How Austin Musician Gina Chavez Became the Subject of the City's Latest Mural

The story of an L.A. muralist creating a 12-foot-tall portrait of a local musical star

Levi Ponce's portrait of Gina Chavez, 2400 E. Cesar Chavez (Photo by David Brendan Hall)

Levi Ponce was on a mission: to "spread the beauty of Latino culture throughout the Bible Belt." The successful L.A.-based artist wanted to create public art celebrating Latinos for communities "where we are underrepresented and underserved," he says. "Often, Latino culture is swept under the rug by aspiring neighborhoods because it doesn't fit the proposed bill – especially in the current political climate. But a picture is worth a thousand words ... so rather than argue, I paint murals that everyone can enjoy to blur the cultural lines that often divide us."

Ponce had originally planned to travel with a group of similarly minded artists across the Southwest and Southeast, painting murals in communities along the way. But then a little virus suddenly became a big, big deal, and the plan was put on hold – but not before Ponce and his partner/artist RYSTA managed to get here and make some fresh contributions to Austin's vibrant collection of outdoor murals.

Ponce is no stranger to Austin. With Seraphim One, he painted the Day Dreaming mural at Cenote on East Cesar Chavez, and he covered a 5,000-square-foot wall in the courtyard of Chase Tower with a colossal colorful abstract. But for this visit, he was sensitive about being an outsider and taking space away from local artists, so a friend connected Ponce with prolific local muralist J Muzacz, who was able to reassure the L.A. artist that he would find a more accepting and encouraging street art scene in Austin than in a territorial city like his own. Muzacz then took the initiative on finding some available walls where Ponce could paint alongside local artists and have his work stand next to some of the city's existing murals.

First, at Something Cool Studios, where Muzacz is a resident artist, Ponce and RYSTA painted actor Danny Trejo as Machete, the character he's played in several films by – local connection! – Robert Rodriguez. Just a couple of days later, at a North Austin graffiti jam, Ponce knocked out a quick mural of West Coast rap pioneer B-Real of Cypress Hill. Then it was back to 2400 East Cesar Chavez, where Muzacz had a site in mind for Ponce to make his largest work. It was adjacent to a large mural that was created last fall by Muzacz and the Mosaic Workshop, a community art project: a portrait of legendary local blues pianist Roosevelt Williams, better known as Grey Ghost.

Given the site, Ponce wanted his mural to spotlight another important Austin musician, Muzacz says, "someone who would resonate with the surrounding neighborhoods, which are predominantly and historically Hispanic and Black. As a public artist, it's very important to consider what you are painting, why you are painting it and where, does it fit and will people appreciate it, and what statement are you trying to make, if any, because that's what the locals will see there every day. I did my best to describe the demographic and history in order for him to understand what might resonate with the locals, and I mentioned a handful of local musicians, young and old, and from a diversity of backgrounds, music styles, and persuasions, including, of course, the lovely and talented Gina Chavez. When Levi did a bit of research into Gina's heritage, he found out that she has a charity in El Salvador, and that sealed the deal for him since his father came to the States as a refugee from El Salvador in the 1970s."

Less than a week after arriving in Austin, Ponce completed his third mural. While he was still painting, the subject came by to see it, and the whole idea of being a larger-than-life representation of Latinx culture had her stunned. "My whole life, I've felt so drawn to my Latino roots and at the same time, I've never felt truly 'Latina.' As a light-skinned, English-speaking girl from a middle-class family in Austin, I've felt like an imposter to the Latino community," she says. "But sometimes it takes someone from outside to show you who you truly are inside. There's a huge part of me that looks at an incredible work of art like this and says, 'Why me?' There are so many other people with darker skin, with more of a story, with more connection to their Latino roots; people who truly deserve this kind of honor. At the same time, I have to realize that it's not for me to question. That is the very definition of grace: You can't earn it, you can't seek it, you can only accept it. Levi Ponce truly graced me with this honor and I hope that it may grace our Latino community for years to come."

For Ponce, the trip achieved the goal of his mission for Austin, and he still has hopes to return to the original campaign to paint "from California to Florida the rest of the year." But the visit's most memorable – and significant – moment may have come when he was just beginning the final painting. "When I started to sketch Gina's mural," Ponce says, "a local man of age 60 told me to stop painting murals that robbed his neighborhood of its identity. [He was referring to all the recent street art on trendy shops popping up on East Cesar Chavez.] I explained the mural and my work, and by the time I finished painting the mural, we were friends. It takes a lot for an individual to approach a stranger with such a controversial message, so this made the racial tension in the neighborhood very apparent. Art can help ease those tensions."

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Austin murals, J Muzacz, Levi Ponce, Gina Chavez, RYSTA, Something Cool Studios, Danny Trejo, B-Real

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