Art can be raw and divine at the same time. It can alter the way a person sees and perceives the world.
Streets and alleys don't require that I be an art expert. No one judges my interpretation of a giant cabbage, crying light bulbs, or an Aztec with a flailing red tongue. Though I appreciated learning that the red tongue represents an archetypal Mexican deity and his thirst for human blood, a symbol that could mean fostering life or snuffing it out, it is still a powerful image without the symbolism.
"Hola Friend" (Corner of East César Chávez and Robert T. Martinez Streets) is a stark mural by Austin native Will Hatch Crosby. The piece pops on a brick wall, its black-and-white lines clear and crisp. Crosby was brought up on classic Godzilla films, Bob Dylan, and Michael Jordan. He considers himself aligned with fabled beasts, forward-thinking paragons, and slam-dunks.
The mural's abstract steer has a broken horn. Crosby said people could give it political meaning if they chose. "The truth is, I didn't want to paint over the window grids," he told a local aficionado. Crosby's work respects cultural diversity on the east side, an area formerly known as "gang central."
Down the street on the northwest side of an office building is "Low Rider" (2131 E. César Chávez Street) by Arturo and Deko. The turquoise Chevy looks like it's driving off the wall, bouncing on its wire-spoke wheels. DEKO is framed in the license plate.
The "low rider" trend began in Los Angeles in the 1940s when Mexican-American teens lowered blocks, cut spring coils, and z'ed the frames. (When a frame is cut, usually in front of the rear wheels, and a section is welded in. This raises the axle so larger tires will fit.)
The mural reminded me of cruising L.A. suburbs in the 1960s, low-and-slow through Bob's Big Boy drive-in. I could almost taste the $.35 strawberry milk shakes.
Across the driveway from "Low Rider," a solemn, close-eyed David Bowie by urban artist Uloang snaps off a geometrid background on an old house (2125 E. César Chávez Street). Bowie appears as Ziggy Stardust, a character he spent months creating. His name comes from a barbershop Bowie noticed from a train window.
I stepped back, imaging Uloang—an anagram of his last name, Angulo—in his knit beanie high on a ladder, spray-painting free-style. No projected image or tape.
Uloang emigrated to the U.S. from Venezuela with his family when he was 11 years old. An Austin resident for about 10 years, his work reflects his niche as a Venezuelan living in the U.S. Art, politics, social issues, and pop culture turn up on his open-air canvases: block walls in weedy vacant lots and on buildings, fusing the street and gallery into a single being.
"I use pop images because they symbolize different things for each person," he said in an interview with Showmoon Magazine. "It's another way of interacting with people."
For years I confused the terms "graffiti" and "street art." Maybe I wasn't entirely off, but I wasn't quite right either. To complicate things, artists around the world often interchange the two. I'm told "graffiti" art is typically letter or word-based, usually with the artist's tag name. Aerosol cans and paint markers are their main tools.
"They free hand everything," Uloang related in an email.
Early "writers" were self-taught kids from the inner cities. Much of their work was and still is illegal. "Street artists often use the same tools as graffiti artists," Uloang said. "But they also use stencils, wheat paste, projectors, brushes, and other drawing tools."
Both artist types employ private and public space for canvases and create visual messages for the public. Street art reflects messages about culture, community, and politics—routinely with a counter-culture edge. While some artists are self-taught, many have formal training. Their work is often commissioned or they've received permission from the property owner.
Jesus and Luisa Mendoza opened Mr. Natural (1901 E. César Chávez St.) in 1988, serving Mexican-inspired vegetarian meals one day a month in an all-you-can-eat buffet.
"There's a saying in Mexico," Jesus said. "If you want to be strong like the bull, then don't eat the bull. Eat what the bull eats."
"Vegetarians of the World" is a 40-foot tall mural on the parking lot side of their 3-story building, now a thriving restaurant, bakery, and health food store. Uloang teamed up with Argentinian-born Nano Berks for the mammoth project—building a scaffold, leveling it with two-by-fours, and renting a monster 45-foot lift.
The mural reminds us that being a vegetarian isn't just a fad. It's a lifestyle with a meaningful history. The piece took about 3 months, 20 gallons of paint, and about 500 spray cans.
"The lift bounced a lot, especially in the wind," Nano said, pausing to take off her ball cap so it wouldn't blow away. "I'm stoked about the apple—looks pretty delicious."
The size and magnitude of the project created its own challenges. "First we traced the images on the wall, figuring it out as we went, often working at night." Nano didn't know if she'd get through it. "Ideally every project I take is significantly more challenging than the last. I'm never in my comfort zone."
Nano took a breath, glancing at the wall. "Every time I go to the paint store it's $500 or $1000 worth of spray cans."
There are fifteen portraits in all: César Chávez (holding a plump tomato) is juxtaposed with Bridget Bardot and Mister Rogers. Also pictured: Coretta Scott King, Natalie Portman, Paul McCartney, Carl Lewis, Prince, Uma Thurman, Faye Wong, Albert Einstein, Rosa Parks, Ben Franklin, Gandhi, and Buddha.
Each time Stephanie Distefano shatters a mirror someone's in for years of "ah" some art. Her complex mosaics are created with mirror glass and chunks of ceramic tile. Early work included bits and pieces of dishes, such as old deviled-egg platters.
Her pastiche of Gandhi was part of the Payphone Revival Project, mounted on the side of East 1st Grocery (1811 E. César Chávez Street). Distefano planned to create something lighthearted from Tommy Tutone's song "867-5309/Jenny." But the store's owner didn't get it. "He didn't know the song at all."
