Austin Street Art Enters Into a New Era
With the city cracking down on graffiti and Hope Outdoor Gallery set to close, Austin street art enters into a new era
It's 2pm, broad daylight, and a young man with a bandanna masking his face is spray-painting letters onto a retaining wall. His slight frame bends down and up again, following the graceful curves of his lettering. He works quickly, laying down letters, then returning to define and outline each one until the image spells out "Escove," six feet tall. I wait for an opening to ask what "Escove" means. He tells me it's his name.
Depending on the work, tagging city walls can be a class B or C misdemeanor, or even a felony carrying a prison sentence. So street artists painting illegally will often get out at night. But not at the Hope Outdoor Gallery, the Downtown graffiti park on Castle Hill, which will close in October. It is currently one of the only places in town where artists like Escove can produce large-scale murals without worrying about the police.
Escove is not his real name, of course: It's a moniker he uses in the world of street art. Those who dabble in illegal street art, or what is often referred to as graffiti, and who also create professional, commissioned art make up a whole community of artists here in Austin. Many started at Hope when it opened in 2011. Together, they've fostered a robust professional street art scene.
The Blue Dozen is one of Austin's most active street art collectives. It also grew out of Hope, according to its founder, who goes by Briks. When Briks moved here in 2010, street artists would find each other through social media. "Flickr and Myspace and stuff like that," he said. "Several of us would get together and ride bikes around and do our bit." Most of these rides ended at a place they called the Foundation, which later became Hope. When Briks found out it was a legal spot to paint, he started painting there and meeting other artists.
Around the same time that Briks started painting at Hope, a woman named Molly Maroney and an artist named Heath Speakman started networking at the park. The two devised the idea to promote street art in Austin and turn a small profit by putting some of their friends' art on T-shirts and selling them. They called their budding business SprATX.
SprATX tapped into a hunger for accessible street art in Austin. When the X Games arrived in 2014, they called SprATX, as have Fun Fun Fun Fest and the Austin City Limits Music Festival. Today, SprATX operates as an art agency, spray paint store, and a gallery. Maroney says she has "about 100 artists in her Rolodex" who she can connect to anyone looking to commission a mural or put on a live painting event. SprATX takes a cut of the commission when it connects an artist to a paying project, but Maroney says they still operate like a community. "If you want to be part of SprATX, be part of it," she said. "Come to events, meet other artists, and suggest ideas."
The Hope Outdoor Gallery was supposed to be a temporary project, according to Andi Scull Cheatham. She founded the graffiti park in 2011 with the help of Vic Ayad, whose company, Castle Hill Partners, owned the unfinished condominium foundation that became the park. Ayad bankrolled the project until the land was sold this year to Mid-City Development. People were already painting there at night, but it wasn't legal until Cheatham went to Ayad and asked if she could use the walls to promote her charity, Helping Other People Everywhere Events, which connects artists to nonprofits in order to donate their talents. "At the beginning, we were inviting artists to do curated murals," remembers Cheatham. "Then a few artists just started to show up."
Two of those artists were Mike Johnston and his brother-in-law, Lucas Aoki. Cheatham saw them at the park one day and told them they weren't technically allowed to be painting, but she didn't kick them out. "She told us, 'I like what you're doing, so you're in,'" Aoki said. Johnston was an art teacher and Aoki had just started painting. "It was kind of exciting," he continued. "In the course of a year I went from not painting at all to painting canvas, and from there I went straight to the wall. I painted big pieces at Hope, and that's how I got my first commission."
That commission helped launch what has become a successful artistic career for Aoki. He found his style quickly and started painting whimsical characters, reminiscent of children's book illustrations, on walls around Austin.
Aoki's brother-in-law, Mike Johnston, or Truth, is also a full-time artist, having landed enviable mural commissions from Alamo Drafthouse, Uber, and HomeAway. His most recognizable piece is on the back of Brick Oven Pizza Downtown: an astronaut holding their hand out under a floating slice of pizza.
"It feels like we were painting at Hope yesterday," Aoki said. But the park has changed a lot since then. Whereas it used to be a blank canvas for artists, Hope is now a playground for tourists. "I sound like an old guy, but way back in the good old days, you could paint something and it would stay for months," said Johnston. "It's not like that anymore."
These days, an artist will work all day on a piece only to find it tagged up or painted over the next morning. When it became clear to Cheatham that Hope was no longer serving the needs of artists, she decided that Castle Hill had run its course, and started looking for a new home. When she got an offer last year to move it to Carson Creek Ranch, she and Ayad felt comfortable announcing that the park at Castle Hill will close. The new park will open next year, and function like a cultural arts center, with art classes, event space, parking, restrooms, and practice walls open to the public. Some walls will be reserved for professional artists, harkening back to Cheatham's original vision for Hope: as a curated outdoor gallery to promote her charity.
"We want to make it clear we are moving to a bigger location where we will be able to program, curate, and still have practice walls," she said. "These are needs we've been documenting for eight years."
