Street Art in Austin
by Joel Nolan
For over 40,000 years humans have been using some version of paint to tell their unique and individual stories. The oldest known instance of these early paintings can be found in the Cave of El Castillo, located in Northern Spain. Here Paleolithic era man used charcoal and red ochre to create dozens of red disks and stencils of his hands. To produce these, the artists would place their hands on the wall of the cave and blow pigment around them, leaving behind the negative image of their hands. Since these people did not yet have a written language, the hands can be equated to present-day tagging found throughout graffiti culture. In several ancient tombs of Egypt craftsman would carve their names or distasteful images of the Pharaoh to express their opinion before permanently sealing off the entrance to the tomb. Given that the ancient Egyptians held these places to be sacred and a portal to the afterlife, these defamations would be considered disgraceful and a clear example of someone making a political statement. During World War II one name in particular became identified with graffiti, “Kilroy”. Although its origin is debated, I tend to believe Kilroy worked in a bomb plant in Detroit where, after checking a bomb for defects, he would scrawl in white chalk “Kilroy Was Here” on its side. These bombs found their way throughout war torn Europe and “Kilroy” soon became a celebrity among US servicemen. As American forces took back towns from the Germans, a soldier would customarily write “Kilroy Was Here” on whatever wall was left standing. There is virtually no way to pinpoint the beginning of modern graffiti, but most pioneers in the art agree that it sprung out of the social unrest of the 1960s, the re-emergence of gangs, and the invention of spray paint.
During the 1960s in Philadelphia, “Cornbread” and his partner “Kool Earl” defined the role of the modern day graffiti writer. For Cornbread it began with a few tags as a way to get attention from a girl but quickly turned into a full-time mission once he began receiving more widespread recognition. Cornbread and Kool Earl’s exploits were chronicled by the black press, and the two soon began to feed off each other. About this same time in New York “Taki 183,” who regularly travelled throughout the city working as a messenger, would use a marker to print his name wherever he went, including subway stations and the inside and outside of subway cars. His tag was seen all over the city, and he quickly gained enough attention to be interviewed by the New York Times magazine for an article about the growing graffiti culture. Kids all over New York, realizing the fame and notoriety that could be gained from tagging their names on subway cars, began to emulate Taki 183, and the amount of graffiti on trains exploded.
“The street is the river of life of the city, the place where we come together, the pathway to the center.” –William H. Whyte
Over the next few decades street art or mural art, a very distinct subgenre of graffiti, began to evolve and gain increasing attention and acceptance as refined artistic expression rather than illegal nuisance. More specifically in Austin, Texas, the more ubiquitous graffiti subculture has focused predominantly on the art rather than delinquency. Due to the pervasiveness of social media and the simple fact that just about every individual is now equipped with a camera in his or her phone, one might assume the incidence of street art and murals has increased in Austin, but historically this was always a large component of the city.
Each instance is individual in nature, telling a story that is specific to its own time and place and adding to the ever-changing identity of Austin.
In 1974, artists Kerry Awn, Tom Bauman, and Rick Turner were commissioned to paint a mural for the University Co-Op describing Austin’s exceptional individuality and personality. Titled “Austintatious,” this eclectic depiction of Austin has weathered forty years and is a direct visual link to an “Old Austin” soul that so many people are working hard to keep alive today. Because of its quirky details, references to local culture, and adjacency to the UT campus, this mural has become a landmark in itself, quickly winning over the attention and adulation of anyone passing through the Renaissance Market. In 1986, artist John Fisher created the Sesquicentennial mural titled The Middle Passage on the side of the George Washington Carver Museum and Cultural Center. This was Austin’s first public library building and a museum dedicated to preserving African American culture through assorted forms of art. This vibrant and complex image promotes African history and is dedicated to those that did not survive the middle passage as slaves on trans-Atlantic ships. In 1991, while on tour promoting their Nevermind album, Nirvana front man Kurt Cobain was photographed wearing a t-shirt showcasing Daniel Johnston’s “Jeremiah The Innocent” character from Johnston’s 1983 album cover. In 1993, the owner of what was then the Sound Exchange record store commissioned Johnston to paint his iconic frog on the side of his building. Surviving over 20 years of Texas heat, various bouts of construction, and the occasional vandal, this one, somewhat simple, image and slogan of “Hi, How are you?” spawned an entire industry and made it cool to be from Austin when Texas was more widely viewed as a strictly conservative state. In 2010, local musician Amy Cook adorned the side of Jo’s coffee shop with a simple, but beautifully scripted message to her then girlfriend. In the few years since, the “I Love You So Much” message has taken on a life of its own and become an Austin icon. In 2011, Castle Hill Partners agreed to a proposal from The HOPE Campaign, a non-profit that connects artists with social causes, allowing artists to work at the abandoned construction site located on Baylor Street just off of North Lamar. Every inch is filled with a constantly changing array of tags, murals, messages, and wheat paste pieces.
These are just a few well-known examples of the varied landscape of street art in Austin. Each instance is individual in nature, telling a story that is specific to its own time and place and adding to the ever-changing identity of Austin. Rooted in an enormous concern for their shared environment, Austin’s inhabitants have historically defined a significant character of the city to be found based on the quality of its public space. These public spaces are a valuable asset to the city’s success because they facilitate a sense of community, culture, and civic identity. In public spaces where street art emerges, the expressive and authentic nature of the art can add significantly to the emotional connection the user accumulates from the space, leaving him or her with a more impassioned spatial memory of both the immediate place and the city as a whole. In a time of a rapidly expanding global culture, street art can add to a sensation of individuality, both as a unique place within the city and as a collective singular within the context of a larger state and/or nation.