The next time you’re driving I-580 West towards Emeryville and SF, keep your eyes on the road, but try to catch a glimpse of a new neon sign recently installed on the rooftop opposite the California Hotel.
Spanning 40-feet wide and standing roughly four feet tall, the yellow neon Black Lives Matter sign is mounted atop the ‘City Line’ building on 36th & San Pablo Avenue where the Emeryville border abuts West Oakland. The LED-illuminated “Neon Voices” installation contains thousands of LEDs and can be seen as far as a quarter mile away. It is expected to cast its glow at this spot for at least a month.
Oakland Artist Mauricio Bustos Leads ‘Neon Voices’
Neon Voices was designed by a group of Bay Area artists and creators as a response and contribution to the Black Lives Matter movement, which confronts police brutality and violence on Black communities in America. The temporary installation will eventually travel to different parts of the East Bay.
Leading the Neon Voices project is Oakland-based artist Mauricio Bustos, a mechanical engineer by trade and a Burning Man artist by tradition. For many years, Bustos brought his interactive “seaGrass,” installation to Burning Man. An Oakland resident for the past 25 years, Bustos has since participated in creating municipal art in Richmond and renegade art in North Oakland.
As the Black Lives Matter movement gained momentum in Oakland in late May, Bustos marched in protests with his family and donated to Black-owned businesses. He wanted to do more, though.
“I was trying to figure out how to contribute to the movement in a way that I’m best suited,” said Bustos. “I wanted to get the message out to as many people as I could.”
In mid-June, Bustos and his crew of six Burning Man artists — who have careers ranging from finance, law, engineering, technology and construction — put their heads together to create an appropriate piece for the movement. The collective, who call themselves “Crisis Labs,” has made Emeryville their home for almost a year now, subletting space shared with cabinet-maker Oakology on Halleck Street.
Being ‘burners’ (a slang term for Burning Man attendees) who believe in cultivating their passion, they self-funded the project, pitching in a total of roughly $3,000 for materials.
They knew the installation was going to be a sign of some sort. What they didn’t anticipate was how challenging it would be to find a home for it. Bustos inquired with several property owners around Downtown Oakland, Jack London Square and even Rockridge, but came up empty.
“We’ve had a lot of building owners say ‘no’ to us and it’s been an interesting discussion within the group to figure out why,” said Bustos. “I think there’s a lot of fear out there about making a political statement as a building owner.”
Frustrated but undeterred, a chance encounter with a local Emeryville politician who lives nearby would be the stroke of luck they needed. While doing a final system testing outside of their makerspace, Emeryville City Councilmember John Bauters noticed the team at work and struck up a conversation with them. After learning of their efforts to find a home for the installation, he offered to use his network to help.
“I just took this up as a neighbor,” said Bauters. “I met them and hung out with them while they tested and they asked me if I knew any building owners who would hang [the sign], so I offered to call around. I called four places and then Rising Sun noticed my post on Twitter.”
Julia Hatton, CEO of nonprofit Rising Sun, said it was a no brainer after her colleague Zach Franklin, a board member at Rising Sun, told her about Bauters’ tweet. Hatton responded the day after, and on July 9, the show was on the road.
“We’ve been looking for ways to communicate our solidarity with the movement,” said Hatton. “We wanted to play a bigger role and it sounded like it was hard for them to find a business that was willing to put up the sign, which is disappointing and highlights the whole reason we need to be talking about this.”
We’re excited to share that “Neon Voices,” this large-scale, modular display by Bay Area artists Abi Mustapha and Mauricio Bustos, has found a new home. If you’re driving through Oakland on the I-580, keep your eyes peeled! Installation coming soon. #NeonVoicesBLM pic.twitter.com/yaNpeTeuoP
— Rising Sun Center for Opportunity (@RisingSunOpp) July 24, 2020
Bustos’ son, Elan Bustos, a rising junior at MetWest High School, put his talents in electronics, welding and fabrication to work for his father’s project. While Elan has worked with his father on past projects, this was his first time being involved with one pushing for human rights. He took on a critical role from the get-go: designing the letters on his computer (he used the same Cornerstone font used by Black Lives Matter logo designer Zac Freeland).
The Neon Voices installation is a combination of billboard-scale letters and graphics. Each 30-inch letter is CNC cut and treated to weather the elements. The LEDs are controlled wirelessly through a Raspberry Pi computer, which can be programmed to produce patterned graphics and animations.