Graffiti Goes Up
Just as graffiti took over Hope, it's becoming a problem for the city of Austin. Sonny Chandler is a parks and grounds manager for the Parks and Recreation Department, and stands on the front lines of the battle against graffiti on public property. "We started recognizing that we were getting more graffiti, and our maintenance crews were spending more time on it, so Parks created a full-time crew for graffiti removal," Chandler said.
The four-person team convened earlier this year as part of a citywide effort to crack down on graffiti, prompted by a resolution passed by City Council in 2016 directing interim Assistant City Manager (and former PARD director) Sara Hensley to conduct a review of the city's graffiti abatement efforts. What she found, according to a memo released last year, is that Austin "does not have a comprehensive plan to address graffiti, nor do we have a centralized unit to carry out such a plan." Hensley promised the city would "tackle the backlog collectively and then establish a systematic approach to address graffiti on City property."
The city has been making slow progress. At the beginning of 2018, 179 graffiti complaints submitted through 311 were backlogged. These complaints, some of which dated back to June of 2017, were all addressed by the middle of this June, but by July the backlog had accrued 123 new requests. PARD, the city's Youth Development Program, and the Downtown Austin Community Court are all working together to more efficiently address 311 requests. "It really is no extra money," Hensley said. "It is just looking at how each department is dealing with graffiti and reallocating resources." Only requests on public property are included in the backlog, as the city does not abate graffiti on private property.
It's hard to know why the amount of graffiti is growing. Hensley attributes some of it to the creative spirit of the city. "In different cities graffiti grows in different ways," she said. "And I think a lot of this is people trying to express themselves." Chandler thinks a lot of the graffiti in parks is done by teenagers. "One of the things I've noticed is when school gets out, the graffiti goes up," he said. Gang-related graffiti makes up a small portion of the graffiti, according to Brian Robinson, a nuisance abatement detective with the Austin Police Department. But he said he hasn't been on the job long enough to know whether that number is going up.
All of this uncertainty stems from a lack of statistics kept on graffiti in Austin. Prior to Council's resolution in 2016, departments handled graffiti abatement on their own. No citywide graffiti statistics were kept, aside from 311 reports. These reports show that the majority of requests come from Council District 9, which encompasses much of the center city and Downtown. A newly formed graffiti steering committee will be collecting statistics from each department regarding graffiti removal, including the number of tags removed, the square footage of those tags, and the number of hours spent by workers removing them. The city plans to use this information to create a comprehensive graffiti abatement strategy over the next few years.
Chandler started tracking the graffiti removed by his team back in April, because he was curious about whether their efforts were working. "I think they are making progress," he said. "It's a slow progress right now. But I think they are making progress." He cited the Mabel Davis skate park as a good example: "My team cleaned it up, and it goes a bit longer before it gets tagged again." But sometimes it's the opposite. The South First Street bridge is one place that gets hit as soon as his team cleans it. "It's like we're making a blank canvas for them," he said.
While the majority of the graffiti Chandler's team removes is made up of words, sometimes his team ends up removing pictures. City laws make no distinction between art and graffiti, according to Chandler, so his team removes any markings they find on park property, even if the markings could be construed as art.
"The difference between art and graffiti is permission," Hensley explained. "If it's on city property, and they don't have permission, then we will remove it. But if people want to put something up, and it's appropriate, then we want them to come to us."
A Collaborative Spirit
The idea of a street artist showing up to City Hall to ask permission to paint walls may sound ridiculous, but city-sponsored murals are a proven graffiti deterrent. The city of Philadelphia, for example, has been using murals to reduce illegal tagging since 1984. "When graffiti was rampant in the Eighties, instead of sending these kids to jail, the thought was, 'Why don't we enlist them to paint over the graffiti?'" said Netanel Portier, a director of the Mural Arts Institute at Mural Arts Philadelphia.
MAP is a nonprofit that grew out of Philadelphia's graffiti abatement program. It was founded in 1997 by Jane Golden, an art teacher hired by the city to train youth employed by the program to paint murals. When she realized the effort could grow into a public arts program with more funding, Golden created a nonprofit to conduct fundraising. Today, MAP funds and executes 70-100 annually murals through a partnership with its city.
While it sounds simple, a lot of work goes into a successful community mural. Portier's team works closely with the communities into which new murals are going, to ensure that the artist and the subject matter will be a good fit. Usually, this includes going to community meetings, talking to local community leaders, going door to door to ask permission from neighbors, and holding meetings to introduce the artist to the community. "The difference between a mural and street art is that a mural is created with consent, in a collaborative spirit," she said.
Austin is currently taking cues from Mural Arts Philadelphia, according to Art in Public Places Project Manager Curt Gettman. Gettman oversees a new public art series for the city of Austin called Tempo 2D, which will pay artists to put up murals on public property throughout the city. The series is an extension of a program that already exists in the Cultural Arts Division called Tempo, which commissions sculptors to make 3-D art that is displayed in public parks. Tempo 2D has a budget of $50,000, all coming from the hotel occupancy tax, and individual artists will be paid $3,000 to $7,000 based on the size and complexity of their design.
