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Who Gets To Keep Austin Weird?

Murals at the intersection of Twelfth and Chicon on Austin’s East side were painted over recently, while famous images in the city’s tourist neighborhoods have become institutions.

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The intersection of Twelfth and Chicon in East Austin is perhaps the most infamous in the city. It’s got a reputation as dangerous, even if the violent crime statistics using the Austin Police Department’s crime map tool suggest that you’re more likely to see someone assaulted on the Drag by the University of Texas campus. It’s also been relatively resilient to the forces of gentrification that have changed the neighborhoods around it. The new-build condo towers have yet to pop up on that stretch of East Austin, and though fashionable bars like King Bee and Rio Rita cater to the neighborhood’s more recent white transplants, that intersection has managed to maintain at least some of its identity.

You can feel that resistance on a visceral level at the intersection. Up until recently, the art adorning the exterior walls of some buildings signaled that it was a black neighborhood in a place that, in recent years, has been unique among growing American cities for its shrinking black population. Heading south on Chicon as you approached the intersection, you could see the work of mural artist Chris Rogers (honored by the Austin Chronicle in 2015 in the alt-weekly’s “Best Street Artist” category), a brushy piece that depicted a collection of famous musicians—James Brown, Michael Jackson, Tupac Shakur, Stevie Ray Vaughn, Bob Marley, and more. If you made a left, you’d see the work of internationally renowned mural artist TooFly—a piece depicting a pregnant black woman that she created for the local non-profit Mama Sana Vibrant Woman (which facilitates pre- and post-natal care to women of color in the Austin community).

You won’t see those pieces anymore, though. The mural by TooFly was painted over and replaced on May 12 by a new piece commissioned by the property’s owner, the Grapevine-based Eureka Holdings. (Eureka Holdings has been quietly buying a slew of property on East Twelfth Street in recent years—according to KUT, as much as a quarter of the property between Interstate 35 and Walnut Street is owned by the company under different legal names.) Eureka doesn’t own the building where Chris Rogers’s mural lived, but last week, that wall went white when it was painted over and primed for the building’s new tenant—Las Cruxes, a boutique owned by Austin resident Veronica Ortuño—to move in later this month.

The reaction to the painted over murals has been swift. Tensions around East Austin gentrification have been high for years, perhaps peaking with the 2015 demolition of piñata shop Jumpolin. So it was immediately noticed when Rogers’s mural was whitewashed so quickly after TooFly’s was repainted. In a widely shared Facebook post, anti-gentrification group Defend Our Hoodz/Defiende El Barrio claimed that “[t]he full transformation of 12th and Chicon from what was formerly the heart of Austin’s Black Community to another gentrified, hipster corner is nearly complete.” Radio station KUT reported from the scene, talking to Ortuño, her husband, and members of the East Twelfth Street Business Association.

“I knew that it was going to be a tricky situation,” said Veronica Ortuño, who is leasing the building and relocating her high-end womenswear and jewelry store there. “I didn’t know how intense it was going to be.”

“Honestly, I don’t think it was the best mural it could possibly be,” said Ben Ellis, Ortuño’s husband. Ellis said his wife talked to members of the East 12th Street Merchants’ Association before removing the mural.

“We adamantly oppose the removal of artwork in the neighborhood without going through the process of involving the community,” said Natasha Madison, a member of the merchant’s association. Madison confirmed that Ortuño had said they were thinking about painting over the mural, but that the merchants’ association had encouraged them to involve more community members first.

Ellis told KUT that they wanted to replace Rogers’ work with that of a local artist. (Rogers lives in Austin.) Rogers, meanwhile, took to Facebook to offer his side of the story, explaining that he did the wall for free shortly after moving. “The wall that was painted over was the first mural that I did when I moved to Austin,” he wrote. “Neighborhood locals started to stop by on a regular basis to not only to say hi and compliment my progress, but, in numerous cases, actually thank me for bringing ‘beauty’ into their area.” 

