Graffiti Hunting with Unseen Oakland

In March 2017, Blurb and PicsArt hosted a contest that encouraged contestants to enter by posting a photo sharing their Creative Spring Project. Thousands entered, but only three winners were chosen. Our 1st prize winner is Tyra Robertson of Unseen Oakland.

Most people relate the word graffiti with negative connotations, such as gangs, violence, or other unsavory scenes. But take one look at the Unseen Oakland Instagram account, and you’ll quickly realize that graffiti is not as scary as mainstream media makes it seem. It’s really an artistic expression that requires much talent, patience, and creativity.

As a San Francisco Bay Area native, I was so excited to meet the photographer behind Unseen Oakland, the Oakland street art Instagram account that won our spring contest. Unseen Oakland is the passion project of Tyra Robertson, a Texas native who has called Oakland home for nearly 3 years and often spends her evenings photographing the city’s street art. We sat down to discuss her photography project and after the interview, Tyra showed me around downtown’s graffiti scene.

Tell us a little about yourself.

I identify as a designer, photographer, and technologist. Those are my three main areas. I do IT full-time and I do my creative stuff on the side. It started out opposite earlier in my career, but I eventually decided that I didn’t want my paycheck and creative desires to be the same space.

Portrait of Tyra Robertson

Is photography more of a passion project or skill you picked up?

Originally, I got into photography because I had to! I had gotten a new job managing a University’s multi-media labs. I already knew graphic design and web design well, but didn’t know photo or video at all. So, I took a three-month course to get up to speed. I started with a black and white film summer class and that’s when I fell in love with photography.

Ultimately, photography is how I discovered graffiti, which is street art, stickering, etc. I use graffiti as an umbrella term. I did my final school project on graffiti art in Bloomington, Indiana (of all places!). It’s a small town so I didn’t think my professor would go for it. But they loved when students got off campus and explored the world around them, so he was okay with it. Though I’ve always loved graffiti and felt that it really spoke to me, I didn’t really dive in deep until I moved to Oakland over two years ago.

Unseen Oakland 1

Tell us more about the Unseen Oakland photography project.

The way I shoot photography is very documentary style. I’m capturing the world as I see it. Sometimes I want to show the surrounding of what’s around it, sometimes I want to zoom in on a tiny sticker.

The name Unseen Oakland was inspired by a friend who didn’t view graffiti the same way I did. I took her out shooting with me one day and she admitted that most street art doesn’t even register in people’s eyes as they walk down the street. It was a different side of art than she expected. So, I’m challenging that idea of what art is. It’s a nod to how people in general outside of the graffiti community view it. What really draws me to capturing the world of graffiti is that it’s so temporary. Probably half the things in this first volume don’t exist anymore.

Because they are painted over?

Exactly. One of the groups I follow on Instagram is called Endless Canvas, because when you really think about it, that’s what it is! Someone is inevitably going to paint over it. So that’s another reason why I’m drawn to it, because I want to be a person who captures the history of it.

One of the many things I love about Oakland is how much street art and graffiti there is all over. It’s in a very different way that other places, like San Francisco or San Jose. The city of Oakland is truly embracing street art. For instance, Dragon School 99 is a nonprofit that started as a program to paint 99 dragons on murals around Oakland’s Chinatown to encourage people to come visit. They work with youth in the community where all the dragons have the same head (a stencil) done by more mature artists, then the younger people fill in the body and the tail to finish it up. I love seeing stuff like that. Business owners in Chinatown have been so open to it! I really hope this is something that doesn’t change as Oakland grows.

Other than the street art, what’s your favorite part of Oakland?

I love Lake Merritt. It’s such a gem. I love the way it’s the equivalent of New York’s Central Park or Sam Francisco’s Dolores Park. It’s such a diverse hub of people.

Unseen Oakland 2

Back to the contest, how did you find out about it?

It was a Blurb email blast actually! I actually read those, ha!

So you were already part of the Blurb community?

Sort of. I knew of Blurb from working at Roosevelt University in Chicago. The communications department I managed had a couple photo classes that used Blurb books as part of our workflow. That’s what’s so great about Blurb, you really give the students a finished product. I think photo books are almost like the new dark room. You have this tangible thing you can keep.

But this was the first book you made yourself, right?

Yes, this was my first book. I used the Adobe InDesign plugin. As a graphic designer, I went with that since I already knew the program pretty well. I just love how straightforward it is, and that it was easy to get started.

Unseen Oakland 3

What do you hope to accomplish with your book?

Once I’m finished color correcting, I want to try out the Blurb Bookstore to set the book up for sale. After that, I want to start to approach local Oakland-centric stores (like Oaklandish) about selling it in their stores. Then I want to use this as momentum to put together an art exhibition. Not just as a way to showcase what’s in Volume 1, but I have plenty of photos ready for Volume 2. I want to team up with local street artists and allow them to show off their art and sell their stuff as well.

With my prize money, I already bought a photo printer to use and showcase the DIY aspect of street art.  And with my Blurb credit specifically, I want to buy as many books as possible and give back to the graffiti artists that I’m inspired by. Or maybe do a print for them, something like that. Overall, I’m so stoked that I won. I honestly didn’t think I was going to win. Graffiti and street art resonates with everyone so differently—I was worried the imagery would be too strong. But it’s art to me! I’m really excited for the next steps.


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