Artist Joshua Mays Tells Stories in Murals

An East Oakland artist lays the groundwork for myths and the future with murals as his canvases for storytelling throughout the city.


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Joshua Mays brings a diverse perspective to his murals, which he views as an ode to Oakland, the city he calls home. He has completed two of three murals in a series he has labeled BEACON.

Photos by Stephen Texeira

Joshua Mays creates his own myths with his futuristic murals and illustrations that offer windows into the realm of human possibilities.

In one painting, viewers encounter a strong woman staring off pointedly into the distance with a flock of birds, a sea of stars, or a school of motorbikes in the background. The canvas draws upon aspects of Hindu, Buddhist, or Judaic iconography. Snakes wrap through her hair, suns lie at her fingertips, and constellations illuminate the background.

Mays said he is called an Afrofuturist, an aesthetic movement that combines magical realism, Afrocentricity, and science fiction, because he is black, and the future is central to his work. When asked if he considered himself part of Afrofuturism, he says, “I like the future, and I think if you are seeing separate futures for black people and white people and various points of view, then you are in denial of what the present looks like. So, when people call me an Afrofuturist, I don’t debate against them; I don’t disagree, but I certainly don’t mark myself as an Afrofuturist. Like I said, I like diversity. I like seeing faces that I recognize and feel like the real world in my work. So that’s what I utilize.”

Diversity plays a prominent feature in Mays’ work and is an accurate reflection of the different people one comes across in Oakland and in the world, as opposed to a whitewashed one. His muses are as infinite as the universe.

His latest murals, called the BEACON series, are a three-part installation and are inspired by a Maya Angelou quote: “If one is lucky, a solitary fantasy can totally transform one million realities.”

Each of Mays’ murals or illustrations are a part of a series that tell a bigger story, expanding like the cosmos, and Mays isn’t interested in prescriptions or telling the viewer what that story is. Instead, he allows his audience to interpret and connect to his pieces on their own terms.

Mays’ art does not draw so much from what has been, but rather it is inspired by what could be. “I think with spirituality for me, and with even religion, to me it’s storytelling. I mean it’s what the human mind does to create context with itself and the universe around it.”

Elaborating on the connection between the intersection of futurism and spirituality in his work, he says, “Thinking about the future and thinking about scientific progression and thinking about the cool things of humanity creates the scaffolding for its soul potential. I really enjoy that. I enjoy falling into those thoughts.”

Mays says he wanted to “connect with Oakland and create something that’s an ode to the place that I live in, and an interactive piece.” Viewers can visit the first site, which is near his art studio in East Oakland, on 23d Avenue and 24th Street. The second site is near the Grand Lake Theatre at 829 Vermont St., and the third is slated to be completed in West Oakland in 2016. He thinks of all three murals as separate chapters in a book and hopes viewers will be inspired to visit each site and create their own narrative.

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