Gnomes of Lake Merritt – Oakland, California - Atlas Obscura

Oakland, California

Gnomes of Lake Merritt

This mysterious series of teeny guerrilla installations sheds a whimsical light on street art in Oakland. 

Only a few inches high by a couple of inches wide, constructed on scrap wood from old fences, and attached to the base of telephone poles and the occasional cafe window ledge, these hand painted dwarfish creatures are easy to overlook. Nonetheless, in early 2013 the gnomes were at the center of a roiling controversy between the Pacific Gas & Electric Company (PG&E ) and an entire community of magic Oakland residents.

When PG&E announced that the gnomes were slated for eviction due to their presence “compromising” utility equipment, the anonymous maker and adjacent community spearheaded a campaign to save the gnomes.

A rarely seen lighthearted side of PG&E was revealed when the company announced that the gnomes were finally granted asylum. Miraculously PG&E spokesman Jason King declared, “We received a great deal of public feedback, so we’re declaring the poles a gnome-man’s land. We’re not going to remove them.” 

The gnomes seem to have taken that their gnome-man’s land to heart. In 2019, a number of the gnomes were spotted with tiny protest signs, reading, “No night-shady business on Gnome-man’s land” and “Gnomes to PG&E: we are watching you” as PG&E filed for bankruptcy in California’s 2017 and 2018 fires.

The same year PG&E called the gnomes a safety hazard, it also told regulators it would fix equipment on the century-old power line serving Paradise, California. The utility failed to act, and the line sparked California’s most destructive fire. Almost a year after the 2018 Camp Fire, 50 gnomes joined in the youth-led global climate with signs like “Gnomes stand with kids”, “No voice too small”, and “We would march if we could move.” 

Mostly though, the gnomes keep their thoughts to themselves. The artist, who has since moved to sprinkle magic on another town, estimated the total Oakland gnome population at over 5,000. The artist continue to create anonymously and install tiny art pieces clandestinely in the cover of night, as they wish for the gnomes to belong to the community instead of an individual. 

The Oakland gnomes remain, continuing to enrich any mundane stroll around the block in a growing number of Lake Merritt neighborhoods. Rumor has it that if you investigate closely enough, geographic themes and a variety of unique gnome personalities have emerged; hill-dwellers typically wear plaid kilts, at least a couple sport tattoos, and a few red and yellow mushrooms (amanita muscaria) accompany a handful of gnomes in “key areas.”

Know Before You Go

Dense populations reside at the base of telephone poles around the Adams Point and Haddon Hill neighborhoods, though sightings as far as Jack London Square and Highland Hospital have been reported.

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