16-year-old Bustos, who is interested in social justice and politics, said the coolest part about the project was when he noticed the reactions of community members across the street at the local food bank, ECAP watching the sign being hoisted up the side of the building.
“When they were lifting the letters up the building, people across the street at the food bank were cheering,” said Bustos. “It was really cool seeing that we’re actually sending a message to people.”
The Repercussions of Renegade Art: How Long Can The Sign Stay Up?
Since the early 1960s, artists have raised their political thoughts and opinions in Emeryville for the world to see. ‘Artivists’, or activists who use art to share their political messages, have enacted renegade sculptures in the Emeryville mudflats made of driftwood, metal and materials left behind. From the mudflats and now to the rooftops, they were signs of the times: the Vietnam War, the free speech movement and the civil rights movement (including disarming the police).
Burning Man pioneer Kevin Evans once drew a connection between the annual event held on the playa of Black Rock City, Nevada and Emeryville’s legendary art garden. “The Black Rock’s this sea of nothingness,” Evans noted in a interview about the events history. “Setting art on the desert reminded me of these sculptures in the mudflats of Emeryville that I admired as a kid.”
2020 Emeryville mayor Christian Patz supports the group’s statement and appreciates the project’s place in the movement, but expressed concerns around permitting requirements and relevant city ordinances. It’s one thing to have permission from the building owner, but another to be so close to the highway, which is Caltrans property.
“If it is unpermitted or violates city ordinances, the city should follow up and help it come into compliance with city ordinances,” said Patz. ”If it has to come down, I would support other options to express the same ideals.”
Article 16 (Signs) of the Emeryville Municipal Code intends to “ensure that the constitutionally guaranteed right of free speech is protected” but also intends to “restrict signs that create hazards or unreasonable distractions for pedestrians or drivers.” It’s unclear whether the sign poses a distraction to drivers, but what’s clear is that it’s facing a long-standing and well-known sign: the California Hotel.
Bustos said if there was a government agency that would remove the sign, it would be Caltrans.
“This sign speaks to the important intersectionality between Emeryville’s artistic history and our community’s commitment to racial justice,” said Bauters, who was present for the installation and tweeted about his gratitude to Rising Sun. “The creative artists behind this piece and the folks at Rising Sun are stakeholders who represent that. I’m proud of our community and it’s shared values with Black Lives Matter.”
Given the visibility of the sign, Patz is unsure of a similar option if the artists are forced to remove the sign. He acknowledged the roles Emeryville and the broader community must play in the movement.
“Emeryville — really everyone — needs to take an active and visible role in the BLM Movement,” said Patz. “Given that we are a part of the East Bay and the nation as a whole, we are part of the problem and can play a larger role in solutions than our size would suggest. We can best support the movement by holding ourselves accountable and acting on a larger scale to promote equity.”
Neon Voices crew member Marvin Lew, a criminal defense attorney, was involved in the planning and decision process and rooftop installation. He’s been keeping a close eye on the legalities that come with projects of this scale.
“Ultimately, this is a First Amendment issue from my perspective,” said Lew. “We’ll see how that comports with all the various regulations that exist. Some of those issues remain outstanding so we’ll see how they play out.”
Formerly a public defender in Alameda County for 12 years, Lew shared his thoughts about the injustices rampant in the legal system and society.
“The problem is everyone else who isn’t Black who is benefiting from the structural racism and who has contributed to the structural racism that results in discrimination and inequitable treatment against Black people,” said Lew. “It’s not the responsibility of Black people to obliterate racism and correct the errors that the system has made. It’s the responsibility of everybody else.”
Patz pointed to the City looking at its police practices and said the Black Lives Matter Movement will inform the City’s search for a new police chief. At the same time, he said there is need to continue the City’s work on housing, income equality and other social issues that impact Emeryville’s communities of color disproportionally.
After Neon Voices is taken down to broadcast its message elsewhere, Bustos said another sign could take its place on top of the City Lines building. Meanwhile, a graphic designed by local Oakland artist, Abi Mustapha, is poised to accompany the sign in the next couple weeks.
“We’ve got the space and are just excited to give it a home for as long as we can,” said Julia Hatton, CEO of Rising Sun. “I think it’s probably going to be up for about a month, otherwise we’d keep it forever.”
The Neon Voices project is open-sourced and allows other artists to create their own large scale anti-racist LED-neon messages. The group has shared the building plans, bill of materials, programs and instructions for building the art.
If you are interested in displaying the Black Lives Matter sign on your property, please email Mauricio Bustos.