But this is about more than an artist’s work being replaced. When TooFly’s mural was painted over, the new artist reached out to Mama Sana Vibrant Woman early on in the process to discuss the process with members of the organization (though the organization didn’t have any say in what happened to the piece). And though Rogers’s art was literally turned white, the easy narrative about white gentrifiers moving into an historically black neighborhood is complicated by the fact that Ortuño herself is a woman of color.

But one theme that has emerged from these two scenarios is that there are two kinds of street art in Austin: the iconic images that are preserved at all costs, and the ones that are painted over as the target market for the businesses that are moving in don’t look much like the people who’ve lived there before.

In 2004, I was a new Austin resident in my early twenties living in West Campus. I learned one morning from a neighbor that the building on Twenty-first Street and Guadalupe—the site of the “Hi How Are You” frog mural by artist Daniel Johnston—was about to be flattened. That mural is famous—Kurt Cobain wore a t-shirt with the image to the MTV Video Music Awards in 1992. It’s appeared on posters, coasters, clothing, hats, and more, and has come to represent a part of Austin’s “Keep It Weird” attitude. I quickly got on the proto-social networking sites of the day and organized an impromptu protest at the building for later that afternoon to preserve Johnston’s frog, which had been painted when the building used to hold a record store called Sound Exchange.

At the protest, I called the owner of the business that was moving into the space—a Mexican food franchise called Baja Fresh—and told him why we had gathered. He engaged immediately with our demonstration and agreed to meet with us. He apologized for the situation, explained that he thought that the mural was just a piece of graffiti that someone had painted after the record store had closed, and wished that there was something that he could do. The next morning, he called me back to tell me that, after thinking about it harder and discussing the situation with his architect, he discovered that there was a way to preserve the original wall the frog was painted on. It would delay the opening of the restaurant by two months and cost him $50,000 in lost revenue and construction fees, but he had figured out that he could incorporate the mural into the design of the restaurant.

flickr // alykat, via creative commons

It was a stunning gesture, and meant a lot to me and the other people—most of us young, white folks who lived nearby—who had gathered. But it made sense from his end too. We fit into Baja Fresh’s demographic, and alienating us and however many untold other young white folks in the heavily populated campus neighborhood could cost a lot more than $50,000. (The owner of the restaurant also seemed to have been moved by a nascent appreciation for Johnston’s work—he told me years later that after the restaurant closed, he continued collecting pieces by the artist.) The Baja Fresh franchise wasn’t long for that location, but the mural remains. Today, the current resident is a restaurant called Thai, How Are You that takes full advantage of the iconic art on the side of the building.

As I’ve followed the destruction of the murals on Twelfth and Chicon, it’s been clear that one key difference between the way that the Johnston mural—or other pieces that end up on postcards, like the “I Love You So Much” tag on the side of Jo’s Coffee on South Congress—and the black art on the East side is that the people who are upset about the removal of the murals aren’t necessarily the same people incoming businesses are trying to sell to.

According to the real estate website Zillow, the median home price in the Chestnut neighborhood in East Austin—where Twelfth and Chicon sits—was $164,000 in 2007. Today, that figure is $345,000. In that same time span, the white population of the neighborhood has boomed, while the black population has shrunk. Las Cruxes may be owned by a woman of color, but the $253 linen skirts and $453 repurposed denim patch pants the store sells probably aren’t aimed at the people who moved to the neighborhood when it was cheap. Certainly that wasn’t the case when the city’s black residents were pushed there by the 1928 “Master Plan” to relocate to the East side’s “Negro District.”

Ortuño sent over a prepared statement when asked if she’d be willing to discuss the building, and declined to respond to further questions about the situation—but shops with prices like Las Cruxes rely on clientele with disposable income, and the people who are being forced out of East Austin because of rising rent and property taxes don’t fit that bill.