Gettman worked with the Austin Parks Department to identify walls that would be good for public art, which happen to be some of the same walls that frequently get hit with graffiti. Once he identified sites around the city, he opened applications for the program. He received 85 entries for 10 spots. "We've never had that big of a response," he said. "So there's obviously a need to provide artists opportunities like this." Based on this interest, Gettman added two more walls to accommodate 12 artists in total. The winners were announced at the beginning of the summer and will begin painting in September.
Gettman came to Austin from Pittsburgh, where he worked for a nonprofit similar to Mural Arts Philadelphia. Community engagement is a primary component of both programs, and Gettman intends to import that ethos to Austin. "We've seen instances where art goes up unexpectedly," he said, "And I think with graffiti the negative connotation comes from not knowing it is going to happen." Because of this, the Tempo 2D artists have to submit their designs to the city and residents, as well as businesses around the wall that they are assigned. After seeking feedback and incorporating it into their design, their design must be approved by the city.
Luis Angulo is one of the artists selected to participate in Tempo 2D. The local street artist, who signs his work ULOANG, just finished a large mural on the side of Mr. Natural on East Cesar Chavez. He also does murals at Hope Outdoor Gallery whenever he can fit them in between working on commissions. When he found out he would get to paint the wall across from Chuy's on Barton Springs for Tempo 2D, he was ecstatic. "I have to go through several rounds of submissions, but it's total artistic freedom after that," he said.
After engaging with the community, Angulo's enthusiasm is curbed. His initial design for the wall featured a salamander peeking out from behind some aquatic plants. When he showed the design to the residents at the Zilker on the Park complex, the closest residential unit to the wall, some said that they were against the design because of the salamander's role as a symbol of the local environmentalist movement.
"There are all these politics wrapped up with this little lizard," Angulo said. "As an artist, I've never had to deal with politics before. I just paint what I want to." Now, he's had to come up with another design for the wall. Angulo plans to submit both designs to the Tempo 2D committee, along with the neighbors' comments, and let the committee decide what he should do.
In addition to the limits imposed on artistic expression by the engagement aspect of the program, Tempo 2D is circumscribed by the source of its funding. Since the money for the program is coming from the city's hotel occupancy tax, the murals can't go just anywhere. "They have to be high visibility," Gettman said. "They have to support tourism in some way."
This makes Austin's program very different from Mural Arts Philadelphia, which places its murals based on a neighborhood application process. And, since the Tempo 2D murals can only be placed in tourist areas, they are unlikely to make a citywide impact on graffiti abatement.
Pick Your Spot
Hensley is aware of the program's limitations. She referred to Tempo 2D as a "pilot" program, meant to test the feasibility of a proactive approach to combating graffiti with public art. "This is our first attempt," she said. "Depending on how successful it is, we'll determine whether to launch a big program and find a way to support that." The city will track the number of tags the Tempo 2D murals receive over the course of the year in order to make that decision.
"I think everybody is hoping it works," said Sammi Curless, an administrative specialist with Austin Energy and a member of the graffiti steering committee. Lauren Seyda is also on the committee. She's a project coordinator for the Transportation Department. "Our signal cabinets are just waiting to have art on them," she said. "And our signals team says, 'Yeah, that's no problem.'" But the boxes cost approximately $800 to wrap in vinyl, according to Seyda, which is holding up the process. The Transportation Department has contracted with UP Art Studio, a Houston-based agency that specializes in public art, to wrap four traffic signal boxes this year.
In the meantime, some artists aren't waiting for an invitation from the city. When Truth isn't working on a professional commission, he spends time on his passion project: making art to put up on electric and traffic signal boxes. Like Seyda, he sees the boxes as objects in desperate need of art. "There's a conversation we need to have about what constitutes vandalism," he said. "If I'm putting something up on an illegal space, like a pole of a bridge or a signal box, those are just dull, gray spots waiting for graffiti or a garage sale poster."
Truth puts up his own version of "posters" on the boxes, but they are a long way from graffiti or a garage sale sign. His posters are professionally executed on vinyl with latex paint, and he uses wallpaper glue to adhere them to the boxes, which he measures beforehand to ensure a perfect fit. The result is an incredibly durable piece of art. His longest-running poster, on an electric box in Clarksville, has been up for six years.
On a recent morning, Truth set out to put up a poster on a traffic signal box he's been eyeing for two years. Before attaching his art, he scraped a small poster off the box that was starting to peel. "I know the guy who did this," he said. "I've been waiting for it to run its course so I could get at this spot." The fact that the little poster lasted for so long is proof that whoever services that traffic signal doesn't particularly care about busting graffiti, he said, which is another reason he's excited about the box. He carries his poster rolled up under his arm and a tub of glue in a paper Whole Foods bag. I ask him how much one poster costs to make. "Forty cents," he said. "Assuming you buy the supplies in bulk."
First, he applies the glue to the signal box, which takes about five minutes. Then he carefully aligns the poster and unrolls it to reveal a portrait of the Brazilian soccer player Pelé looking up into the distance, much like the image of Barack Obama from his 2008 campaign.
The background of the poster is light pink, and it glows against the dark night sky. As the sun rises, the clouds turn the exact same shade of pink, and it's like the poster was meant to be there.
This story has been updated to reflect that Mural Arts Philadelphia funds and executes 70-100 murals annually, not in total.