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Thirteen Ways of Looking at Kasper's

Telegraph and Shattuck

Oakland, CA

Telegraph One.jpg

Telegraph One

I initially noticed Kasper's in 2015 when I was driving south on Telegraph. I was struck by the fact that the building was shuttered but otherwise seemed undamaged, intact. And it’s a kind of Deco throwback.   The first Kasper’s is in my own neighborhood, not far from Fruitvale and MacArthur, where it was opened in the late 1920s by Armenian immigrant Kasper Koojoolian. But it doesn’t look anything like this. By 1943, Koojoolian had settled “The Original Kasper’s” at 4521 Telegraph Avenue, in this small flatiron building. History of Kasper's > )

It’s on an island. And not just any island—a concrete island on the intersection of Shattuck and Telegraph, two major arteries in the circulatory system of Berkeley and Oakland. This might have been a fantastic business location in theory, but the business was closed. I’d had no direct experience of the building or what it once was. It's such a funky building, I wondered, if this is Kaspers’ original design or was the building already there?  

The contrast in colors made it stand out. The yellow accents. That made me pull over to take a walk around it. I discovered the shape of the building and the fact that there were no open entrances. The patches of darker red paint were especially provocative. There had been graffiti earlier, and someone had cleaned it up. Who?  

Deco Echo (1).jpg

Deco Echo

The yellow accents made me stop and really look at the building.


While my photography is essentially documentary, when I zoom in on something, I often wind up with a picture that has abstract qualities as its purpose. In this image I initially only cared about the lines, the colors and the arrangement. This was a mental exercise of taking the visual elements in front of me and using them as raw material in a new composition. Yellow lines, horizontals strokes, black borders around the lamp, the arrow, the black and white outlines of the hand lettering.   

However, this also features the juxtaposition, even competition, of geometric and commercial lettering with the freeform hand letting on the wall and the draped white papers. And now the hand work is overwhelming the industrial stuff. A small culture clash. 

Historically, graffiti is the province of disenfranchised communities. It is usually applied to industrial or commercial surfaces. The artist is claiming these buildings and locations that exist because of market capitalism, a force that overwhelms poor communities. In those politics, graffiti is revolutionary because it goes to the places that represent exclusion, and it takes them over. 

At Kasper’s, neighborhood forces have obviously started to appropriate the building for their own purposes. The building has changed. And my idea for a photo changed. While I was shooting, my photo evolved from a compositional exercise to a politically charged picture. 


Remove all the words here, and you are left with an abstract painting: color, line, plane, the balance and arrangement of the surface. The black lines are, to me, just drawing. The blue and the red is just paint, pigment.  

Starting with that sensibility, the apartment building in the picture’s corner is immediately recognizable, and the images shift in an instant from abstract to literal. And once your mind switches in to the literal interpretation—it goes right away to reading the letters. I tried to find a way to have the lettering be more imagery than language, which is why I cut off the O. But the big bonus is that we have three different looks for “Kasper's.” Contrasts, distinct graphics, different stories. 

Such surface imagery is always there. When you drive through this neighborhood and it feels familiar to you, it’s because your mind already has taken it in. But in all probability, you haven’t really been paying attention. You haven’t really seen what’s there. Your brain might have picked it up but the surface imagery might never have penetrated in this way.  

A photo can capture the look and feel of a place in a way that jars the consciousness. The place can be isolated, or certain elements emphasized, to surface what was already there in the subconscious. 


Golden Arches 

 McDonald’s is clean and sparkly, and it’s global. Kasper’s is a family restaurant in the Bay Area—a family that fought with itself, and a restaurant chain that can’t get bigger. 

Kasper’s was not always a fast-food building, and it’s now somewhere between being decadent and a ruin. It's not going anywhere. But in this picture, the shape of the building is alive: from the right angle, it feels like a railroad engine coming at you.  

