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We Are Oaklandish: Joshua Mays, Transforming Oakland's Visual Landscape

Joshua Mays decided to become an artist before he even finished elementary school, and sold his first commissioned piece in high school. 

For him, being a career artist was a simple decision based on the singular truth that painting and drawing brought him joy. It never felt like work, it was just something that kept him calm, happy, and satisfied. 

Mays has grown into an internationally successful painter, illustrator, and muralist, working very hard, with much searching and testing. Today, he’s happy to be where he is in his life. Four decades after he discovered his artistic passions, he still enjoys drawing and painting so much that he is almost always doing it.

Mays was born in Denver, Colorado, studied illustration at Rocky Mountain College of Art and Design and graphic design at the Community College of Denver. After graduation, he moved to Philadelphia in search of a more vibrant art community. He lived and worked there for eight years and then adopted a more nomadic lifestyle, traveling and exhibiting nationwide. He finally settled in Oakland almost a decade ago.

Mays’ body of work is prolific and expansive. He adheres to an unyielding production schedule that seems almost superhuman. He’s created murals and exhibited his work worldwide. His colossal paintings adorn urban landmarks in Washington DC, Denver, Portland, Philadelphia, Oakland, London, Johannesburg, Mexico City, and Jakarta.  He's also created album covers for well-known recording artists such as Jill Scott and Jnerio Jarle.

His work typically features Black subjects in fantastical settings. His style is primarily influenced by an obsession with human potential, mythology, and storytelling. Mays believes that storytelling is what makes art and humanity worthwhile and that stories help people relate to one another and learn from each others' struggles. 

He says, "When I draw, I feel a creative gravity take control and each piece becomes a wild ride as abstracts become forms, and those forms become characters, relationships, and stories. I like to think of my paintings as psychic windows. I love creating portals for people to fall into a different reality for a moment before dropping back into their bodies, perhaps with their perspectives expanded a bit. I want to communicate a sense of adventure within self-exploration. I want to accentuate the magic of these fragile moments and I also would like to consider the relationships we have with each other and what that means for our collective existence."

Some of Mays’ best-known works are in Oakland, including the Beacon series which consists of murals located at 23rd Avenue and 24th Street, 829 Vermont Street in West Oakland, and at 1700 Broadway. He based the designs for these murals on Maya Angelou’s transformative quote, “If one is lucky, a solitary fantasy can totally transform one million realities.” 

The largest and most well-known one of these pieces, which Mays calls the Beacon Frequency Reader, is at 1700 Broadway. It features a girl with a staff, surrounded by birds, and is one of The Town's largest murals. Mays describes the girl as a "gatekeeper to a fantastical realm,” which is apt as she is often the first and the last image people see as they visit downtown Oakland. 

In February 2019, the Obama Foundation hosted an event in Oakland for its My Brother’s Keeper program. Mays was commissioned to create an installation for the event venue and produced a joyful, optimistic, and beautiful mural of smiling Black boys. He also shared the stage with Barack Obama and spoke to the young people in attendance about his life as an artist.

Mays is fueled by the kind of optimism My Brother’s Keeper exudes. He says, “There’s something super meaningful and futuristic about working with an organization that is inspired by connecting to young people, connecting to people of color, and really broadcasting a message of possibility and potential. I think programs like My Brother’s Keeper are teaching young people that there is greatness to be achieved if you walk down the right path and take the initial steps that greatness always demands.”

More recently, Mays was commissioned by Kaiser Permanente to collaborate on a 1,000 square foot mural highlighting social justice, inclusiveness, and racial equality, now on permanent display in East Oakland's Liberation Park. The mural is one of the dozens of pieces of public art that have cropped up throughout Oakland since May 2020, when George Floyd’s murder shook the country and sparked protests.

Mays is thrilled to be living and working in Oakland. He says, “As an artist, going from place to place is super important. Each place that you go, you get to create a new art project and connect with people who are creators and collectors. That being said, Oakland has left the biggest mark on me and my work because it’s the place that absorbed me and welcomed me the most. The Bay Area really appealed to me because of its relationship to art movements, and the artists who were building careers here looked more like who I wanted to be.”

Mays advice for artists who are just starting out is, “Don’t be afraid to be bold. It's going to take hours and hours to develop your technique and then another 10,000 hours to develop your style. And then that’s just the language and you still gotta start telling your story. Make it fun. Enjoy yourselves. Take in the colors and take in the sounds and be bold and be grateful.”

In addition to shaping the visual landscape of Oakland, Mays is establishing new norms about the monetary value of urban murals, with his conviction that artists deserve to be paid. His goal is to help other artists develop the capacity to make a decent living and continue to grow artistically in the Bay Area.

Oaklandish is thrilled to collaborate with Joshua Mays in producing this original line of limited-edition tees. Mays has this to say about the art in this collection, “It explores the concepts of reality and simulation and investigates our very interesting relationship with technology. Every piece is a launch pad for a another storytelling possibility such as a video game, an animation or a virtual reality."

Shop Now > Joshua Mays x Oaklandish Collection

Joshua Mays X Oaklandish Tee Collection

Joshua Mays X Oaklandish Tee Collection

Joshua Mays X Oaklandish Tee Collection

Joshua Mays X Oaklandish Tees CollectionJoshua Mays X Oaklandish Tees Collection

Joshua Mays X Oaklandish Tees Collection

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Oakland is diverse and Oakland is proud. 'We Are Oaklandish' is a storytelling project created to highlight just that.

These are stories that shed light on the different experiences, memories, and opinions of the people in the city we all love. They are people who give our city its oddball spirit, its passion for justice, and its creative vigor. They lift us up with laughter, peace, nourishment, and authentic hard work.

They make us proud to call this town our home. They are Oaklandish.

Read more: We Are Oaklandish


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