In the colorful mural created by Youth Spirit Artworks, zebras, giraffes, panthers, bears, birds and elephants make the diversity of nature come alive on the streets of Berkeley. Photo by Ariel Messman-Rucker


by Ariel Messman-Rucker

The young artists and staff organizers of Youth Spirit Artworks have expressed their imaginative artistry in visionary murals that are on constant display for community viewing on several walls and storefronts in Berkeley.
Youth Spirit Artworks (YSA) is a nonprofit job-training program that uses art to better the lives of low-income and homeless youth, ages 16-25. Youth are granted stipends to help support themselves while they move through the program, creating art and developing leadership and entrepreneurial skills.
Two of the signature murals created by the young artists of YSA not only helped beautify the neighborhood, but were also a very meaningful response to terrible acts of injustice and violence in our society.
Their “Agua Es Vida” mural was a positive way of expressing reverence for life and affirming the beauty of the world in the face of the devastating grief many people felt after the tragic murder of Trayvon Martin, a young man who was killed in February 2012 by a neighborhood watch coordinator while he was innocently eating Skittles and drinking fruit juice.
At a time of darkness and despair, the young artists of Youth Spirit Artworks reminded the community that life is still worth living and that even in the midst of modern society with its injustice, intolerance, violence and outright evil, the world is still full of astonishing beauty and the unbelievable diversity of wild nature.
So YSA artists unveiled the colorful and imaginative mural, “Agua Es Vida” (“Water Is Life”), on a building at the corner of Sacramento and Alcatraz in Berkeley on Sept. 28, 2013.
Their mural is an extraordinarily beautiful artwork that shows the ecological connections of life on planet Earth. A mermaid embraces a dolphin under the watchful eyes of elephants and bears.
Hummingbirds, zebras, giraffes and black panthers all display the wondrous life-force of wild nature, and the brilliant colors help beautify the drab gray street.
In retrospect, this mural is an amazing affirmation of life and beauty in the shadow of injustice and death.
One year earlier, in 2012, the youthful YSA artists created a tile mural titled “Grow Healthy” to educate the public about the severe health disparity between low-income and wealthy residents.
This was a unique art project in that it didn’t just result in the creation of a beautiful mural, but also made a strong statement about social justice, exposing the way that poverty jeopardizes public health. And it was highly innovative in another way: it involved many schoolchildren in creating tiles for the mural, and also educated and persuaded them to take a personal health pledge.
The mural was two years in the making. Young, low-income and homeless artists came together to unveil the mural and celebrated its creation with an entire community of youth and children from all over Berkeley who created mural tiles that helped them achieve their vision.
The young YSA artists created a 10-by-20-foot mural titled “Grow Healthy.” It was made up of tiles hand-painted by youth from YSA and kids from all over Berkeley as a way to encourage young people to lead healthier lives and as a permanent statement about the health issues facing South Berkeley’s community.
Sally Hindman, executive director of YSA, said there is a huge disparity between the health and lifespan of low-income and wealthier people in Berkeley, and this mural now stands as an enduring symbol of the need to close this gap.

“GROW HEALTHY.” This beautiful mural in South Berkeley was created by Youth Spirit Artworks. Photo by Ariel Messman-Rucker

“What it adds up to in terms of health injustice is that some people literally are dying 20 years earlier than other people,” she said. “That’s just so bad and so we want to really bring that home and make sure that our community continues to really focus on that as something we need to battle.”
According to Berkeley’s Health Status Report from 1999, which studied death records from 1995 to 1997, life expectancy for residents of South Berkeley — which is 73 percent African American — is 62 to 64 years. In contrast, residents of the Berkeley hills — a wealthier and predominately white area — are expected to live an average of 80 to 84 years.
The City of Berkeley’s 2001 Health Status Report states that the overall adjusted death rate is three times greater for African Americans in Berkeley than for the white population.
YSA senior artist Victor Mavedzenge said that he felt it was important for the youth to get involved in raising awareness about the disparity in health between rich and poor people in Berkeley. The project also is designed to show people in the community how to lead healthy lives.
“I think when it comes to health, it is one of those things where the state or the adults within the society are not handling the health issue as seriously as it should be approached,” Mavedzenge said. “So making an event out of it and having a landmark for it signals that it is an important issue.”
To create the mural, youth from YSA went into elementary schools in South Berkeley where they worked one on one with students, first by talking to them about making healthier choices in their lives, and then working with the kids to paint tiles for the mural.
Each student made a personal pledge to do one thing to live a healthier life and then painted that pledge on a tile, which was added to the mural so the entire community could be inspired by their efforts.
Young people from Youth Spirit Artworks went to Rosa Parks Elementary and Malcolm X Elementary, where more than 300 students painted tiles and made health pledges. They also led tile-painting workshops at more than a dozen other events and venues, setting up tables at sites ranging from health fairs to neighborhood street corners.
“They led tile-painting workshops for two years,” Hindman said of the hard work and long hours the youth put into the project. “On weekends, they’d be out leading tile workshops and they just worked their tails off at all these different events.”
The mural is covered in exuberant pledges that promote healthy living, with individual tiles making such vows as “plant a garden,” “stay healthy,” “stop the violence,” “fruit is cool,” “bike everyday,” “no more smoking,” “get out and play,” and “love life.”
“When you walk by the mural, it’s lovely, it’s beautiful, but when you stand in front of it and realize that each one is a very personal statement, together it’s quite powerful,” said Tony Wilkinson who lives in South Berkeley and volunteers his time with YSA whenever he can.
“It’s also a challenge to the community,” he said. “You know, how are you going to step up and make this possible?”
More than 100 young artists contributed to the mural and two artists, Pancho Pescador and Alfonso Jaramillo, were hired to create the overall design.
The beautiful tile mural was mounted on the side of H & M Market & Liquor on Fairview Street just west of Adeline in Berkeley. The H & M Market agreed to have the mural mounted on their store.
This was a coup for South Berkeley because YSA wants to challenge corner stores to carry healthier food and become part of closing the dangerous gap in health between rich and poor communities.