This locomotive energy corresponds to the graffiti. The large white bubble lettering at the center crashed into my attention —it’s suddenly become the largest image on the building. It’s aggressive. Somebody put it there, saying “This is my building now.” And signed it. That is not extraordinary; it’s super ordinary. I wanted to put the lettering front and center to announce the presence of the writer. This tag is so brazen, so confident; this picture is about the person who did it. 

This picture is also about the other person—the homeless person living in the plywood crates, who has taken over the building in another way. The white paper makes the crate look like a roof, a miniature barn... or a doghouse. But that shape, from an engineering perspective, is one of the most useful shapes there is. 

And for both, it’s poignant, because neither can get into the building, and neither owns it. But the building is now being fully subordinated. Each person in their own way has said, “This place belongs to me.”


In capturing this scene’s scope,  I was highly driven by its aesthetics. Should I leave the utility pole in? I took it out, put it back in, and finally decided that it was important because it leads the viewer down the sidewalk, allowing the viewer to imagine the size of the building. I liked the yellow McDonald’s arches.  If they had been blue, I might not have included them. I wanted yellow marks to go all the way across the picture.  Including them in the composition also gives the viewer a more complete sense of where, in the neighborhood, the building is.  

Then there is the gestural echo: the McDonald’s arches and the homeless hut. McDonald’s and homelessness are oddly related—we wonder if the food is within reach of the needy, even though they're right across the street from each other...



Anytime the building changes colors, I’m going to stop and pull over. And this building makes it very obvious that the people who keep marking it up have a lot of respect for what came beforehand. They don’t break the neon, they don’t deface the Kasper’s logo. It’s as though they still want it to be the Kasper’s building. 

But in this picture, we see the first time that the yellow Deco accents get painted over. Someone felt entitled to break the rule. Also, that pitcher: that’s not graffiti. First off, the figure on the wall ought to be a Baller, not a baserunner. Who from around here didn’t know that? So what happened there? Did someone with some commercial gig decide to splash this thing right over the graffiti, and then for style go out and find someone to paint the tag? That is almost cynical.


Who was this? A’s advertising? The Chamber of Commerce?  They saw “promotional space,” “billboard.” And they just came and did it. I can’t get over the fact that they blew away the graffiti to put up something so commercial, ostensibly in the name of the community, and they wiped out the Deco accents. You fuckers! That’s the one thing you weren’t supposed to do. 















If they got permission, they probably got permission from whoever owns this building, although at this point I had no idea who owned the building. Regardless, the A’s boosters knew they didn’t have to get permission from the street artist or from the neighborhood. On the other hand, it’s Rah Rah Oakland. For me that’s either manipulative or oblivious. They either did the right thing for the wrong reason or the wrong thing for the right reason. There is so much paradox and controversy in here. Boosterism is the main feature – it intends to raise Oakland up; but it took place at the expense of something more real about Oakland. 

There is one cool thing, though: “Town.” The NBA Warriors were born in SF, but for more than 15 years they have played in Oakland. On the road, the players’ jerseys say “The City” meaning San Francisco. But when they play in Oakland, the jerseys say “The Town.”…*  

  • There’s a long history to calling Oakland “Town.” It goes back to 1852. Oaklanders have coopted the label “Town” so much so that in 1984 an African American T-shirt maker seeking a moniker like Motown for his home city, coined “Oaktown.” Area hip hop musicians seized the name, and today for most locals, “Oaktown” refers to the spirit and swagger of their much maligned and mostly misunderstood city. In contrast to the ham-fisted painting of a pitcher, now look at the building’s other wall. Its writing, street writing, is extremely sophisticated . The artistry on this side marks a new stage in this building’s appearance. I’m looking at how the paint was handled, the color selection. It’s so abstract, you almost can’t read it. I’m looking at all the same things I’m looking at when I’m looking at a canvas hanging in an art museum.  

