The Painted Gnomes of Oakland

Miniature paintings of gnomes have been appearing at the base of telephone poles on the sidewalks of Oakland, east of Lake Merritt:

There are dozens, perhaps even hundreds, of these crude but adorable little artworks, none of them taller than about 6 inches. They began their occupation a few months ago, but seem to have been reproducing at a rapid rate lately, or maybe I’ve just become more used to looking for them.

I noted a few years ago that an unexpected bit of music can brighten a day, if we can shake ourselves out of our stupor enough to listen for it. Street art, at its best, can make us stop short with a childlike delight that the familiar world contains something fresh and new.

These whimsical gnomes offer yet another occasion for pointing out how much we miss if all our transit time is spent inside a car, separated from the sights and sounds of the cityscape—not to mention other people—by a barrier of steel and glass, and largely unaware of anything except the road directly in front of our windshield. Even for pedestrians, though, these works of guerrilla art are easy to miss, being so small and low and placed at junctions so commonplace that we never think to look there. I probably walked by some of these many times before I realized they were there. (I rely on my dog to notify me of anything interesting less than a foot off the ground, but her formidable nose never alerted me to these paintings. Bad dog!)

I have no idea whose brainchild these are, but people interested in seeing them can find them lining various streets east of Lake Merritt, on the low hills between East 18th Street and MacArthur Boulevard. There may well be others farther afield, but the neighborhoods between Park Blvd and the lake happen to be where I do most of my walking. I could list some of the specific streets where these fellows reside, but that would spoil it; a lot of the fun is in the finding.

I originally set out to photograph every gnome I came upon, but soon gave up on that goal when I realized how many there were. I collected these and a handful of other photos in an album on Google+.

14 Responses to “The Painted Gnomes of Oakland”

  1. Ng says:

    Can’t wait to find some!

  2. Gene says:

    Cool! I’ll have to keep my eyes open for them. The placement of the screws attaching them to the telephone poles is sometimes unfortunate :-/

    And glad to see you post again :-)

  3. eric says:

    Awesome gnomes! I love their poses. And their noses.

  4. John A. Abel says:

    Gnomes are cool.

  5. John A. Abel says:

    Morning Y’all Gnomes!I just had a biscuit and Grits for breakfast……

  6. G & PL says:

    PL just noticed these a few weeks ago, too. They are so charming, and somehow I feel safer with them surrounding our apartment…

  7. Johnny Payphone says:

    The gneighborhood is gnee deep in gnomes! Gnobody gnows where they come from. They are only found at the bases of telephone poles- and are solitary creatures, gnever gathering in groups. They hate low altitudes and heavy traffic. I suspect they are living off the energy in the telephone wires. They seem to be cultivating the mushrooms, possibly for gnoshing on. I’ve gnever found one outside of Cleveland Heights. I believe this population is descended from a shipment of gnomes bound for Fairyland in 1928 that escaped when the delivery truck tipped over.

  8. Richard Ajluni says:

    Gnomie for mayor of Oakland!

  9. Debbie Brown says:

    I walk my grandchildren home from preschool four days a week and we were enchanted to discover the gnomes. We have named all the ones on our walk. The noisy city becomes a mysterious wonderland when we know the gnomes are there waiting for us.

  10. Anjuna says:

    My 18 month old son says 4 words, and one is “gnome” (pronounced “noon”) thanks to the folks who make these. In fact, we were visiting a friend in Jack London the other day, and as we walked her neighborhood, he kept running to the next telephone pole, walking around the whole thing, and then asking me , “noon?” with his hands in a “where is it” pose. How special these rogue artists have made my neighborhood!

  11. Roxanne says:

    Enchanted and love the gnomes! I feel like they protect our hood, add a magical whimsy and make my walk with my dog….simply charming!

  12. Amanda says:

    Hi – I love this stort and the gnomes – check out this facebook page to make sure PG&E does not remove them: https://www.facebook.com/SaveTheLakeMerrittGnomes

  13. Marlyene says:

    I love the gnomes! Street art is an important part of enriching all of our lives!

  14. @SaunieInDiego says:

    I would love to see some of these gnomes in san diego

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