I stood in a way that let me see myself in Gandhi's face. My image reflected in the space behind me, becoming a sort of mirage. The words PEACE and LOVE glinted inside his circular-rimmed glasses.
In 1989, La LoterÍa mural went up on the side on what's now Flat Track Coffee (1619 East C&ecute;sar Chávez Street). Every day, as kids walked to and from school, they saw likenesses of their culture at street level: a grandmother making tortillas, a piñata, a rosary. Eventually the harsh Texas weather diluted the color.
Then, in 2015, South by Southwest (specializing in linking film and music events) painted over the mural to promote a festival. The community was both hurt and angry.
"When they covered this up we felt disrespected," said longtime Austin street artist Ramon Maldonado. "We're losing our neighborhood to gentrification."
South by Southwest officials apologized and pledged to restore the mural. A group of artists working in East Austin to save historic murals led the restoration project. The new work took about 4 weeks to complete, illustrating that Mexican-Americans in Austin remain a thriving culture and community.
Felipe Garza was an artist on the original mural. His new piece Soladado shows a golden soldier wearing night vision goggles, marching in front of fence missing part of its structure. The image represents the U.S.-Mexican border and underscores its weaknesses.
"You don't have to go to a gallery, you don't have to go across town to see your culture," said Austin native Robert Kane Herrera. "It's right here in your neighborhood, in your barrio where you live."
Herrera spray-painted a mural of Tex-Mex singer Selena beside LoterÍa. Except for her fiery red lipstick Selena is sharply defined in black-and-white against a dark green background. Block letters at the bottom: La Cantante (The Singer).
An abandoned self-serve car wash is referred to as "Gallery of Vandals." It's impossible to know how many artists have contributed to the concrete-block partitions. The rounded, stylized letters go up quickly. Some artists work on top of themselves, throwing up a letter or two or whole words. I imagined the rattle of spray cans, each with its own energy.
I cut down an alley between E. César Chávez and 2nd Street, searching for Chris Rogers' "Beto For Texas." The long, low mural went up in 2016 during the state's early voting. Rogers hoped the piece would motivate Texans to vote in the Senate race between Senator Ted Cruz and incumbent Beto O'Rouke.
O'Rouke is pictured in front of the state flag holding his jacket open. A "B" on his shirt is a nod to comic book character Superman. Rogers said he wanted to show that "out of darkness comes the light."
Only days after it popped up, the mural was bombed in a drive-by: "Supports Israel," "no hero," "imperialist pig," and other derogatory slogans. Outraged, the community gathered to restore the piece. "Beto For Texas" was changed to "We Rise."
I continued to wander back streets and alleys. Otherwise I wouldn't have stumbled upon "Day Dreaming" by Seraphim-One (Sarah Ponce) and Levis Ponce on a wall behind a neighborhood café. The woman is rendered in smoky charcoals, floating in a circle of goldfish.
I looped around to Austin Metal & Iron (corner of Medina and E. 4th Street), intrigued by so much scrap metal heaped inside the enclosure. A crew of a dozen aerosol artists was given permission to paint the exterior walls. The scene is said to have had a family vibe: artists, kids, barbeque grills, and boom-boxes.
Further down 4th Street on the corner of Bushy, an aged, square-jawed Batman emerges against a purple skyline and full moon. Artist Mez Data salutes the superhero's original dress—though Bob Kane's first vision imagined him as a blond in a red suit with a domino mask.
Data's flair feels like a 1940s Frida and a 1960s Gay Telese got together to shop for spray paint. His documentary style grabbed me, a definite conversation starter.
Down the street, Native Hostel Bar and Café (807 E. 4th Street) is a loose conglomeration of pieces that pushes boundaries of the visual experience. "What if all you can do it just paint?" asked JonOne, a street artist known for abstract expressionist-style graffiti.
Born John Andrew Perello, JonOne grew up in Harlem at the pinnacle of hip-hop and graffiti. He was tagging the streets of New York in the early 1980s. "There was excitement going into a gray tunnel or painting on trains."
He moved to Paris in the 1980s, hooked up with the French artist Bando, and began painting in oil on canvas. His studio art has the same loose energy as his graffiti-inspired work: bold and vibrant colors combined with stylized calligraphy.
JonOne is a master of light and composition, flinging and dripping paint before getting up close with fine stokes. His overlay of paint is like a double exposure—but with an urgency of mood and spirit—a conduit for awareness and togetherness.
Meres One's (born Jonathan Cohen in New York) iconic light bulbs snap on the hostel's back wall. Each face in the five bulbs conveys a different emotion, from happy to sad. I connected most to the face of frustration. Meres' interest in visual art is lifelong, although he didn't explore graffiti until the late 1980s when he began revealing himself with street tags.
Gradually, Meres One put together larger pieces, always using aerosol cans, eventually creating "The Bright Idea" light bulbs.
Street art does many things—transforming wood, brick, metal, concrete, and abandoned buildings into something else. It provides a path for local expression, casting back the richness of the people and their place. Austin's street art surprised me. It helped me consider things I hadn't thought about before. All in the open air of everyone's streets.
Sherry Shahan's Alaskan-based adventure novels include Ice Island and Frozen Stiff. Her travel articles and photographs have appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Christian Science Monitor, Backpacker, Country Living and many other magazines and newspapers. See more at SherryShahan.com.
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