In the dead of night on February 12 in Oakland, California, an enormous black mass plummets from the sky and lands in a crumpled heap on the sidewalk below. Lofted up on a billboard frame high above the city, graffiti artist PEMEX wastes no time watching it fall. Ski mask in place to protect his identity, he pockets his razor blade and climbs down the frame after it with practiced ease.
As one of the San Francisco Bay Area’s preeminent graffiti writers, Pemex has plenty of experience making his mark on hard-to-reach places – he’s been at it for over ten years.
He stuffs the billboard vinyl into the trunk of a rented minivan, slams the trunk closed, and hops in.
Over five hours, Pemex and a six-person crew cut down three weather-resistant, tarp-like billboards, with average dimensions of fourteen by 48 feet, adding to the seven others they’d already recently hoarded. A Chase Bank home mortgage ad and a Budweiser billboard reading, “You just struck cold,” are among those now in Pemex’s possession.
The vandalism spree may seem senseless to bystanders – if there were any around at this hour. But to Pemex, who will soon repurpose the billboards into a series of tents for some of the local homeless population, this is a mission with a noble purpose.
At its core, the project he calls “A House in Oakland” is something out of The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood – steal from the rich, give to the poor. The big business billboards targeted by the crew have been selected intentionally for their ability to speak subversively to the Bay Area’s homeless crisis.
There are an estimated 2,100 homeless people in Oakland alone, according to a January 2017 count conducted by Alameda County. The city has only 350 shelter beds and they’re full nearly every night. A 2015 report issued by the real estate website Trulia states that between January 2014 and January 2015, rents in Oakland were the second fastest-rising in the U.S., up 12.1 percent.
“I’m not a politician,” says Pemex, who, because of the illicit nature of some of his work, asked to be identified only by his pseudonym. “I’m not a city council official member that knows the statistics and the numbers of what works and what doesn’t, but I know what I see, and I know what I feel [and] I know that people getting kicked out of their homes to get other people who have more money to move in is wrong.”
Pemex has been homeless himself. As a child growing up in South Central Los Angeles, he says he endured routine physical abuse at the hands of his stepfather and stepfather’s brother, who moved in with the family after being released from prison. The men were crack dealers and they enlisted Pemex as their drug mule. “I would carry the crack money and the crack when we would drive to the crack houses because when we would get pulled over I wouldn’t get searched because I was a minor,” Pemex says.
His stepfather would also frequently take Pemex to gambling rings where his stepfather bet on rooster fights and dice games. “On school nights he couldn’t take me out that late though – my mom would give him shit about me going to school the next day so he had to have me back by eleven or something. But on weekends we’d be up ’til fucking four in the morning,” he says.
Following a family altercation, at age eleven, Pemex ran away from home, spending the night hidden in a neighbor’s backyard. A family friend discovered him wandering the neighborhood and brought him home.
As Pemex entered his teens, he began to rebel more and tensions grew within his family. On the night of his seventeenth birthday, he invited friends over to celebrate in his family’s garage. When his stepfather came home, he threw the partygoers out.
“My mom came out and was like, ‘Dude, can’t you just let him be for like one fucking day?’” Pemex recalls. “‘It’s his birthday, who fucking cares?’” He says his stepfather began beating his mother. Pemex drew a knife and his step-uncle charged him, accusing Pemex of inciting the altercation.
“I just started stabbing him,” Pemex says. “He jumped on top of me and started hitting me and I started swinging and I didn’t stop until they pulled him off of me.”
Pemex fled. Unable to return home, he crashed with friends and eventually left L.A. for good to follow a punk band touring the West Coast. He soon settled in the Bay Area.
* * *
In his billboard tent-building efforts, Pemex has partnered with NEKO, another graffiti writer specializing in billboard alteration, and Sugarbombing, a graffiti documentarian and anarchist, both based in Oakland and originally from Spain. The triumvirate are friends and collaborators, brought together by their anti-establishment sentiments, penchant for breaking the rules, and love of graffiti.
