Anyone who’s driven past Essex Street on Shattuck Avenue in South Berkeley in recent months has delighted in the stunning underwater scene emerging on the exterior walls of The Octopus’s Garden at 3039 N. Shattuck, Erin Janoff’s tropical fish and aquarium store.
“I wanted to paint on those walls since I first came to Berkeley over 30 years ago,” says Joe Silva, a burly bear of a man usually seen at work on the walls in his trademark African cone straw hat. “But it was a liquor store back then, and they weren’t all that interested.”
Three decades later, a friend brought Janoff and Silva together and the painting began.
Silva always knew he was an artist, and at age 4 he discovered his passion for murals when he took his mother’s nail polish and painted “a mural of rather primitive animals on my mother’s dresser.” He smiles, his gentle brown eyes sparkling at the memory. “I got dressed down for that.”
Silva was born in 1951 in Providence, Rhode Island, a serendipitous locale for an artistically gifted youth because of the presence of the legendary Rhode Island School of Design.
At age 8, he won the first of the weekend scholarships at the design school that would help him master the fine points of his chosen media. Then, at age 16, while he was attend ing a summer session at the school, Silva had a momentous and life-changing encounter while he and his best friend were grabbing a bite at Joe’s Sandwich Shop, a local institution on the east side of Providence.
“Because I was kind of shy around the oppo site sex, [my friend] bet me five dollars I wouldn’t talk to the next woman who walked in the door,” Silva explained. “That was a huge sum of money to me in those days, so when a woman walked in wrapped in a rather tattered fur coat, I tapped her on the s houlder, and when she turned around I said, ‘Did anyone ever tell you that you look like Janis Joplin?’ She said, ‘I walk in here and you tell me I look like me.’”
Joplin told the stunned young artist she and her band were looking for a pleasant place to kick back and unwind after weeks on the road.
“We were three blocks from Prospect Terrace, a scenic overlook with nice benches and a great view of downtown Providence, and we hung out and talked. I was surprised to discover she was an artist, too, and she liked to create murals. She invited me out to California, and it sounded like this wonderful creative place.”
Two years later, Silva hitched his way across the country, arriving in Berkeley in October, 1970, just days after Joplin’s death. He’s lived here ever since.
“I started doing illustrations right away, and I supplemented my income by doing quick graphics and cartoons for the Berkeley Barb and the Berkeley Tribe,” he said. “I did flyers for rock and roll clubs and posters for the Long Branch an d groups like Asleep at the Wheel.”
In 1976, Silva met Gary Graham, who taught a class on murals at Oakland’s Laney Community College. “He was more of a carnival painter than a muralist, and I became his teaching assistant,” Silva explained.
Immersing h imself in the mural form, Silva was painting a whale in a Laney mural project on the wall of a freeway underpass at Claremont Avenue and Hudson Street in Oakland when a car pulled up and two men jumped out and said, “This is what we want on our wall.” The new-found fans were the Mitchell brothers, Jim and Artie, the San Francisco porn and skin show moguls, who were in search of art for the walls of their O’Farrell Theater.
Silva painted his murals at the O’Farrell in 1978 and 1985 and was in the middle o f yet another work at the O’Farrell in 1989 when Jim Mitchell shot his brother.
During his last gig at the O’Farrell, Silva was busily painting when David Warren, proprietor of The Giant Camera, walked up bearing an urn and two requests. Inside the conta iner were the ashes of a long-time fan, “unbeknownst to me,” of the artist’s murals.
A well-known clown who’d worked at the long-vanished Playland of the Pacific, the dead man’s first wish had been to be incorporated into one of Silva’s murals.
“I short ly set about sifting the finer ashes into my paint mixtures,” Silva said. “I painted him into the vegetation and the anaconda in the lower right section of the ‘Rainforests’ mural.”
That task complete, he fulfilled the clown’s second wish—scattering more ashes beneath the O’Farrell stage so the clown could spend part of eternity close to his equally beloved strippers.
In 1979, Silva created “Cross Section,” a slice of California from ocean to desert on the exterior wall of University Press Books at Banc roft Way and Dana Street.
Over the years the painting has been damaged by car bumpers and leaks in the wall. “I asked if the university would be interested in partially funding a restoration, but I have yet to hear from them,” he said.
He created anothe r underwater scene for the swimming pool area of the UC medical center, and a mural depicting prehistoric whales for the Steinhardt Aquarium at the San Francisco Academy of Sciences—recently claimed by the wrecking ball as part of a major renovation.
Oth er murals are gone, too—vanished at the whims of new owners.
“I have a very detached philosophy about public art,” he said. “I put it out for people to see, and because the energies change from day-to-day, you have to accept that that’s part of what goes along with creating public art. I have a friend who’s very attached to his public art and almost goes crazy when some of his work disappears. But that’s just part and parcel of doing public art. The best approach I find is when I complete a mural, I make a photographic record.”
On a smaller scale, Silva has created countless illustrations, many of marine mammals, for academic textbooks. He’s also worked as a naturalist at the Desert Tortoise Natural Area in the Mojave Desert.
“Whenever I can, I like to get out and spend time in the desert or on the ocean,” he said. “I also like chase snakes to photograph them because I like to work them into my paintings. I also have this fascination for crocodilians, which has taken me to Northern Australia several times.”
That would explain the presence of one of the toothsome critters on Shattuck Avenue. “I’ve traveled extensively through the South Pacific, and I’ve spent time in Vanuatu, Fiji and Papua New Guinea.”
“Well, I’ve been asked to consult with Epic Arts. One of their projects is Artify Ashby, and they want to fill every available space around Ashby with murals.”
Then he smiles again. “Since I started on this mural, about half the people in the neighborhood have asked me about doing murals on their homes. Wouldn’t that be wonderful?”?n