Local artist pays tribute to students lost in Ghost Ship fire


Mel Waters, 34, a muralist from San Francisco poses for a photograph to his mural of Michela Gregory, a former SF State student and her boyfriend Alex Vega on Friday, Feb. 24, 2017. ( Aaron Levy-Wolins/Xpress)

Correction: A previous version of this article mistakenly identified Michela Gregory’s birthday as May 14. The article has since been corrected.

The famous Clarion Alley in the Mission District is now a place of remembrance and celebration for family, friends and the SF State community who knew Michela Gregory and Alex Vega, two of the 36 victims in Oakland’s Ghost Ship fire in December.

Local artist Mel Waters is currently in the process of finishing a mural depiction of the couple requested by their parents.

Soon after the fire that devastated the Bay Area and sudden loss of their daughter, David and Kimberly Gregory, Michela’s parents, went on a search to find an artist to pay tribute to their daughter. David Gregory reached out to multiple artists in the area, and when he came in contact with Waters, both families thought it would be a perfect fit. Two months later the mural began.

“I wasn’t going to go the (street art) route, but I started doing my own research and wanted to see if I could come up with something because I really liked Waters’ work,” David Gregory said. “He replied really quick and he told me he’d be honored to do it, and that’s how it started.”

The process for the mural was a tough, but uplifting experience for the two families. It was a collaborative effort to get personal touches that reflect both Michela and Alex in the well-done tribute. Certain details like the green color choice, cherubs with headphones and another with a spray can, all represent who the two were as individuals. Michela’s father mentioned bringing Waters into their home so he could get to know Michela before he started the mural.

“I wanted him to come and I wanted to show him Michela’s room and show him pictures and just talk about her and the things she liked,” David Gregory said. “He also went over to the Vega’s to talk about Alex with his parents.”

Both the Gregorys and Waters agreed the hardest part was picking the photo to be used in the mural.

“It was hard picking a photo due to the fact that there were not a ton of photos that had mural written all over them,” Waters said. “I feel like you just know as an artist what pictures work and don’t work. They laid out photos and I chose the one I felt I could paint the best.”

Waters, 35, has been a professional Bay Area muralist and tattooist for the past 10 years. His projects tend to focus on things that represent his culture, family and community.  

[/media-credit] Mel Waters, 34, a muralist from San Francisco poses for a photograph to his mural of Michela Gregory, a former SF State student and her boyfriend Alex Vega on Friday, Feb. 24, 2017.

“The Gregorys specifically requested the portraits to be in Clarion Alley and I got them a great spot,” Waters said. “(I hope) family and friends celebrate how beautiful they were and keep pushing because remembrance is beautiful.”

Clarion Alley and the Mission/Valencia District was Michela and Alex’s favorite place to go as a couple, a major reason the families chose the area, according to David Gregory.  Alex also  enjoyed street art; hence the cherub with a spray can painted above him. The cherub with headphones represented Michaela’s love of music and her mother’s love of cherubs.

“It was my idea,” David Gregory said. “But we also told (Waters) to do his thing, to come up with something we all agree on, and what he came up with I think is really nice.”

Michela was a child development major at SF State in the middle of her third year when the fire occurred. She was 20 years old at the time. According to David Gregory, the SF State community has provided a great amount of support and kindness during the difficult time.

“They waived all the fees for Michela’s books and tuition, so they were really kind to us,” he said. “We mentioned giving her an honorary degree or something showing her accomplishments up to this point of her education… We haven’t discussed it any further, but that would be really nice.”

The loss of life resulting from the Ghost Ship fire had a huge impact on the SF State community, the Bay Area and the country. According to David Gregory, an old friend of Michela’s changed majors to focus on homeland security and faster response.

“I thought it was interesting and really nice that someone changed their major because it was a girl that went to middle school with Michela,” David Gregory continued. “If she can motivate in some way or help do something that could actually save someone’s life, that’s awesome.”

Another mural has been completed in Oakland that pays tribute to all 36 victims of the fire.

“There’s 36 doves just flying and they put the names on each of them,” David Gregory said. “I haven’t seen it yet myself, but I will very soon.”

[/media-credit] Mel Waters, 34, muralists from San Francisco – who lives in Pacifica, Calif. – adds the finishing touches to his mural of Michela Gregory, a former SF State student and her boyfriend Alex Vega on Friday, Feb. 24, 2017.

According to the East Bay Times, Waters’ mural is expected to be completed before March 14, which would have been Michela’s 21st birthday. Waters stated that the piece should be complete after one more six-hour session.

“Watching it develop from the ground up, from the beginning when it was just a bare wall, was amazing.” David Gregory said. “As soon as we got there (my wife) started crying. She said it’s like watching her come alive again. It was really moving and touching for us just knowing people are now able to go see it.”

The Gregory family is happy to provide a place for friends and family to celebrate, mourn and visit Michela and Alex outside of a cemetery, as he mentioned it can be a very dark and sad place at most times. Although it is unknown how long the mural will remain, the faces of Michela and Alex will undoubtedly be the center of positive vibes on Clarion Alley.

In the words of David Gregory, “Rave in Peace.”