Daud Abdullah Turns Trash Cans Into Works of Art
Daud Abdullah’s personal quest to clean up litter leads to beautiful public mosaics.
Daud Abdullah uses trash cans as his canvas to make beautiful mosaics in Oakland and Richmond.
Photo by Stephen Loewinsohn
Daud Abdullah was sick of the garbage strewn around his East Oakland neighborhood. So, on his own, with a few community-minded pals, he would spend his spare time picking up boxes of chicken wings, old Slurpee cups, and other junk lining the streets.
“You drive past it, and it’s like, ‘Ugh.’ No one does anything about it, ” the 54-year-old artist recalled. “I thought, ‘Heck, no.’ Let’s bring some beauty to this urban landscape. Let’s highlight the trash can so people will see it. And it became this great little canvas.”
That was back in 2010. Since then, Abdullah has decorated 30 trash cans in Oakland and 27 in Richmond, where he moved three years ago. In Oakland, he donated his time and efforts—averaging about 20 hours a can, which didn’t include scrounging around town asking tile shops to give him scraps for free. In Richmond, he gets paid $500 to design a trash can, which the city brings to his studio—a nice treat since it was often smelly doing tile work on a functioning trash can. Currently, he’s designing a trash can, actually called a “treasure box,” for Richmond’s mayor, complete with a Chinese New Year’s theme. He often creates the bins with his 13-year-old son, Adam, who has been helping out since he was 5.
Abdullah wasn’t the first artist in Oakland to come up with the trash can idea. He joined a group of other mosaic artists, including Robert Costa, Beverly Shalom, Karen Difrummolo, Linda Vogel, and Nancy Karigaca, who have been volunteering their time and talents since 2008 to spruce up the city, including flowerpots and trash cans along High Street, 35th Avenue, Seminary Avenue, Foothill Boulevard, Grand Avenue, the Allendale and Temescal districts, Lake Merritt, and the public restroom at Maxell Park. But he’s definitely one of the most prolific, if not the most prolific. In 2011, then-City Councilwoman Libby Schaff, who is now mayor, honored him and the other artists with a “Local Hero” award for their work.
Abdullah had no formal art training and doesn’t have a degree in art. But he did take many art and photography classes at the Hudson Guild and the School of Visual Art, both in New York City, where he grew up. And he took electrician’s classes at Laney College when he moved to Oakland in the 1980s, a job he holds alongside teaching at the Richmond Art Center. Somewhere in between all that, Abdullah went to the library and “inhaled” every book on mosaics that he could.
For Abdullah, it’s not just about the art. It’s about the message. On the trash can in front of the Temescal branch library, he spelled out R-E-A-D. He put a guitar, maracas, and “Oakland ‘hearts’ Musica” on a trash bin near his former home at High Street and Santa Rita Avenue after Latin musician Apolinar Andrade made a special request. When a father’s son was slain in East Oakland in 2011, Abdullah quickly created a peace sign onto the trash can, something the man would see every day.
“I just wanted to find some way to give back,” Abdullah said. “And I’m really glad the community thinks they’re special.” He said he has no way of knowing if the garbage cans have had any real effect on neighborhoods’ being cleaner or residents getting along.
But he does know that he gets stopped in the street with people thanking him for the work he has done. And he has noticed more artists getting involved and more trash cans getting decorated with suns, flowers, and other happy scenes. “There’s been this great ripple effect,” he said.