There is perhaps no symbol more evocative of Texas than its shape, the most recognizable state outline in the union. The right corners of the Panhandle, the irregular swoop of the coast, the exaggerated bend of the Rio Grande: the figure isn’t so much representative of Texas as it is synonymous with it. So we put it on everything: our trucks, our bodies, our walls, and our signage.
But if we love the shape of the state so much, why do we keep butchering it?
That’s the question posed by @UglyTexases, an Instagram account that curates images of misshapen or otherwise imperfect Texases, from tattoos, food, and home decor to murals, advertisements, and maps. There are Ugly Texas necklaces, coasters, puzzle pieces, and pies (pecan, berry, and pizza). Each featured shape is warped in its own way, boasting shovel-like southern tips, bloated East Texas bellies, or out-of-proportion Panhandles. Despite the name, the Texases aren’t necessarily ugly in an aesthetic sense, but rather kitschy or cringeworthy in their inaccuracy, betraying a view of Texas as provincial. The account also posts the occasional accidental Texas—riffing on the fact that the shape is so recognizable that one can spot it in a puddle or a potato chip, a kind of Rorschach test of Texan egotism.
“I always had this pet peeve about ugly Texases because it’s so easy to trace,” says Kevin Miller, the Clifton native and improv comedian who created the account in late 2018. “This got stuck in my teeth and turned into a minor obsession.” He now has 5,800 followers and counting, and has inspired at least one similar account, Almost Texas, which he thinks of as a “Mr. Pibb–style” competitor to his Dr Pepper original.
Miller runs the account with the kind of authority normally reserved for government agencies. Each week, he receives roughly ten to fifteen submissions from “vigilant citizens,” who “alert” him to Texas-shaped abominations, including some by “repeat offenders,” including H-E-B, Buc-ee’s, and state vehicle inspection stations. (The latter are such frequent violators that Miller jokes they could have their own spin-off account). About a quilted Texas shape, he writes, “Vigilant citizen @old.tom.frost spotted this #UglyTexas at the State Fair, which you would hope has higher standards.” The tone renders Miller as a sort of concerned gatekeeper of the Texas shape, and thus an enforcer of the pride that it evokes. To that end, he’s developed a methodology for determining how “ugly” a Texas shape is, measuring it on two axes: how perfect or imperfect it is, and how permanent or fleeting. A hand-drawn Texas on a sheet of notebook paper is unfortunate, but forgivable, says Miller. But his least favorite Texas—a carved-in-stone grave marker he once spotted at the state cemetery in Austin—will last for eternity.
“There’s a weird irony to it since you’re trying to show your pride in the state and, you know, in my opinionated judgment, you’re doing the exact opposite,” says Miller, who employs a blend of irony and earnestness as the Texas shape hall monitor.
These misshapen depictions of Texas might seem like a new phenomenon, tailor-made for the social media era. But they’re actually nothing new. As Richard V. Francaviglia writes in The Shape of Texas: Maps as Metaphors, outlines of the Texas map, which attained its current form in 1850, began appearing as graphics in the 1910s, primarily as a way to communicate Texas as a desirable destination. One of the earliest such images, a caricatured Texas shape on a 1909 railroad route map, would fit right in on the Ugly Texases account; the western tip with El Paso is entirely absent, as is the curve of the Big Bend. The squiggly Texas-Oklahoma boundary created by the Red River is just a straight line.
As the century progressed, similar portrayals proliferated. Beginning in the thirties, stylized Texas shapes—which is a nice way to say imperfect Texas shapes—began appearing in ads for products unrelated to transportation, such as beer and cigars. Crucially, these shapes manipulated the Texas outline to make room for business names, to fit a graphic space, or to incorporate other elements, like the Lone Star. In these designs, the Texas map became a “T” or a flag or a cruciform, whatever a particular graphic might call for. Just as the ads were selling the shape of Texas as a symbol of independence and pride, their ubiquity was also making the outline instantly recognizable, no matter the distortions, to the point that we can now look at a Whataburger chicken tender and instantly see an ugly Texas.
Importantly, Francaviglia doesn’t see these Texas shape mutations as ugly. Rather, he understands them as creative, deliberate manipulations of a shape with a long history of transformation. “These abuses of the geography, you might call them—but I don’t, I call them perceptions—suggest something about the playfulness and about the willingness of people to transform the state a little bit to meet their needs in terms of the basic imagery,” he says.
Is this why people don’t just trace the Texas shape, as Miller often implores them to? Possibly. For one thing, according to Francaviglia, it wasn’t until 1993 that the Texas Department of Transportation adopted a standardized version of the map, creating a Platonic ideal of the Texas shape from which to trace.
But Francaviglia also thinks the Texan predilection for going it alone—without a stencil—might be representative of the same sort of DIY spirit the shape symbolizes in the first place.
“If you’re a Texan, and you kind of have that Lone Star independent feel to yourself, you could say, ‘You know, I’m not going to take the official thing. I’ve got the ability to do it and that’s what I’m gonna do,’” he says. “So I think there’s a little bit of subversion in there, as well as a little bit of conformity to try to keep the image recognizable enough.”
Miller, for all of his animus toward ugly Texases, does admit to finding some charm in the misshapen maps he curates, both in how bad they can be and in how they seem to unite his fans toward a common cause. He adds that he would never seriously mock someone’s ugly Texas: “If there’s love for the state in your heart, then draw what you feel there.”
Last year, Miller moved to Amsterdam to be with his longtime girlfriend. Leaving the state has renewed his appreciation of Texas; he recently bought his first cowboy hat. His girlfriend, meanwhile, has redone their kitchen in adorably ugly Texas paraphernalia: bluebonnet dish towels, a Texas-themed coffee mug, and accent tiles featuring armadillos and the state of Texas. The shape, of course, is perfect.