The Telephone Pole Gnomes are located at the base of utility poles in several neighborhoods in Oakland, California.
The colorful hand-painted gnomes (6-inches tall with red hats, white beards and brown boots) are painted on scrap wood from old fences and then affixed to telephone poles and the occasional window ledge with screws.
The artist responsible for the gnomes began to place the tiny pieces of artwork at the base of the utility poles on the block where he lived in 2012. He was inspired by the popular book “Gnomes,” (1976) illustrated by Rien Poortvliet.
After hearing positive feedback from the children at a local school, the artist expanded his gnome enterprise to other neighborhoods until there were over 2000 gnome paintings throughout the city. He clandestinely applies his small wood panels under cover of dark with the help of his terrier dog.
While the people of Oakland enjoyed the appearance of the gnomes, the executives at Pacific Gas & Electric were not amused with the invading gnomes.
According to a representative from the PG&E, “We can’t have anything that would compromise the integrity of our equipment. The concern is that the gnomes could inspire additional people to place things on our property.”
When the utility company announced they would remove the gnomes, it sparked an outpouring of support from Oakland residents who said the gnomes add character to the city. There was even a Facebook page created a “Save the Lake Merritt Gnomes” to support the cause.
PG&E was within its rights to remove the gnome paintings because technically the poles are private property. And by putting up the artwork, the artist was committing a crime and could face criminal charges for defacing property.
However, their main concern was that by allowing the gnome paintings to stay would encourage other, non-gnomic graffiti and could harm the poles or make it difficult for workers to access necessary equipment.
Consequently, a PG&E representative met with the artist (who preferred to remain anonymous) and a member of the City Council to try to reach an agreement.
In an email to PG&E, the artist explained his motives for placing the gnomes:
“I’m a resident of Oakland who simply thought this would be a nice way to make my fellow Oaklanders happy and proud. We see too much garbage on the streets here, too many shootings, too much violence, not enough that makes one stop and smile. They were meant to be an ongoing gift to my community.”
In the end, PG&E 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….unless it is determined that any of the individual installations pose a danger to the public, a safety risk to our workers, or potential damage to the dedicated public utility poles that they are installed on.”
NOTE: In 2014, a similar form of guerilla art occurred in the city of Sacramento, California. This time, instead of attaching gnomes at the base of the telephone poles, bird houses are being placed 20 feet above the street.
Signs placed on some of the poles proclaim: “Art not Vandalism. No utility poles were harmed in the installation of this bird house.”
However, the Sacramento Municipal Utility District (SMUD) thinks the art is a hazard. They worry that if a transformer blows on one of its poles, a bird house could get in the way of workers trying to douse an explosion. The artist is placing himself in danger, too. Some of the boxes are just a few feet from what’s called a secondary line, which carries a lot of electricity.
The artist isn’t facing a punishment. But SMUD wants the activity to stop.
Before removing the birdhouses, SMUD workers made sure there were no birds occupying the illegal birdy abodes.