“I don’t see graffiti as destructive anymore. Everything about street art has so much meaning behind it, it’s too cool to pass off.”
The streets of Austin, Texas, are famous for the colorful, whimsical art work found plastered on virtually every city wall. Along with a rich music scene, Austin’s street art makes up a decent chunk of tourist attraction. In 2018, travelers spent roughly $80.2 million, this speaks to the vitality of art culture within Austin’s infrastructure. I had the pleasure of chatting with Douglas and Eileen Barber, ATX Art Walk owners, to find out more about Austin’s eccentric street art scene.
JST: You both are artists as well as tour guides; what has been your experience within the art world? How does it affect your tour?
Eileen: Back in the early 2000s, we ran a full decorative business in Arizona. Eventually, we got the idea of opening a graffiti tour in Austin since they didn’t have one at the time. We hired Kady Perry, a.k.a Kady Yellow, a graffiti scholar who has done work worldwide, to help us get our foot in the door. We found out that one of our son’s high school teachers, Jay, was pretty prominent within the street art scene during our research. With both of their help, we got ATX Art Walk off the ground! We feature murals, stencil works, mosaics and much more. Our art background helped with our research and appreciation of all the different types of art throughout Austin.
JST: When it comes to curating your tour, how do you decide who to showcase? Do you have a personal relationship with these artists?
Eileen: Kady was a great help to us; she is the one who introduced us to artists in Austin. Connections are the best way to make contact with street artists. We’ve gone to every single event where graffiti artists endorse to raise money for special causes; our purpose is to support these artists and show them that we appreciate their art. We always try to buy something from the artist, even if we don’t necessarily need it. Just being seen is the best way to start getting yourself known to the local community.
Also, reaching out through social media has been one way to ask an artist for a quick interview. Everyone wants to talk about their work! People are usually very receptive to questions. One time I interviewed this French graffiti artist in the middle of Trader Joes! He was more than happy to talk to me about his work. Once you tell them that your goal is to tell their art’s story and tell it properly, they appreciate you for it.
Douglas: The mentality in Austin is different compared to bigger cities. Everyone here wants their story told; we have not had a single person who didn’t want to talk to us about their work.
JST: I noticed that the art all over the streets is very colorful and almost cartoonish, is there a reason why this specific style is popular? Who popularized it?
Douglas: Unfortunately, what makes it onto Instagram is the more cartoonish side, but there is a much more serious side. Most of the graffiti posted online is very colorful stuff because it’s so eye-catching. Other, more serious artists have been doing this for a long time with more variety in their work. Mez Data is a big artist in Austin; his style fluctuated between some really obvious comically driven styles. However, if you dig into him a bit, you’ll see that his artistic range is phenomenal. Chris Rogers also does fantastic work; he’s a classically trained East Coast artist. Kimey Flores is another excellent, more serious street artist; she’s also a really good tattoo artist!
You have to remember, art is political. Even if it looks cartoonish or benign, there is a very strategic reason for the piece. It seems like you can’t do anything that won’t be taken as a political statement. Graffiti and Street-art are based around a “screw the establishment” mentality. The art itself is political.
JST: How is public art / street art thought of in Austin? Is it respected and a big draw to the city? Or, is only the mural-style art well-liked?
Eileen: Street art / mural work is very much ingrained within the infrastructure of Austin. Artists want to get their work out there, and businesses want to support the local art scene, especially if it draws tourists into the city. Companies hire artists to paint their lobbies, call centers, restaurants, you name it. It’s funny because one business hired a mural to make something cool for them, the surrounding companies want in. That’s why so much of Austin is painted.
JST: Is there a difference between the taggers / graffiti writers versus the colorful muralists?
Douglas: Well, the thing is, all graffiti comes down to the basics. Sometimes the older, more experienced street artists will go through the city, going all wild style! They go around, tagging up everything. It’s really a rare breed.
JST: I noticed that Hope Art Gallery is extremely popular with artists and tourists. Are there many places around Austin that are street art-friendly?