At an anti-police brutality riot in Athens, Greece, Pemex, Neko, and Sugarbombing shared their idea for “A House in Oakland” with a few members of Indecline, a West Coast-based activist collective with ties to the graffiti scene. (Indecline gained national media attention for “The Emperor Has No Balls,” their statues of a naked and emasculated Donald Trump that popped up in five major U.S. cities last summer.) Indecline agreed to partner with Pemex and friends, offering to promote and produce a video about the project. “The literal stealing from these rich corporations and giving to the less fortunate, that was all we needed to hear to be on board,” a member of the collective says. (He, like the other Indecline members, requested to maintain anonymity.)
Indecline has worked on projects involving the homeless community before, though in the eyes of many, not to the benefit of that community. In 2002, when Indecline’s founding members were in their late teens, they released the highly controversial DVD series “Bumfights,” which featured homeless people quarreling and performing injurious stunts in exchange for money or alcohol. The creators were widely criticized for profiting off the exploitation of people with addictions and mental disabilities.
Today, Indecline’s representative says their involvement in “A House in Oakland” is “ironic, of course, but it’s really nice to be able to look back on everything and be able to say, after all this time and all this controversy, here’s something.”
Disturbed by the extent of the homeless crisis throughout the Bay Area, Pemex says, “It’s literally getting to the point where we’re pushing these people under the bridge [and] away from what we see everyday.” As he sees it, Oakland’s more privileged residents have begun to establish their “own communities independent from these people, when in reality we’re all the same. The only difference is that they were dealt a lot more fucked-up cards than us.”
Neko agrees. “The first time I was in the Bay,” he says, “I was tripping with the amount of homeless people in the streets. Pemex and Sugarbombing are always politically debating about what’s right and what should be done about it.” He mentions their “funny war” with Oakland’s “Fast Agent.”
Sugarbombing jumps in: “I’m pretty sure you have seen the benches with the ads.”
Though Kenny “Fast Agent” Truong has lived in Oakland since age three, he has become the face of gentrification to many of those involved in Oakland’s graffiti scene. As Director of Inside Sales at Climb Real Estate Group, Truong sells homes throughout the city. On his Instagram account, he claims that he is “#1 in number of homes sold in Oakland.” Truong also regularly posts photos of his white Corvette stingray with the license plate “FST8GNT.”
Truong’s bench advertisements, which simply read “#FASTAGENT,” are everywhere. Graffiti writers who believe that Truong is ushering in the wave of Oakland gentrifiers routinely deface his signage, overwriting his hashtag with phallic illustrations and statements like, “GENTRIFICATION IS ETHNOCIDE” and “Fuck you, Kenny!” They then post photos of their handiwork on social media.
Truong engages with his critics online by commenting on and reposting their photos of his vandalized advertisements. “You can’t buy that type of social marketing,” he told the East Bay Times in May 2016.
Pemex hadn’t heard of Truong until last year when the “Fast Agent” came up in conversation over dinner with a group of friends. Sitting at a table in a Chinese restaurant, Pemex and his comrades were discussing plans to overtake the realtor’s hashtag and protest his business dealings on social media. Unbeknownst to them, Truong was dining nearby, listening to the chat. When Pemex asked for the bill, he and his friends were told that “Fast Agent” had already paid for their meal.
“It was a kill them with kindness thing,” Truong told me last week. “I knew that it would agitate them.”
Pemex demanded that the waiter reverse the transaction. “We’re not for sale,” he says. “We’re not gonna let this dude buy us dinner and have that over us, and have him say, ‘Yeah those guys were talking shit, but they took my money.’ That’s where his power lies – in that ability to say ‘cash is king.’ Well, not here, not in Oakland, not with me.”
Pemex came up with an idea: steal the #FASTAGENT signs he believes are propagating gentrification and repurpose them as makeshift homes for those being displaced. With this idea, the first iteration of “A House in Oakland” was born.