Oakland As.jpg

Oakland A’s 

The next thing that happens to the building is another authentic artistic upgrade. Now we have a street artist, not a commercial design studio, who takes over the baseball theme and says, Hey, watch this. He takes over the full-length of the western wall with an equally sophisticated but different style. This is an anime [check] baseball babe. She’s a cartoon, a fantasy girl, big eyes, overtly sexualized, much more street, way more appealing to the hip hop community, to the tagger. Instead of accepting or painting over the commercial A’s theme, he co-opted it. 


The building has become a rotating exhibit. It’s an art gallery of the disenfranchised. 

SAFES New Used 


Even more of the building as I first knew it is now disappearing behind the changing paint. The Deco Echo is gone. Now, on the broad end, there are two distinct “display areas”—the lower level and top level. And the display up top has taken all the surface area—yellow building trim be damned. At this point, we wouldn’t know it’s Kasper’s if the brand signs weren’t still there. But somehow it seems more than ever to be a container, sealed, with no visible intent of being opened again.

Safes New Used.jpg

The lively upper tag, Tarza, is a strong scene in this picture, and suffers for attention only from being next to the enormous one below it. But the commercial signs  across the street in back—SAFES, and KEYS—may be the subliminal source of my reaction here. Also, while being boringly discreet, they say more about this being a locality, a particular neighborhood, that McDonald’s merely visits. Commercial signage reminds the viewer to look at not just the flashy graffiti, but the broader social milieu in the entire composition. For people who feel the area is familiar, those smaller bits of evidence in these pictures have a “Where’s Waldo?” quality. (Click the image to enlarge it and its link to the full description of how it was composed.)

The Island


These traffic islands are Oakland’s piazzas. Or un-piazzas. Oakland has fabulous parks, but there aren’t city spaces where people congregate about, meet at 2 o’clock.


This wasn’t intended as that kind of space, but now that the business isn’t operating, it gets to be like that.


Every town should have something like this—a physical thing, in a plaza space, that is constantly morphing. 

Kaspers Totems.png


If this view is your first encounter with this building, this is not Kasper’s. You have no idea what it is. You wouldn’t  anticipate the rest of it. I’m sure that I drove by Kasper’s many times but, with this in view, simply never noticed it. 


From this vantage point, the wall rises like a totem, or a standalone monument to something. It’s got a foot, a cap, and a body. It’s a sculpture.


The color, the writing, all of it seems arbitrary, but it also seems as if Kenny Scharf or some other fairly modern artist decided to do a late 20th Century interpretation of what a monument should be. It’s impertinent, intentionally casual and playful. 

And it's standing up here as if it was quite important. 

Flanked by signs of municipal controls, it holds its own with its municipal disorder. The shadows practically radiate out from the base instead of in towards it.

Roses Are Red 

At first, I loved this because the color totally changed from before. When I look at this building, and Double D BBQ and other Oaktown buildings I’ve watched over time, I see galleries. When I see that the color has changed, it’s like “Oh, the show changed.”


It’s also like the building is a fashion model, modeling for me, and the building is trying on a new outfit and saying, “Hey, how’s this work?”


My collaborator (and the spirit mother of the Kasper’s portfolio) Constance helped me re-see this one image. “The palette is lovely, the painting is delicate, the maple leaning in softens the whole thing, and the shadows are lacey,” she says. “Most of the other pictures are masculine—it’s all testosterone, sharp edges, hey look at me. This is the feminine one. Looked at in one way, this edge looks like a vase, holding a bouquet of leaves.” 

I’m personally fond of aqua, teal, greenish gray. So I was going to like this version of the wall anyway. The green is very low key—not bright, not contrasty. It’s even a little moody. The sky is not blue, it’s gray. When you put color on a gray background, the color is often truer. It’s not blazing, dramatic, because it’s not very contrasty. It’s just distinct. It jumped at me. 

Be Safe.jpg
Roses Are Red.jpg

Be Safe 


Once again, the building changed outfits. The purple is a big, big surprise, a very bold move. It reinforced even more for me that, from this vantage point, the building is really  sculptural.


