Austin’s Vibrant Mural Culture Instills Sense of Community in the Urban Landscape

This article originally appeared in Preservation Austin’s June 2018 Newsletter.

You can spot them all over social media in the background of selfies and engagement photos, on coasters, mugs, and prints found at local gift shops, featured in tourism ads, and as the subject of news stories. Austin murals have become a popular representation of our city.

However, murals and works of public art are much more than backdrops and promotional tools. They are symbols of our community and its creative spirit. They surprise and delight us, breaking us out of our routines to take note of our unique surroundings. They are a source of pride.

From Daniel Johnston’s “Hi, how are you?” on The Drag, to “I love you so much” at Jo’s Coffee on South Congress, to the immersive HOPE Outdoor Gallery and many other urban spaces that have been transformed into vibrant canvases, Austin’s murals are a significant part of its culture. While some start as commissions, some as graffiti, and some as temporary installations for festivals like SXSW and E.A.S.T., the nature of a mural’s origin doesn’t necessarily determine whether it stands the test of time and reaches icon status. It is the artists who contribute a sense of authenticity and distinctiveness to the urban grid. It is the people of Austin and the people for whom we serve as tour guides that give these works meaning. We do so by embracing them, documenting them, and sharing them as expressions of the place we love and the culture we thrive in.

In the case of works that are often expected to be ephemeral, how do we call for preservation? As businesses shift in and out of spaces that house murals, what is their responsibility? Are there resources we can turn to for conservation or assistance with the costs of removing vandalism? Do we have adequate policies in place to protect the images that we use to portray our identity as a community? Should murals be protected, or should they be left to run their natural course?

Some local business owners have taken it upon themselves to preserve murals on their properties through restoration. The ever Instagram-worthy “I love you so much” mural at Liz Lambert’s Jo’s Coffee has been restored time and again after at least three different instances of vandalism in its 8 years.[i] Johnston’s “Hi, how are you?” has also been restored several times, most recently by David Roberts, who owns “Thai, how are you?,” a Thai restaurant that occupies the space and was named after the work.[ii] Roberts researched the history of the mural and was inspired to contact the artist’s family to undertake the restoration and collect photos depicting the building’s history for an installation inside the restaurant.

Other individuals may have decided to remove these murals. These are valiant efforts by a few. Imagine what we could do if artists, business owners, city officials, and community members worked together to set the bar for mural preservation and restoration and solidify it in policy, backed up by funding.

The City’s Historic Landmark Commission recently called for comprehensive photo documentation of murals at HOPE Outdoor Gallery in their original context at Castle Hill before they are demolished in June 2018 to make way for new development, recognizing that “…it is a site of value to the community and visitors.” [iii] HOPE Outdoor Gallery is maintained by 501c3 non-profit HOPE (Helping Other People Everywhere) Campaign. The “community paint park” opened in March 2011 with the help of renowned contemporary artist Shepard Fairey as the only paint park of its kind in the United States and has grown to become one of the top art destinations in Texas, inspiring features in national outlets from the New York Times to Conde Nast Traveler. According to the organization’s website, HOPE Outdoor Gallery developed to “provide muralists, street artists, arts education classes and community groups the opportunity to display large scale art pieces driven by inspirational, positive, and educational messaging.”[iv] And, the gallery has done just that, serving as a forum and gathering space for locals and visitors alike.

It is noteworthy that the Historical Landmark Commission will require comprehensive photo documentation before demolition, but is this enough to be classified as adequate preservation for an ever-changing, living space? A KXAN report summarizing the Commission’s decision reads, “Once the photo-documentation process is complete, the permit allows crews to demolish all of the concrete walls and slabs on the lot. The commission states that the walls and slabs have, ‘no architectural, historical or known archaeological significance.’”[v] I think it’s also worth examining qualities beyond the physical structure when it comes to determining whether a space is preservation-worthy. If the wall a mural is painted on is not historically significant, what protection does the artwork have? Was it the presence in the heart of a walkable downtown area that made HOPE Outdoor Gallery so visible and engaging? Will it be the same to interact with artwork at Carson Creek Ranch, HOPE Outdoor Gallery’s next home, on the outskirts of the city? Will the new development fulfill the public’s need for and interest in engagement with the arts and cause-oriented activities in this area?