Eileen: Hope Outdoor Gallery was born in 2011, it became a cultural phenomenon after it was created. Shepard Fairey was the first person invited to paint there. It closed last January of 2019, now condos are going up in its place.
Douglas: Hope Outdoor Gallery was created due to a happy accident. The large wall formations throughout the gallery were created as a result of a construction project that started with poorly poured cement. The owners saw the ugly cement structures and decided to open the area up to street artists to beautify the place. Some areas are free for all; other areas are by invitation only.
There have been talks about a new Hope Outdoor Gallery reopening elsewhere. It was supposed to open this past summer, but due to COVID and other restrictions, they’re looking to open next summer, hopefully.
JST: When you say “wild style,” what do you mean by that exactly?
Douglas: “Wild style” is the graduation from simple spray painting tags to bubble letters and more intricate work. Once you start getting comfortable with tagging and “writing” in a graffiti style, you can begin to experiment with bubble letters, shading, intricate writing / sayings and decoration. That’s why they call themselves “Writers,” instead of taggers. They write stuff that ordinary onlookers know says something but usually can’t decipher it. “Wild style” lends itself more to a late-night throw-up.
JST: Do most of the street artists follow the “no face no case” rule, or is there some comfort within the more well-known artists? Do they have some legal leeway?
Eileen: Oh, no! Graffiti is illegal, but when bigger artists create big pieces, they are either invited or got permission from the city or business owner who owns the wall. Street art is legal if you have permission to do it, there wouldn’t be any need to hide your face if you’re doing a piece for a local business. But, if you want to go around tagging, then it would be best to cover up.
JST: Has there ever been an artist that came and threw up a revolutionary piece? Something that changed the course and style of popular street art at the time?
Douglas: Not recently because COVID-19 sort of halted the street art scene, but Austin is home to some pieces by Blek Le Rat, the French stencil artist who inspired Banksy!
Eileen: On our tour, we feature this relatively new political piece done by Chris Rogers. It’s a mural featuring Colin Kaepernick, George Floyd, Mike Ramos, Amaud Aubrey, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice and Trayvon Martin. That piece made some headlines when it was finished, we featured it near the end of our tour as part of the finale.
JST: Due to COVID-19, have artists not been creating as much as they used to? Or has it sparked a kind of resurgence in its appreciation?
Eileen: There are not nearly as many pieces as there would have been nine months into the calendar year. Throughout quarantine, only about three murals have gone up, but there is a lot more graffiti. The big art event of the year, South By Southwest, got canceled meaning the artist did not do the murals they would have been commissioned for. We use these pieces for our grand finale, but now we can’t use those.
Although now that we have begun our tours again, our customers come wearing super creative face masks. Just like face masks, art is interpreted as either political or has some agenda.
JST: How has been an art guide within the street art scene affected your role within the community? What has street art taught you?
Douglas: Part of what has been really evolving for me was understanding that even if you envision something, like going to Hawaii, for example, you picture beaches, clear water and palm trees. But when you get there, you find all of that plus people whose culture thrives in creativity. Street art is an individual experience. we all form opinions on what we look at based on our perceptions. One of the things that is so phenomenal about being a tour guide is that we can oversee a group of 10-12 people, go out into the street and discuss the art that we see.
The artists that make up the community are all motivated, intelligent, creative people who are getting themselves out there, most of the time for free. It’s really inspirational. I don’t see graffiti as destructive anymore. Everything about street art has so much meaning behind it, it’s too cool to pass off. What makes Austin so awesome is that when we’re walking on a tour, you can point to any wall you see, in any direction, look at any random piece of art and see whether they just started or not if they are trying to make a specific statement. Street art is like all art, is entirely subjective. No one has the right to call any art “trashy,” because it’s all part of the continuum.
JST: What are your personal favorite works within Austin’s streets?
Eileen: There is this one piece done by a husband and wife team; it is absolutely beautiful, done right next to the trash. Somewhere you’d never expect this fantastic piece. It’s called “Daydreaming.”
Douglas: Actually, the one I like just got finished 3-4 weeks ago, done by another husband and wife team. @erthink, they did this really awesome, dreamlike piece, it’s really strong and solid.