But it's still a canvas too. now there is this space man figure or alien, floating out there in the purple of outer space, looking at us as if it had just arrived. The moment that this  narrative appeared here in this view, the picture acquired very different implications from the other two similar views.  

This is the most recent of all the photos in this series—shot in January 2022, and there's a new force in the scene: Covid. Even the alien is wearing a mask, and the tagger left as his message: BE SAFE…


In contrast with that A’s pitcher or the Tarza-mobile, this message clearly had the welfare of the community at heart. The style of this image is important. It’s not graffiti. It’s not a tag as a logo or a declaration (I’m here, you can’t suppress me, it’s my space, too.)  It's wall art. Like something from a graphic novel. The artistry has again been upgraded—this is made by someone with the skill to do comics or cartoons or animated film.  

This outdoor gallery started out with hit-and-run jobs. Then  the writing became more and more artistic—to the point where it’s mostly abstract, or a kind of code—I have had to learn how to read it. Next things moved beyond that highly developed writing, we moved to image. Now imagery has become normal here, too. 

All that said, I'm interested in the picture as a picture. In the image I felt a lattice work of winter limbs and wires—the  tree is empty of leaves, the building almost seems caught by a spider. Because of that feeling, there were some decisions about how many signs to include on the right- hand side and how much sidewalk to add as a counterbalance it. And all the activity is in a middle band of the photo. In a composition like this, I’m trying to distribute the colors: red- orange cones, blue and green parking signs, turquoise banners. Those spots of turquoise on the picture surface get to standout because the blue of the sky is darker and the sidewalk is neutral.  


Shoe Repair 

That sign: Shoe Repair. Like Keys and Safes, It situates the building in this low- impact business environment. It’s working class, old school, mom and pop, the ordinary stuff of life. It’s not a mall with a Vuitton store, it’s a neighborhood shoe repair on a sidewalk. 

Compositionally, this was a blank slate thing again. First it was nothing, then I “painted” three vertical bands, the beige band, the orange band, and the red band.  And then, as if with a spray can, I swept across all three and tied them together with the white stuff—wall, car, bubble letters, background paint, runes (the very traditional, hit-and-run, slapdash tags at the far right). And then I threw in some yellow accents and some rectangles. The upper left corner became interesting. It was a white rectangle and you wouldn’t feel it as space. But the corner of the roof, the sharp spear penetrating the white plane, makes that corner alive. 

Shoe Repair.jpg

Love Lyph 

This emphasizes my ongoing sense of building as art gallery. But also, there is a correspondence between a street artist walking up to the building seeing it as a workspace and me, walking up to the imaginary blank sheet of paper that is my space.


They took it as their workspace and did what they wanted, and I walked up and used their stuff and put it in my picture.


And the building gave me more stuff, and I put that in my picture, too. 

The arrow, all of a sudden, steals the show. 

Love Lyph.jpg


The three important things here: on this building, this logo is sacred space. No one ever dared violate this before. And to this day they haven’t—though just barely. Everyone wants to remember that this was Kaspers. There’s respect shown. It even still has the original red. Whereas the drips here represent the indifferent passage of time, the yellows are the evidence that all the artists said, “I’m not going further than this; I’m not going to mess that up.” 


Then you look closer at what’s actually there. There’s this neon which is an echo of the lettering, but the neon is broken; it’s just hanging. That’s a little poignant. And then you look behind the neon. Whoever painted "Original Kaspers" on the wall did the weirdest thing: they let the K in "Kasper’s" and the L in "Original" overlap. Ninety-nine people out of a hundred will not notice that. Why did that happen? Was it a mistake? Was it intentional? Once you’ve seen it you can’t unsee it. 

Very often when a company commissions a logo, the graphic designer does something like this superimposition on purpose. But as done here, it's not very good. And yet it’s been this way all along.


Now, no one should ever change it. And going back to the idea of the building being a gallery, this framing views a masterwork hiding in plain sight—it’s painterly, all about the way the colors and the lines, the paint, have been applied to the surface. I want to put this piece of the wall on my wall. An homage to Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, Andy Warhol. It's a painter's painting. One viewer saw, from the drips, even further, reminded of paint handling a la Pollack or Joan Mitchell. Every scene has two lives: the one it gets from the photographer, and the one it gets from the viewer...



