Ara Jo, a Multitalented, Magnetic Personality in Oakland’s Art Scene
By Sarah Burke
The outpouring of love for Ara Christina Jo on social media and in gatherings across the country since the Oakland warehouse fire has been abundant enough to fill an ocean. But it doesn’t even begin to match the amount of love that Jo, my personal friend, brought to her work and those around her throughout her lifetime. Her presence was so immensely magnetic — her exuberance so bright — that she deeply touched even those who knew her only in passing.
Jo, 29, was a visual and tattoo artist, musician, curator, and community builder. Originally from Los Angeles, she moved to Oakland about a decade ago, and became a member of local DIY art hub Rock Paper Scissors Collective in 2009. There, she served many roles, including gallery manager. She also played a major part in supporting the First Friday Street Fair when it was just getting off the ground.
Best friend Peter Pendergrass recalled Jo’s incredible talent for genuine encouragement. “If you shared an idea with Ara, she would ask you all about it, brainstorm it with you, and co-imagine how amazing it would be,” Pendergrass says. “And in any way she could, she would support you in making it come to fruition.”
Another friend recalled that Jo would allow bands to practice in her living room at any hour of the day without hesitation, often dancing along as she cooked or worked.
Slightly more than a year ago, Jo founded a DIY venue in Emeryville called Sgraffito, which quickly became one of the art scene’s most popular gathering places. There, she would spiritedly host and help organize small music shows, art exhibitions, zine readings, and flea markets, often with multiple events happening in the same week. For many years, she was also a key organizer of the East Bay Alternative Book and Zine Fest, which annually features the work of over 60 self-publishing individuals and collectives.
Jo slept in an adorable treehouse-like loft in a home full of close friends, where she frequently hosted themed dinner parties, craft nights, and late-night karaoke sessions (she was an expert singer). She also sold art supplies at The Ink Stone, a printing and graphics business in Berkeley, and played keyboard in the band HGS. At the Ghost Ship event, Jo was giving $5 bang trims to guests alongside her close friend, nail artist Kiyomi Tanouye. According to Pendergrass, Jo intended to leave her day job to pursue tattoo art full-time.
“Everything Ara did was art,” longtime friend Tina Marie says. “Her clothes, her makeup, her hair, her hair cutting — every single thing. I remember we got a new plunger at Rock Papers Scissors, and she bedazzled it.”
On her portfolio website, Jo’s personal bio takes the form of a poem:
balance of the eye is the priority–
working hard keeps me from insanity
whether on paper, your face, or in pixels,
it’s sweat that turns into lead crystals.
jane of all trades, makin’ it rain;
with friends: everything’s to gain.
get me alone
i’ll hit it on the nose
considering your input
’til you regard it as Good.
Among the constant stream of posts about Jo on social media, a few themes stand out: Awe at her ability to radiate constant joy; gratitude for her endless generosity; and appreciation for how she always made people feel welcome, included, and comfortable in their own skin. Jo exuded these glorious attributes so limitlessly, that she seemed to know some secret to life that I would have given anything to learn.
‘I remember we got a new plunger at Rock Papers Scissors, and she bedazzled it.’
I recall finding myself alone on the dancefloor at an underground party this past summer. I had gotten lost in the music, and all my friends had slowly left. With the room almost completely empty, I spotted Jo and Joey Casio across the dance floor. Jo beckoned me over with gyrating arms held high in the air. Without speaking, the three of us danced until the very last song, and I felt more affirmed, energized and free than I had ever felt in recent memory.
Jo was so magical, she could do wonders without even saying a word. “She was a powerhouse. She was a weaver of community. She was a builder of worlds,” Pendergrass says. “She saw new constellations in the people around her, and she drew them out.”
And now, Pendergrass still recalls his last conversation with Jo. “You have the biggest heart,” he told her, “of anyone I’ve ever met.”
See Ara Jo’s artwork, design and illustration at her site here.