Art & Design
5:03 pm
Thu January 31, 2013

Graffiti Gnomes Allowed To Roam On Oakland Utility Poles

Originally published on Thu January 31, 2013 7:55 pm

Over the past year, small gnomes started springing up all around Oakland, Calif. The elfin creatures are hand-painted on wooden boards; each is about 6 inches tall, with red hat, brown boots and white beard. They're bits of urban folk art from an anonymous painter who surreptitiously screws them onto the base of utility poles.

The local utility — Pacific Gas and Electric — balked, and vowed to remove all of the gnomes. That's until recently, after a surge of popular gnome support caused PG&E to have a change of heart. Melissa Block, host of All Things Considered, talked to the gnome's creator about the project. NPR has agreed to preserve his anonymity.

If you've spotted one of the gnomes in Oakland, we want to see your photos. Upload your images to Twitter, Tumblr or Instagram and use the hashtag #nprgnome.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

Over the last year, small whimsical creatures have been springing up all around Oakland, California. They're gnomes hand-painted on wooden boards. Really cute little guys about six inches high with red hats, brown boots and white beards. They're bits of urban folk art from an anonymous painter who surreptitiously screws them onto the base of utility poles.

Well, Pacific Gas and Electric decided that was a bad idea. The company vowed to remove the gnomes. But this week after a surge of popular gnome support, PG&E had a change of heart and that's great news for the gnomes' creator. We've agreed to preserve his anonymity for this conversation. He joins us from Oakland. And I'll just call you the gnome representative for this conversation. Why don't you explain, first of all, why you want to remain anonymous.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Because I really think that this is so much more than about an individual. It's not so much a concern about my own anonymity as it is I don't really want anybody associated with the gnomes. As I've gone through this project, it really is an Oakland thing. I feel like they're not my gnomes, they're Oakland's gnomes. It gives people the opportunity to tell their own stories about them and see them as they are.

BLOCK: Why did you start with gnomes? How did this all come about?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: I had the book. I think most people had that wonderful book from the Dutch (unintelligible).

BLOCK: Oh, "The Book of Gnomes."

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Yes, from the '70s and had that as a child. I was just sitting around thinking one day what could I do to make my little community a little better.

BLOCK: And you started with one?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: I started with one, and I did my entire street in front of my house. And then I just started hearing these wonderful stories of what people thought of them. And from there it just dawned on me that it wasn't about my street, it needed to be about my neighborhood. Well, once I was done with my neighborhood, it suddenly turned into about my city as a whole.

BLOCK: What were you hearing from people when they were talking about the gnomes?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Well, you know, the best is - I have a small preschool across the street from me. And I would hear them as they would walk up and down the street and they had made names up for each of the gnomes. But then there would be stories that they would be telling each other about the gnomes. And then this one particular day, there was this girl who was walking home and her father, it became apparent to me that he had come to pick her up at the school for the very first time. And she was so excited. And the main thing that she was excited about was taking him to each of the gnomes and explaining to him about why each of them was there.

BLOCK: But it's not just the kids who are really enchanted by them, it sounds like. I was reading a blog from a guy who noted that the gnomes that are at higher elevations in Oakland are wearing kilts. So he says they're plainly Highlanders, a big of dry humor...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Oh, they most certainly are.

BLOCK: ...we heartily appreciate. And he's named the one that he took a picture of. He says, I call him Angus.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Yes, I've seen Angus. And Angus is an earlier home gnome and he's really excited. But there's a little controversy going on there, because some are in royal Stewart and some are in the Black Watch. So they kind of have the 1745 going on in the hills of Oakland as well.

BLOCK: So you're trying to put in little changes in them that you hope people will notice.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: It goes beyond that, I'd like to think a little bit, because it has to relate with the community as a whole. Down on 3rd Avenue, there's a tattoo shop. The gnomes in front of that shop, one has an anchor tattooed on his arm, one has a heart tattooed on his arm. There's a section down by the water, each of the gnomes there are in Bermuda shorts with tattoos as well.

BLOCK: Well, I don't want you to have to reveal your trade secrets here, but how do you manage to install all these gnomes, screw them onto these utility poles without people noticing what you're doing?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Well, it's a night kind of thing because I go out late at night with my terrier. She provides some cover because I can always yell at her if anybody's walking around. But I get to walk the streets of Oakland at 11:00, 12:00, 1:00 in the morning and see the houses and see the gardens and see the paintings that people are doing.

BLOCK: But nobody ever noticed what you're doing when you're out there?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: When I'm out there I have not been caught once, no. If something's going on, you stop, you pull out a little bag, pretend like you're picking up something, a gift that the terrier left behind. You play the part. It's part of the joy of actually interacting with the community, not with individuals.

BLOCK: Well, it's been so nice to have something to take a little break from the dark and dreary news that we've had this week. So thanks so much for talking to us about your gnome project.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Melissa, thank you so much for your time. And thank you for taking some interest in Oakland, not just the gnomes, but in Oakland itself.

BLOCK: That's the creator of the Oakland gnomes. We've agreed to preserve his anonymity.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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