What is Ocean Beach culture? Locals try to define it and what it needs as part of San Diego plan in progress

Melody Phoenix twirls a fire baton at Ocean Beach's Veterans Plaza in 2020 at a gathering that included a drum circle.
Melody Phoenix twirls a fire baton at Ocean Beach’s Veterans Plaza in 2020 as part of a gathering that included a drum circle.
(Sandy Huffaker)

Input to the Town Council produces a list containing everything from events, music and venues to surfing, graffiti and whimsical art.


With the city of San Diego embarking on its first-ever cultural plan, the Ocean Beach Town Council gathered input on what constitutes local culture from the 28 residents who attended its August meeting.

The input is intended to influence the Ocean Beach portion of any final document.

The residents were canvassed about the community’s characteristics and assets, strengths and deficiencies, and achievements and goals in order to help guide the city’s development and funding of arts and culture in OB as well as drive cultural tourism to the area. Similar forums are being held across San Diego to help create the citywide plan.

Cultural plans are mainstays of major American cities such as New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco. The San Diego effort, called “Creative City” and targeted for completion by March 2025, is meant to complement comparable city strategies such as community and housing plans. For more information, go to

“[A cultural plan] is just saying this is what the culture is, this is what people think it is, this is why Ocean Beach is the way it is,” said OBTC board member Tracy Dezenzo, who also is a San Diego arts and culture commissioner. “There is nothing in this cultural plan that’s going to say ‘We want X to happen here and this is what we’re going to change.’ It’s more just a document about how communities see themselves and what opportunities are available within those communities and what maybe is missing in those communities that other organizations can try to fill.”

Participants were asked to name distinguishing features, not just in art but in daily life, that make Ocean Beach interesting, enjoyable and exceptional. The resulting feedback included murals, galleries, music and other types of art, as well as practices and traditions such as surfing, tattoos and the farmers market. Some brought up the community’s gradual gentrification.

This 2019 mural depicts Ocean Beach’s famous parrots.
(Savanah Duffy)

In discussing art specifically, the group examined the impromptu and often temporary visual arts referred to as “guerrilla,” spontaneous or whimsical that are off the beaten track.

Examples were a leaning stop sign that was commemorated with a tile, a decorated tree and items in front yards that are constantly evolving, such as a dollhouse.

“There’s an element of a peer-to-peer community in a lot of our art that’s for maybe some little group of people that you think will appreciate it, where it’s made for your neighbor,” said OBTC board member Aaron Null. “Art that’s in a time and place ... a live community canvas in an ever-changing community. ... Like the people of OB are the art.”

OBTC Vice President Cameron Reid said the impulsive nature and discovery process of such pieces make them personal and vibrant for the viewer, a quintessential part of the experience of art.

“There’s not going to be a map for a cactus with a sign that says it’s beautiful,” he said. “But that’s a lot of what OB really loves. ... You’ve got to hear it on the spot from a neighbor to appreciate it even more, vs. ‘I saw it on the website and showed up Tuesday.’”

Paola "Panca" Villasenor stands in front of a mural she was working on in 2021 in Ocean Beach.
Paola “Panca” Villasenor stands in front of a mural she was working on in 2021 called “Mi Tierra” on a wall of La Doña restaurant in Ocean Beach.
(Ana Ramirez / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

“There’s an element of a peer-to-peer community in a lot of our art that’s for maybe some little group of people that you think will appreciate it, where it’s made for your neighbor. ... Like the people of OB are the art.”

— Aaron Null, Ocean Beach Town Council board member

Art or vandalism?

In analyzing the prevalence of unofficial art in OB, the discussion turned to topical issues such as graffiti and drum circles, generating conflicting viewpoints.

“There are a lot of different ways that we, as OBceans, interpret art,” said OBTC board member Connor Harrington. “I think part of what we’re still trying to do as a community in terms of defining our identity and protecting it is finding at what point does it stop being cute. At what point does it start going into undesirable? When is it a mural and when is it graffiti?”

The graffiti issue polarized some participants.

“Whether it’s street art or paid for by a commission, graffiti is an art form as well,” said Jaami Waali. “So tagging is the beginning of the art.”

Others said graffiti is a form of vandalism that is a forerunner to worse trends when a community allows it to continue.

“Tagging might be the start of great graffiti, but not all graffiti is great, and most tagging sucks,” said a resident who identified herself only as Patti. “I think it’s destructive. It downgrades Ocean Beach because you really don’t see that in a lot of upscale destination locations. It’s taken away quickly.”

Tessa Hollingsworth countered that the purpose of the meeting was to describe Ocean Beach’s specific qualities, not to aspire to be like another community.

“We should be creating space for every artist,” she said. “That’s what makes [OB] different. It’s not La Jolla, where you have to be this highest-style contemporary art and you’re selected if you’re in a certain type of artistry and you have an art degree. Ocean Beach is a place where all people from all over can come and be an artist and express themselves in whatever way they want to do.”

Drumming up disagreement

The debate spilled over into a discussion of drum circles. Kara DeFrias cited what she sees as bias in some people who object to them.

“Who’s allowed to do art?” she said. “If you see an unhoused person playing his guitar, are they less of an artist than somebody who looks more or less permissible based on our perceptions of them? Do we value the art the same way depending on who is producing it? ... I heard people at restaurants and bars saying about drum circles, ‘Well, they’re not from here.’ I’m more, it’s the art. If they aspire to make the art here, we’re doing something right.”

Patti argued that just as everything is not art, not everyone is an artist, and Ocean Beach’s culture needs a sense of direction.

“Everybody that comes to visit OB, whether it’s homeless or weekend or whatever, not everybody needs to leave a mark because we have this open, whimsical concept,” she said. “I think we should look at that and maybe strive for a little higher caliber, more discerning interest in what we want instead of opening up the corridors to ‘Oh, everything’s cool in OB because we’re so fun.’”

Cultural cravings

The meeting, which lasted almost two hours, produced a wish list of ways to improve the cultural infrastructure. The list includes:

• Various arts and music festivals
• Centralized communication for events and art, both online and with posters or bulletin boards
• An outdoor musical space such as an amphitheater
• A designated graffiti space, such as a wall or boulders
• An artist-in-residence for each district
• A town square including an elevated platform
• Specialized local programs that can draw from big events such as Comic-Con

Dezenzo said most cultural plans are good for five years, after which they typically are reviewed and updated before being renewed.

“We’re not looking at something that we’re going to set in stone today and it’s going to be that way forever,” she said.

Despite the diverse perspectives offered at the meeting, toward the end resident Keith Fink provided a description of Ocean Beach that no one contested.

“This is a beach town,” he said. “We’re one of the last true ones left in all of Southern California. It is and has always been special. This town has been quirky since Day 1.”


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