He collected a number of bench signs, but quickly realized that the plan was unrealistic – the boards are too unwieldy. The project is momentarily stalled, until Pemex made a discovery while spray-painting graffiti on a billboard. He realized that the billboards were made of vinyl tarp – lightweight and durable, the perfect alternative home-building material. He discussed this realization with Sugarbombing and Neko and the three began experimenting with different prototypes until settling on a final design. By the time Indecline joined in, “A House in Oakland” had evolved into a fully-fledged, coordinated project with a clear mission.
* * *
Indecline, Pemex, Neko and Sugarbombing decided to distribute the colorful, makeshift vinyl tents on Valentine’s Day. The squadron, along with additional volunteers, gather at Pemex’s studio the morning of February 14. The weather is sunny and mild. One of the helpers brings a box full of bouquets, branded with Indecline stickers, donated by the flower shop where she is employed.
Everyone puts on their Indecline-branded ski masks so that they can be filmed anonymously. The team is cheerful and at ease as they load the first two tents into a U-Haul and drive to the homeless encampment “Northgate,” named after the avenue it sits on, which begins as an exit ramp descending from the elevated I-980 freeway, and curves underneath it. Along this curve, nestled between supporting concrete pillars, exists a settlement of roughly thirty battered tents, some of which are shared.
Trains of the Bay Area Rapid Transit system, or BART, make deafening noises as they grind the tracks above. Cars and large freight trucks drive by, whipping up wind. While some drivers are cautious, many cars speed past, zipping around the curve. On November 21, 2015, a homeless man and woman were killed by a speeding driver who failed to negotiate the turn and jumped off the road. Residents say there have been several incidences of cars speeding down the exit ramp and barreling into the tents. A painted sign facing oncoming traffic reads, “Homeless Lives Matter Too!!”
The Northgate residents have been told to expect the tents today. The crew walks among the residents, handing out bouquets.
The first tents are unloaded and distributed. A woman who asks to be identified only as “Susan” is one of the first recipients. Pemex and Neko place her new tent down on the sidewalk and go to get the next tent from the truck. She stares at it and seems confused. “Is this a joke?” she exclaims, sizing up the tent. The unusual-looking billboard vinyl tent clearly isn’t what she was expecting.
More trips are made between the studio and Northgate until ten tents are distributed, along with extra tarps for additional rain protection. At first, some residents seem indifferent, but as the day wears on a few people start to settle in.
Gesturing towards the older tents, one Northgate resident says that the new tents mean his neighbors can “take some of this stuff down.” He thankfully adds: “Keep it proper; the city won’t mess with us.”
Another resident, a woman, sees some of the documentary crew photographing a white teddy bear holding a red stuffed heart that’s lying on the ground. She picks it up and places it on a fabric-covered pedestal, disappears for a moment and then returns with two more stuffed animals which she positions on either side of it. She adds the bouquet of flowers she was given as a finishing touch. “A Valentine’s display,” she explains.
By the time all ten tents have been handed out, the scene is calm. Long bands of sunlight fall through the spaces between the freeway lanes overhead and slowly sweep over the Northgate community as the morning chugs on. Sounds of a tinny radio, pigeon wings flapping, and quiet conversations can be heard. A resident named Kenny transfers his belongings from the sidewalk to his new tent. A few men gather around a fire burning in a small Weber grill.
Pemex, Neko, Sugarbombing, and the Indecline crew begin to pack up their things and head back to Pemex’s studio. Later, they return to share the finished fundraising video co-starring the Northgate community, bound for the project’s website where they are taking donations for their ongoing support of the homeless. So far, they have raised over $2,000.
A few Northgate residents are embarrassed to see themselves on video; one even walks away from the viewing at first, but when the crew encourages him to watch the video in its entirety his perspective changes. “By the time he saw what we actually did he was flipping out, it was rad. They were very pumped up,” says one Indecline member. “I think they even kind of understood the Robin Hood thing and liked that a lot.”
The Northgate encampment stands in the shadow of a Chase Bank billboard advertisement. On it, a real estate agent is handing a smiling couple a new set of keys. The sign reads, “Helping put home ownership within reach in Oakland.” Pemex has left this billboard untouched.