Guest article by Gino Barasa
It’s five in the morning and I’m somewhere off 51st Street with Austin’s most dangerous street artists.
Well, not exactly. It is really early and I am watching some of Austin’s finest street artists do their thing, but they aren’t actually very dangerous. In fact, they’re really a bunch of easy going guys who happen to be amazingly talented artists.
Austin’s Little Brother
The Austin street art scene has become a growing and visceral part of the city’s overall vibe. If the music scene is the 2000 pound gorilla of Austin’s cultural landscape, then the street art community is its little brother. A little brother that is growing up fast.
All over midtown and across the east side, massive and beautiful murals spring up overnight on a weekly–and sometimes daily–basis. On barren walls and dumpsters, across busted fences and back alley doorways, these rattle can warriors are turning the mundane into the marvelous. From colorful and fantastic creatures to politically charged imagery, the street art of Austin is always cause to stop and admire the imagination behind the work.
Austin’s Street Art Roots
The famous “Greetings from Austin” mural found on the side of the Roadhouse Relics building on South First Street, painted by Rory Skagan, may be the grandfather of street art in Austin. Soon “Jeremiah the Innocent” (AKA – Hi How Are you?) and the words “I love you so much” (on the side of Jo’s Coffee on South Congress) were sprayed across walls, on their way to becoming local landmarks.
Are These Guys Sane?
Street artists are out there on their own dime finding spaces frequently abandoned, and sometimes otherwise, which they deem in need of a little freshening up.
I have long been an admirer of these amazing works of art that can be seen all over the streets of Austin. I’ve also frequently wondered what drove the faces behind the paint cans to risk incarceration in order to touch up an abandoned wall.
So I did what anyone who wants to figure something out does. I Googled it. Street artists almost always leave behind some sort of cryptic symbol in need of a little decoding, in order to communicate who they are. After a little effort, I ended up face to face off 51st Street with some of Austin’s finest artistic misdemeanors.
Jason Eatherly and Mike “Truth” Johnston are as prolific and dedicated as anyone, hitting the streets every week when they aren’t busy with client work. Eatherly’s Queen Eli, also known as “Queen with Gas Mask” may be the most recognizable single piece of street art in Austin today. It’s almost everywhere. You can hardly throw a paint can on the east side without hitting it on a dumpster, wall, stop sign, electrical box or a car that’s been parked for more than a day.
The thing that has always fascinated me about these folks is they do art at their own expense and at their own risk. And for the most part, no one ever knows who they are or why they did it. They aren’t getting paid or getting credit for their amazing work. So what’s driving them out every day to do this?
After talking to five well known street artists, I found the answer was far simpler than I anticipated. In one form or another, the answer was universally that they just felt like they had to do it. When they aren’t busy painting murals and canvases for their various clients, they simply feel the need to keep painting, even if no one appreciates it or knows who to give credit to.
One Man’s Trash Is Another Man’s Treasure
The irony is that while one business will gladly pay thousands to have original works of art placed on their building, the owner next door will call the police if they spot someone painting a mural for free.
What makes street art so valuable is its transitory nature. Once a piece is up, it may exist for a week or two before being painted over or tagged by graffiti nihilists looking to make a name for themselves. When you see amazing work, know you’re probably seeing it intact for the last time. The life span is so limited that viewing street art in the wild is a real honor.
So How Do You Get Your Hands on This Stuff?
While it’s true that you can find some of the most amazing work in the back alleys and on abandoned buildings, you can also drive down to 1012 Baylor Street and check out the Hope Outdoor Gallery where street art is on display 24/7/365.
This three story outdoor gallery offers Austin artists the opportunity to show off their craft every day of the year. The Hope Gallery was launched in 2011 with the help of one of the most famous street artists there is, Shepard Fairey, the founder of Obey Giant Art. It’s constantly turning over its walls with fresh new installations every day.
If the Hope Gallery is the incubator for street art in Austin, then SprATX is street art on a weaponized level. Located at 501 Pedernales, SprATX is a cooperative started by the street artists themselves almost one year ago, in an attempt to give the artists not only a brick and mortar presence but a social media hub to help people locate them.
Through SprATX, and their own hard work, local street artists like Jason Eatherly, Mike “Truth” Johnston and Lucas Aoki, as well as others only known by their street names like G52 and MOUF, have just started to make a name for themselves. More and more art collectors as well as large companies in Austin are now hiring them for custom pieces and large scale murals.
So get in your car or jump on your bike this weekend starting at Jo’s Coffee on South Congress and make a grid sweep north through midtown, and you’ll have the pleasure of viewing some of the best art work in Austin outside, free and ever changing.
@theAustinot wants to know:
What is your favorite piece of street art in Austin, past or present?
Gino Barasa is a local photographer and native Texan. His real love is finding ways to capture the city of Austin. His work can be viewed on his website at 1138Studios.com.