Earlier this year, 60 people applied to work with BiP (short for “Believe in People”) on an art project he planned for downtown Oakland. The Bay Area street artist had put out word that he was looking for a “Senior Citizen Woman of Color from Oakland,” and Emma Levy, a 92-year-old Argentine immigrant with a vibrant accent, was among the people who left him a voice message. Based on just a few seconds of Levy’s overture, BiP picked her — which is why Levy is the focal point of Vintage, a work that BiP put up in April and which is still prompting second looks from passers-by.
In Vintage, Levy holds a thrash-metal album as she laughs uproariously. How often does an elderly woman with no obvious notoriety become the subject of a prominent, two-story work that overlooks a parking lot and a major intersection? Michael Atto, BiP’s producer and artistic partner, tells SF Weekly that Levy “spent several sessions working on poses and sketches” with BiP, who showed her how to operate a spray can. Levy likes singing and listening to music, especially Spanish opera. She also has a sharp, dark sense of humor, telling BiP when asked about her future, “I will be lying in a casket!”
Vintage is reason enough to visit the corner of 17th Street and Broadway in Oakland, but there’s another captivating street work across the way: Zio Ziegler’s eight-story-tall United Nations tribute. Vibrant colors of the world, particularly from Africa and other developing regions, are festooned across the giant figure, out of whose left hand a dove appears about to fly upward. Two other doves — these with elongated faces on their backs — fly at the base of the work, which Ziegler put up last year.
Ziegler and BiP each had to get permission from building owners to create these two pieces, and the works aren’t temporary. Levy’s visage and Ziegler’s figure should be in downtown Oakland for many years, symbolic of young street artists who — for new inspiration — looked to a woman and an institution with roots in a previous century.