Juan Lopez Creates Enchanting Mosaics

The muralist turns the tools of his trade to the arts, and his creative mosaics grace public and private spaces in the East Bay.


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Photos courtesy Juan Lopez

Juan Lopez was walking around Lake Merritt consumed with stress about his precarious finances.

Yet despite his own predicament, Lopez stopped to help a volunteer, Roberto Costa, who was using tile to decorate a trash receptacle on a street corner in the Adams Point neighborhood.

It was a simple act of generosity that changed the course of Lopez’s life, sending him down a path of creativity and fulfillment that continues to amaze him.

“It’s hard to describe how much it’s done, because it’s given me my whole life,” said Lopez, a compact and wiry man with an amiable smile and long hair.

As fate would have it, Lopez is an expert craftsman at setting tile and stone, having run his own business installing floors and counters and the like in high-end residences in Santa Fe, New Mexico, for 25 years. He had moved to Oakland because of a family emergency.

The trash can job was soon completed that summer day in 2012. But though the raw materials were the same as Lopez has used for decades, the feeling Lopez carried away was new.

“It took me out of a world of high-end residential, where the only feedback was getting paid if you’re work was impeccable, to where my work is in public and people walk by all the time and say they love it,” Lopez said.

Lopez was so inspired that he continued working on trash cans and then managed to build a career as a full-time muralist whose mosaic creations grace public spaces around the East Bay and, increasingly, private settings as well.

“It’s amazing. I love what I’m doing, and I have enough work backed up to last me for a year,” said Lopez, now the proprietor of New World Mosaics.

Though Lopez had never trained to be an artist, he got a contract with the Temescal-Telegraph Avenue Business Improvement District to tile 40 trash cans up and down the boulevard, some with exquisite images of local birds, including a night heron, a barred owl, a pelican, and a California quail. 

The money barely covered Lopez’s materials, but it led to the first of several commissions from the Oakland Unified School District, for a fanciful, 240-square square-foot panorama depicting cranes and Panda bears frolicking in water while red-tailed hawks soar in front of snowy California mountains. The monumental piece is in Lincoln Elementary School’s Caroline Yee Memorial Building.

Subsequent murals include a 30-foot-long mosaic lining the sidewalk in front of Melrose Leadership Academy in Oakland, and a tropical scene with parrots in tree branches over a rushing stream at La Escuelita Elementary School. Lopez also made a representation of the Chinese Zodiac’s characters to line a planter in the courtyard of the Pacific Renaissance Plaza in Oakland’s Chinatown.

Costa, a rent adjustment program manager for the city of Oakland, said he enjoyed watching Lopez’s art career take off.

“It’s a nice story,” Costa said of Lopez. “He has a gift.” 

From the tiny studio he rents at ActivSpace on Seventh Street in West Berkeley, Lopez today grinds away with his noisy saws, turning hard fragments into fluid images, many of nature, like hummingbirds in flight or an octopus luxuriating on the sea floor amid urchins and swaying kelp.

Lopez says his tools were not designed for artistic expression, and he likens himself to people who carve trees using chainsaws. The results, however, are anything but hacked.

Currently, Lopez is partway through a Berkeley Civic Arts Commission contract to decorate a dozen trash cans on the five blocks of Telegraph Avenue just south of the UC Berkeley campus. City officials wanted art reflecting the city’s history, so there are images like a mohawk-sporting youth thrashing a guitar to commemorate 1980’s-era punk and a hand holding a peace sign.

Stuart Baker, executive director of the Telegraph Business Improvement District, said he hears people on the street make appreciative comments.

“The work is of such quality that no one wants to deface it,” he said, adding “knock on wood.”

Coming up, Lopez has a project with the Emeryville Unified School District, and he was selected to decorate a four-story exterior wall of an affordable housing development in the 3200 block of San Pablo Avenue in Oakland.

Lopez is also trying to drum up more private contracts, both large and small. Recently, he did a mural on the wall of someone’s backyard music studio in Rockridge. He also had a show at the Stained Glass Garden on Fourth Street in Berkeley, where he sold two pieces.

It’s all been incredibly exciting and liberating for Lopez, who expresses deep gratitude about being able to use creative energy that was previously latent.

“I know people who have been artists all their lives and can’t make a living,” Lopez said. “It really makes me feel validated and taken care of, and it still feels magical. I’m really grateful.”

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