Oakland nonprofit beautifies Chinatown with golden dragons

Kali Persall,
Managing Editor

In Oakland’s Chinatown, 99 large golden spray-painted dragons adorn the sides of buildings throughout the 16-block neighborhood. The buildings serve as a gallery of sorts; one piece of art leads visitors to others nearby within the line of sight.

The dragons were created by graffiti artist and UC Berkeley graduate Luqman Lin. They have become an iconic representation of Dragon School, an Oakland nonprofit organization that pairs local youth with professional artists to create murals around Chinatown.

Dragon School is the brainchild of Lin — also known as “Doctor Dragon” —Anderson Gin and Sage Loring, who established the organization in 2015 as a way to make Oakland’s Chinatown, a notorious area for graffiti and vandalism, a more appealing place for both locals and tourists, according to Loring. The duo also envisioned the program as a way to connect Chinatown youth with local artists to teach them basic techniques of mural art.

In 2015, Loring saw potential in Oakland’s Chinatown, which was settled in the 1850’s and is one of the oldest Chinatowns in the United States, according to the Visit Oakland website. Despite its central location in the city, Loring said he noticed that the area was lacking resident and tourist visitors.

Loring connected with Lin, a friend from medical school, who is Chinese-American and had created art for various business owners in the Chinatown community. Lin had collaborated with prolific Bay Area graffiti writers such as Eugor, 3ayem, Crayone and STARE TDK.

Loring started a social media page and Lin stenciled dragons on dilapidated buildings around Chinatown. They were painted gold later on with the help of local youth. The goal to paint 99 dragons was met last spring, according to Loring. Lin said among other reasons, he chose to start with the dragons because they were a symbol he felt the community could relate to. “For the children in the community, the dragon is a symbol of pride and loyalty and all these good qualities; a symbol of honor,” said Lin.

Lin said the stencils teach kids the basic skills of spray painting, such as filling in, outlining and shading. Loring said that from a marketing perspective, the dragons were also a way to attract youth and bring attention to the organization. At first, some of the dragon murals were tagged by other graffiti artists, but over time, Lin said the organization was able to establish respect within the graffiti community through guest artist connections.

“I recruited kids and adults into Dragon School, so we were strong in numbers,” said Lin. “We just kept repainting the dragons they destroyed until they stopped.”

Lin was introduced to graffiti art as a teenager, growing up in Berkeley. “I vandalized my school a lot when I was in high school,” he admitted. “Spray painting really took off in high school. It’s always been part of my life.” Lin said he wants youth to focus on school and academics and treat Dragon School as an artistic outlet.

Dragon School partners with middle and high schoolers, as well as neighborhood youth who attend charter schools in Chinatown. Loring said they prefer to instruct high schoolers and kids no younger than 12; however, adults of any age can also partake.

“Artists will have an area to paint and work with kids and give them outlet. It teaches the community about street art and graffiti and how it’s not all black and white,” said Loring.

Dragon School is made up of a core group of seven people; three are board members and the others are local artists. The organization started off as a grassroots campaign, or “100 percent guerilla,” according to Loring. For a year and a half, Dragon School founders spent approximately $500 of their own money to buy supplies and lunch for the participants. Initially, artists weren’t paid, but Loring said potential grants from Clorox, Oaklandish and a commissioned project for Visit Oakland will help pay for the guest artist’s time.

Dragon School has raised $1,500 in donations through GoFundMe, a fundraising website, and local businesses whose buildings the group has painted murals on, according to Loring. This money covered the $800 nonprofit filing fee, as well as lunches and painting supplies. Dragon School received its nonprofit status four months ago, according to Loring. The organization is funded only through contributions and donations.

Loring, the owner of Fuming Guerilla Productions, a company that produces public and private commissioned art installations, moved to Oakland from Los Angeles in 2012. He manages the business and marketing aspect of Dragon School by connecting with local artists and schools through social media and community events. He also helps artists learn how to budget, bid, create proposals and market their work. Artists involved with Dragon School were chosen based on a number of criteria, but “genuine interest in community involvement was tantamount,” according to Loring.

“I really always had artist friends,” said Loring. “I’m kinda this weird hybrid dude who’s right in the middle of the left brain and right brain. I’ve always had an appreciation for art.”

Fuming Guerilla Productions produces art for a variety of businesses, such as the Oakland Museum Women’s Board and Oakland’s Cat Town Cafe, and cities like Anchorage, Alaska.

Dragon School organizes two-hour painting sessions once or twice a month with small groups of kids from local schools. Teachers and parents often reach out to the organization via Facebook or Instagram to set up dates and times, according to Loring. Then Dragon School purchases any supplies, including brush paints, spray paint masks and lunches.

The team of artists pick the theme they want to paint and a location on a wall that’s approved by a business. The artists outline the design, such as dragons or koi fish, and place the colors out for easy access. Artists then assign participants a spot to paint, offering guidance and tips throughout the process. Loring said it ideally takes a full day to complete a piece on a 10-by-6 wall.

Dragon School isn’t limited to painting dragons anymore. The group can create anything; however, out of respect to the community, they always try to incorporate a Chinese theme, according to Loring.

In celebration of the Chinese New Year, and in commemoration of this year’s zodiac animal sign, Dragon School will paint a giant, modernized rooster that embodies “traditional Chinese culture with a modern twist on it,” according to Loring, one of the founders of Dragon School. The Lunar New Year spans from Jan. 28 to Feb. 15, 2018.

They haven’t yet agreed on a date and time for the rooster, but the group has selected two potential areas on a 12-by-6 wall that offers “high visibility,” according to Loring.

“We want to honor Chinatown so we make everything have a Chinese flavor, accent or motif, but we have a lot of different cultures and a lot of different styles of art,” said Loring. “It’s very ‘Oakland,’ one of most diverse cities in country.”