln, Melrose Leadership Academy, Montclair and La Escuelita. For each school he created a mural to appeal to anyone yet speak to the cultural composition of the student body. Montclair Elementary in Montclair features otters which is the school mascot, Lincoln School in Chinatown has panda bears, La Escuelita in Merritt has a tropical setting with exotic birds and Melrose in East Oakland has butterflies. All of the murals are nature based and meticulously executed.
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