This is one of the most beautiful tags ever. He took the tag and made it everything in the picture space. It’s playful and brash. It’s so stylized it’s illegible; it’s abstract. 

It’s possible that most of these are made by people of color. But as an assumption that’s not acceptable. The tagger, writer, or painter might be any teenager whose mother lives on less than $50 K a year. He may not be a street person at all, but he may be part of the street community. He may be a student but he doesn’t think of himself as a “student.”


For sure the origins of this stuff came from a community of young people in depressed urban areas. That is literally the only thing you can say with 100 percent confidence. To me that is the same thing you can say about hip hop. There are probably proportionately just as many white kids as there are black kids and Latino kids in that community.



The built-in difference of graffiti is really a legacy of class, not race. And class has a tenuous relationship to what is done with it. All you have to do is look at Warhol and Basquiat. Basquiat was from the street. Warhol took it and put it in the galleries, something Basquiat was not going to be able to do himself. Ironically, a key part of the authenticity of this stuff is that it’s outdoors, not indoors. It’s on the side of a building, outside, for free, not inside a building that you only get entrance to if you pay up.


This piece is as beautiful as anything I’ve seen inside a museum. And despite how beautiful it is, it’s unprotected. It might go away forever. I shot it to protect it from disappearing. 


Having been here several times before, this time I came specifically to transform the building into a unique image. I mentally built this picture in three sections. It started by getting the image of the background section at left: the space taken up by the storage building, the sidewalk, the signage… background area where the Kasper’s building isn’t even there. With the second section, I placed (with the camera) the Kasper’s building in front of that, starting in the picture's middle. But I didn’t want to leave us feeling like we were looking at a corner again (even though we actually are...) So, I positioned the camera lens such that the right side of the building would be just another section of the picture’s single flat surface. I made the corner disappear. 


A lot of what an environment "feels" like, subconsciously, is more like these flat impressions, qualities caught in the memory that stay together but don't need to be re-evaluated to do their emotional job. Meanwhile, here, having the masked alien close-up is dramatic as an idea -- he’s looking at us, and  he’s easy to see, but most often we aren’t looking and we’re not feeling like we’re being seen. 

Finally, my collaborator Constance again found more resonance in the image, with the name brand painted on the building in the background. It posits the idea of this suite of pictures as a quest... Not anything grandiose like a hero quest, just my own approach to Oaktown. (More on that here...)  

Telegraph Two 

Over time, Kasper’s has become mythical for me. It is a castle, surrounded by sidewalk-moats. It is the neighborhood ground zero, standing proudly. It is poetry. 

And in this this particular shot I’m going for melodrama. Although there is very little resemblance, the moment makes me think of Gloria Swanson’s infamous closing scene in Sunset Boulevard, so I like it as the close of my sequence. 

I wanted to let the building be the star of the show. For the effect, I had to think about how far away I needed to be without dialing down the melodrama. Because it’s backlit, there is high contrast with the sky. Then the lettering on the building walls is also contrasty and the writer took full advantage of that dark background. 

Telegraph Two.jpg

From there, the composition is just three big triangles. I put a lot of work into deciding where to stand. How big could the shadow in the foreground be before it overwhelmed the shape of the building? How could I let the trees frame the lighting behind the Kasper chef? How much of the curb should I include to tell everyone that this is sitting on an island? Plus, sensing the different colors and distributing them across the space of the picture, mostly by instinct now. The golden rectangle sign on the left, and the golden fall leaves on the right. And how close to the edge should the orange leaves be? 

This is now a famous place, in my mind. Not because of the business. That light that comes from behind the building, which makes everything glow, is my metaphor for how important the building is. No one knows if this building is going to entirely disappear or have yet another life. If they take it away it will break my heart. 

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