That helps explain the difference between how the art in a neighborhood like West Campus is valued when compared to a rapidly changing neighborhood like East Austin. Gentrification is the result of a conflux of market opportunities, market forces, and market opportunists, and everybody’s got to make a living.

That’s something that Kellee Coleman, who works with Mama Sana Vibrant Woman, understands. She understood it when artist Mila Sketch contacted the organization to tell them that she’d be repainting the wall where the TooFly mural stood. “She did reach out and want to speak with us about what was happening. She said it was ‘artist’s code’ not to paint over other people’s stuff,” Coleman recalled. “But we still didn’t have any say. She’s just an artist, she’s trying to work, we live in a capitalist place—it’s not entirely on her.”

Sketch said that she was given “free rein” by Eureka Holdings to talk with neighborhood residents about the new mural replacing Mama Sana’s, and Eureka VP Stephen Gibson explained that that was part of the idea when the company decided that “it would be nice to have something new” go up in the spot. “We had her go out to [Mama Sana Vibrant Woman] and other neighborhood groups, sponsored a festival [“Return & Discover East Twelfth Street”], and had the artist go out and gauge interest,” Gibson said.

Sketch had two different images for festival attendees to vote on: One that featured a woman of color opening her shirt to reveal a superhero costume, and one that featured a variety of musical instruments and the words “Austin, Live Music Capital of the World.” The instruments won by three votes.

Coleman appreciated that Sketch contacted the organization. “She didn’t have to reach out, but she did. I’ll give her credit for that,” she said. But there is also an emotional component to the change—she cried a few times when we talked about the mural and what’s happening in the neighborhood. “But what breaks my heart is that people were removed and relegated to live over there. That area didn’t come out of a black hole. It was created, and now that they see value, they just come and take it,” Coleman explained. “They literally painted over this pregnant black woman that was on the side of a wall. What was it hurting?”

That reminded me of what Daniel Johnston said after he learned that the “Hi How Are You” mural was under threat back in 2004. “He is the innocent frog,” Johnston told reporters then. “He never meant anybody no harm. Please let him stay.” Johnston’s plea was heard—but thirteen years later, in a rapidly changing East Austin, not meaning anybody harm won’t necessarily guarantee the chance to stay.

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  • John Barksdale

    Austin’s “weirdness” is highly overrated and tiresome.

    • Jed

      then you can stop reading articles about it.

    • Él Guapo

      Yes and 95% of the “weirdness” here has always been affected

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  • Robin O’connor

    Replacing ART with commercial graphics.

  • TristanMTX

    Most people these days talking “keep Austin weird” and toting the Hi How Are You frog logo on things probably don’t even know who the hell Daniel Johnston is.

    • Joe O’Connell

      Or Red Wassenich.

  • Él Guapo

    “whitewashed” how accurate. There may not be condos yet near 12th & chicon, but there are a few mcmansions and other homes that have be totally remodeled and modernized. It’s strange to see the juxtaposition of crackheads and bums there with hipsters and young female walkers, joggers & bikers.

  • txcon1

    “The wall that was painted over was the first mural that I did when I moved to Austin …” in 2014? Give me a break. So some guy rolls into town 2 years ago, paints a mural on a building which he does not own and somehow that is an Austin cultural touchstone? There are legitimate issues of gentrification and housing affordability that are skirted in this story … but Austin’s inability to distinguish them from trivial ones are why the rest of the state does not take you seriously.

  • Oliver Franklin

    Same thing happened with the famous mural at Juarez-Lincoln Institute at what’s now Cesar Chavez and I35 thirty years ago. Wiped out despite outcry on a storied building that too was demolished. A vacant lot for years, an IHOP took its place. Now the IHOP’s days are numbered. No financial gain in keeping that mural for the new owners. Baja Fresh sure wasn’t about to piss off 1/2 of their future clientele. I am glad Johnston’s mural survived to become a community icon. So sorry the other one didn’t. Tale of two cities indeed.