From the Walls to the Page in ATX Urban Art
New book catalogs Austin's street art, murals, mosaics, and graffiti
By Rachel Koper, Fri., March 24, 2023
Graffiti artists see through a lens, one of unutilized spaces and uncelebrated locations. As Austin grows we consider our urban spaces and density. Do we choose boring? Is it chosen for us? Does an absentee investment group dictate our visual surroundings?
Austin's public art has shifted culturally with the popularity of Banksy and the 50th anniversary of hip-hop. Some is paid for by the city and corporations, and some is just artists grabbing a space. Some of it moves on trains, some flashes by on billboards. There is art for car drivers, bike riders, and pedestrians. People watch you make it or it just appears magically on your commute. It lasts for a day or years, but who maintains it, and who removes it? Now a new book, ATX Urban Art, collects evidence that some of the original practitioners are here.
Editor and artist J Muzacz called the crowdfunded first edition "a two-year full-time effort by me and the team." The work is wide-ranging and inclusive, documenting outdoor artwork from the 1950s to 2020. Documenting art is an art in itself, and this luscious book archives these works while accepting their impermanence, acting as a time capsule for some of our Downtown's great visual moments.
What Muzacz did was approach the creators of the art, not the photographers who take a picture of a mural and print an Austin postcard, and so many of the photographs were provided by the artists or friends. "I felt that the urban art history of Austin would be best told through the artwork and words directly from those most prolific and important artists," Muzacz said, "Tracking down artists and going through archives of some of the oldest known works from our city's graffiti pioneers and earliest mural history was a challenging and infinitely rewarding experience. I've become good friends with some incredible human beings and documentarians like Chale Nafus who captured in his photographs the birth of Austin's hip-hop movement in the early Eighties."
Muzacz even included blank pages in the back for collectors to add artists' signatures, and at one event in December he handed out gold, silver, and black Sharpies with the book. He said, "Since the book launch in November, we've hosted a few booksigning events, two exhibitions at 2324 [Studios] and Something Cool Studios, with a third show planned for this August at the Hill Country Galleria Art Center in Bee Cave." Most recently, it's been part of "The Art of Hip Hop" show at the Museum of Graffiti (806 E. Sixth, through March 28). "ATX Urban Art books were flying off the shelves," Muzacz said. "Holding space and creating platforms for people to connect with and patronage artists, purchase artwork, commission murals, and build a stronger community is really the most powerful aspect of what this project blossomed into."
Following Muzacz's technique of letting the community take the lead, I chatted with the artists about their contributions to the book, and to Austin's public art.
Making an Icon: Artist's Favorite Works
"'The Tupac' mural on Sugar Mama's Bakeshop stands out. I painted it in 2019 because I wanted more hip-hop representation on the walls in Austin. I approached Sugar Mama's about it and they were happy to offer up the wall. It is my most tagged mural in Austin. Lol." – Niz
"'Cooler than You' was a funny one as I was poking fun at the changing Eastside at the time. They all have at least some sort of story that goes along with them, be it the act of painting it, who I was with, what was going on in the environment." – Mez Data
"The 'Ghost Totem Pole' on South Lamar came to exist after I saw the old Shlotzsky's sandwich place closed and covered in graffiti. It was going to be demolished so I thought it was a safe place for some street art to stay up for a little while. I like to pick the spots that the graffiti guys look past. There was a fat pole that used to hold a sign on it. So I measured it up and went home to paint on a large roll of paper. I painted a ghost dog, a buff cat, an angry rainbow, a Siamese cat, and No-Face (from Spirited Away)." – Matthew Rodriguez
"I chose the 'Virgen de Guadalupe,' because hands down, it is the top requested stencil of mine, and there's something about her that folks just can't get enough of, and I mean everyone; not just Mexicans, but gringos. It is one of my top bootlegged images." – Fe De Rico
Location, Location, Location
"One of the most noteworthy experiences would have to be tracking down a Mayan group of men in the Yucatán to paint their portraits in their village in the jungle. I painted the first piece of public art in the region on the only corner store in the village. Since then, I have painted a few more in other villages and it involves rallying local friends to talk to the commissioner, have a meeting, explain what we want to do and then ask for certain walls. In this case we usually involve the children in the village as well." – Niz
"Trains are not for everyone. Trains require crazy amounts of dedication. Each time you go out is a lengthy, dangerous process, a never-ending mission. There are so many factors, sometimes hiking for miles, barbed wire, sticker burrs, rattlesnakes, mosquitoes in your mouth and ears, etc. Not to mention the danger of the actual trains themselves. No wall or canvas can hold a candle." – Worms
"The wall that I have my Urban Outfitters mural up now on Guadalupe and 24th Street has some history to it. In 2002 I wanted to paint a mural on that wall so I asked the store called Legs Diamond, a clothing store that was currently renting the spot. They said they would love for me to, but the owners of the building wanted to keep the wall painted white. They said I should paint it anyway illegally at night. They even wrote me a permission note just in case the cops show up. That night the cops did show up. They parked below my ladder and shined the spotlight on me, so I climbed down and presented them with my fake note." – Matthew Rodriguez
In Memoriam: Public Art as a Statement of Public Grief
"I painted a portrait of my yoga teacher Lisa J, who passed away a couple years ago on a large warehouse door on East Seventh and [Highway] 183. She was a mentor and an Eastside native. I also painted a portrait of Little Richard on the rooftop of the Continental Club when he passed away." – Niz
"I have a R.I.P. mural I painted for my old friend Nekst during Dia de los Muertos at the walls in the Emo's parking lot. I turned his old lettering into green arm muscles punching and spelling out his name accompanied by the Boo Berry cereal ghost pouring out some milk for him." – Matthew Rodriguez
"One of my best friends was Slie, painting his murals were some of the hardest and most personal. I tend not to do a legacy mural unless that person actually had an influence on my life." &– Mez Data
ATX Urban Art (700 pp., $85) is available now from atxurbanart.com/shop.