The City of Austin’s Art in Public Places Artist Resource Guide,[vi] maintained by the Economic Development Department’s Cultural Arts Division, states, “Public art is an investment in the City’s energy and vitality. It contributes to the City in a variety of ways: it enhances the aesthetics of the City, it promotes dialogue within communities, and it generally serves as a reflection of the City’s values, collective memory, and diversification…” I believe this can also be applied to murals, such as those mentioned above, that are not commissioned by the City. The guide also reads, “Maintenance is a critical aspect of preserving the integrity of a work of art for future audiences after the commission has been completed…the AIPP Panel carefully reviews proposed maintenance requirements to ensure that the City will be able to commit the resources necessary to maintain the work according to the artist’s intention…Selection panels and the AIPP Panel also consider the susceptibility of proposed projects to acts of vandalism.” While the City recognizes the need for maintenance and protection and considers whether they can commit to this in the review process for proposed public art projects, they do not outline how the ease of preservation may weigh into a decision and place the responsibility on the artist to outline exactly how to maintain the work.

A staff member with the Art in Public Places Program directed me to a guide for “Mural Creation Best Practices,”[vii] created by Heritage Preservation’s Rescue Public Murals (RPM) with support from the National Endowment for the Arts, as a reference. The guide spells out challenges to mural preservation and suggests techniques for planning and maintenance.

One of the keys to RPM’s approach involves planning for a long lifespan from the beginning, and calls for artists and those commissioning artists to carefully select locations and materials that can stand up to weather and graffiti. “While working to ensure the protection and preservation of existing murals,” the guide reads, “RPM recognizes that many common issues that murals face could have been mitigated with careful planning and preparation. RPM has held conversations and brainstorming sessions with muralists, conservators, art historians, arts administrators, materials scientists, and engineers to document best practices for mural creation…Recommendations are not meant to be prescriptive but instead to pose questions and raise issues that should be considered at each stage of creating a mural: planning, wall selection, wall and surface preparation, painting, coating, and maintenance.” Another key element the guide highlights is the incorporation of input from a variety of experts. However, community stakeholders are not included on the list of consultants.

What I’ve found is that artists, business owners, nonprofit organizations, neighborhood residents, and city officials are all taking different approaches to maintain and preserve the murals they know their audiences value. They are working, but not working together. We do not have a commonly referenced and trusted resource that provides leadership in this area.

I’d like to pose the question: What are the steps we can take as a community to protect public works that we value and that are of value to our city? I can see many benefits to having a clear, comprehensive, and accessible preservation plan, as well as a public fund for mural maintenance open to all applicants. And, I’m sure there are many other effective strategies.

There are many challenges to maintaining outdoor works that may not have been created with longevity in mind. Yet, there are actionable steps we can take, even when we are uncertain. The first step is asking questions. The second is speaking up in civic forums and in the media. I’m optimistic about the potential we have when we get involved and work together, which Preservation Austin helps us accomplish. Let’s get this discussion started and get organized.

[i] Jackson Prince. “Everything You Don’t Know About the Best Murals in Austin.” Austinot. Feb. 15, 2018. Accessed at: https://austinot.com/best-murals-in-austin.

[ii] Chase Hoffberger. “Thai, How Are You?” Austin Chronicle. August 28, 2013. Accessed at: https://www.austinchronicle.com/daily/music/2013-08-28/thai-how-are-you/

[iii] Calily Bien. KXAN. “Permit to Demolish HOPE Outdoor Gallery Graffiti Park Moves Forward.” January 30, 2018. Accessed at: http://www.kxan.com/entertainment/permit-to-demolish-hope-outdoor-gallery-graffiti-park-moves-forward/1031519126

[iv] HOPE Outdoor Gallery website. Accessed at: http://hopecampaign.org/hopeprojects/hope-outdoor-gallery/

[v] Bien, KXAN, 2018.

[vi] City of Austin Economic Development Department. 2015. Accessed at: https://www.austintexas.gov/sites/default/files/files/EGRSO/aipp_resourceguide_20150629_sm.pdf

[vii] Heritage Preservation’s Rescue Public Murals Initiative. “Mural Creation Best Practices.” 2012.

Expert in museum studies and nonprofit communications. Millennial mom passionate about fostering a culture of kindness. Lover of live music and Texas wine.

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