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See This Art: ‘Vibrant City’ tells the tales behind Austin street art

Michael Barnes
Austin 360
Sadé Lawson with her mural, “It’s OK to Not Be OK,” which is located at 115 Sandra Muraida Way

There was a time, believe it or not, when Austin's walls were not plastered with amazing murals. Back then, it made one wonder: There are so many artists in town and certainly no shortage of walls. Why not more art for all to see?

True, some Austin murals date back decades. And periodically, they need preserving or refreshing. Exterior murals are hard to maintain in the natural elements, and they tend to be targets for miscreants, or sometimes worse, thoughtless new owners.

Some, sadly, go away forever.

Others become genuine tourist attractions: “I Love You So Much” on South Congress Avenue, “Greetings From Austin” on South First Street, “Hi, How Are You” on Guadalupe Street, “Tau Ceti” on Brazos at Second streets, “You’re My Butter Half” on East Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, “La Lotería” on East Cesar Chavez Street, to name a few.

Yet there are hundreds if not thousands more. And every one comes with a story.

So Visit Austin, the tourism nonprofit, set out through its Vibrant City project to compile some of the more compelling stories behind key local murals at its website, austintexas.org/murals. This site also links to video treatments of those stories.

Let me pause to say: great idea!

In the best of all possible worlds, these stories could even help future generations grasp the shape of creativity in our city today — and help them to preserve it. We’ve extracted segments from the current Visit Austin entries, lightly edited, and we expect more to come.

Sadé Lawson: “It’s OK to Not Be OK.” 115 Sandra Muraida Way (North Lamar Boulevard and West Fourth Street).

Texas-raised artist Sadé Lawson got her start in watercolors and acrylics before evolving into mural art in 2018. Her works focus on the power of feminine energy, confidence, emotions and experience with mental illness and prominently feature the feminine form and dreamy landscapes in bright, vivid color. Her recent commission for Downtown Austin Alliance Foundation's "Writing on the Walls" series, titled “It’s Okay to Not Be Okay,” can be seen from the northbound lanes of South Lamar, just before crossing under the Amtrak rail lines. …

“I went with the topic of women being empowered by all our emotions, not just those expected of us,” Lawson told Visit Austin. “I show this by painting the same figure expressing different emotions, connected with its emotive color; she is also surrounded by dragonflies and lotus flowers that have great symbology in being resilient in the toughest of times. My main message is that it truly is okay to not be okay, we are still empowered by the entirety of who we are good and bad.”

Rex Hamilton: “Mural at Seaholm Power Plant.” Near 800 W. Cesar Chavez St.

Located in downtown Austin at the historic Seaholm Power Plant-turned-mixed use development, Rex Hamilton’s botanical mural stands out among its Art Deco-inspired concrete surroundings. In operation from 1948-1989, the power plant is an icon of Austin’s skyline, and it has recently been redeveloped into a shopping, dining and business center, dotted with millennial techies by day and an array of fitness junkies enjoying its proximity to the Butler Hike and Bike Trail.

In among the contemporary concrete, you’ll find Hamilton’s vibrant garden. Painted on one of the development’s tenant maps, the mural feels almost lifelike in its celebration of the color and variation found in Central Texas landscapes. Yucca and prickly pear cactus co-mingle with colorful spider lilies, vines and bright greenery.

Hamilton, an Austin-native, explained that the mural’s location has always been a nostalgic place for him. “I’d always see (the Seaholm Power Plant) while walking Town Lake with my parents and the font on the power plant sign made the place seem like something out of a comic book.”

Federico Archuleta: “Let Band Together.” Located at Whisler’s, 1816 E. Sixth St.

Born and raised in El Paso as a first-generation American, Federico Archuleta’s work is distinctly defined by his early experiences of regularly traveling between Texas and Mexico. His “Let’s Band Together” mural, found on the wall at Whisler’s cocktail bar, is a prime example of how Archuleta combines the pop culture iconography of both countries to create a uniquely Austin statement.

Drawing on his Catholic upbringing, he explained that the inspiration for the “Let’s Band Together” mural came from a desire to create a version of the Sacred Heart that includes musical instruments and touches on the current political climate. Thus, the words “Let’s Band Together” seem to have a dual meaning, fusing Austin’s musical history with a relevant and timely message for everyone who visits the mural.

Today, after nearly 20 years working as an independent stencil muralist, Archuleta is considered one of the originators of Austin’s street art scene and, certainly, one of the most recognizable artists in the city.

“When I first moved to the east side of Austin back in 2005, it was considered ‘undesirable’ to live in,” Archuletta told Visit Austin. “Before gentrification, Latinos and African Americans were the primary residents. Now it’s one of the ‘hottest’ parts of town to live in, and rising rents and property taxes have forced many long time residents to move. This is the reason why it has become my favorite part of town to put my murals in.”

Zuzu: “Never Forget.” Located at Lustre Pearl East, 114 Linden St.

Originating from San Diego, California, Zuzu is a self-taught muralist with a vibrant personality — to match her pink locks — that shines through her work.

Find her mural titled “Never Forget” at East Austin bar Lustre Pearl East. She said that the piece, inscribed with the words “All We Have Is Now,” is one that she holds close to her heart. Created for a SprATX event in 2019, the mural is dedicated to a close friend of Zuzu’s who had recently passed away.

“This mural was a means of healing for me when experiencing the loss of my friend,” Zuzu told Visit Austin. “It serves to inspire others to stay present and live in the now, in Carter’s memory. The message is clear and nothing we all haven’t heard before, but I hope that it reminds the living of how precious life is and to enjoy every moment,” she said.

The mural invites viewers to take control of their destinies and confront their surroundings in order to live in the present. And it’s this kind of presence and positive outlook that shines brightly through her work, both on and off the street. …

“I believe that being active in the Austin mural scene means getting out into the streets, attending art shows, collaborating with other artists, and supporting fellow creatives. It’s about putting in the work. I’m always creating, painting, networking and building my business,” Zuzu says.

Michael Barnes writes about the people, places, culture and history of Austin and Texas. He can be reached at mbarnes@statesman.com.

About This Story

You Gotta See This is a recurring series about art around Austin that we think deserves a look.