Writing Themselves into the Landscape 
by Zahir Ruiz

Growing up in Los Angeles, I was surrounded by vibrant street art and graffiti that has always caught my attention. When I moved to Oakland, I was struck by the rich culture of graffiti and through this course I’ve learned more about the graffiti on San Pablo Avenue. I feel like the graffiti on San Pablo Avenue tells a story of struggle, resilience, and the power of creative expression. For me, this graffiti is a reminder of my own upbringing, seeing tagging on bridges, buildings, freeway signs. I am drawn to the dynamic colors and shapes of the graffiti, and how people have used San Pablo as a canvas to literally write themselves into the landscape.

Through our photowalks I’ve used natural light, sometimes far away shots but also close-up shots to capture the textures and details of the art. Or sometimes to capture the emptiness of a building, street, or old railroad that leads to nowhere.

By also exploring the spatial politics of graffiti, I hope to provoke reflection on the power dynamics that shape our built environment. Through my images, viewers can see how the graffiti of San Pablo Avenue challenges the norms of urban space and resists the forces that seek to confine and control it. The art becomes a powerful visual representation of the communities that create it, and how creativity and resilience continues to flourish all around the East Bay.


On San Pablo Ave is an archive of the work that students in GEOG 189: Visual Geography created in the Spring 2023 semester, the very first iteration of the course. 

The goal of the course is to use photography and walking as methodologies for understanding the places we move through and the people we encounter everyday.

Each week of the semester we, as a class, walked a portion of the 23-mile stretch of San Pablo Avenue, starting in downtown Oakland and ending in Rodeo, California. 

Students photographed along the street as we walked but also stopped in businesses, chatted up individuals we met along the way, and generally followed where their own interests took them. 

As a result, each student recorded a very different perspective of San Pablo Avenue. They narrowed their work down to 20+ photographs and sequenced them to “say” something about the built environment and the human experience along this vital stretch of the East Bay. 

Our main inspiration for this project was the work of photographer Janet Delaney, particularly her vital documentation of the SOMA neighborhood in San Francisco in the late-1970s and early-80s.

Janet was gracious enough to visit our class, talk about her work and the SOMA project, and show us some student projects she led while a faculty member in Visual Studies at UC Berkeley. 

This course was created and taught by Lecturer Joel Wanek with assistance from april graham-jackson, PhD candidate in the Department of Geography at UC Berkeley.  

Thanks to Jovan Scott Lewis, Eron Budi, Ambrosia Shapiro, Josh Mandel, and Seth Lunine for their assistance and support!