Austin Street Artists Have Mixed Feelings About Impending Move of Outdoor Graffiti Park
By Michael Thompson
Graffiti as an art form is ephemeral by nature, but the art at Austin’s HOPE gallery, a graffiti art space, is prone to swift desecration, no matter how good it is.
Hundreds of people show up each day, often armed with a can of spray paint, to spray their name onto one of the three tiers of concrete wall. The scenic backdrop makes the space an ideal selfie spot. That popularity comes with a cost, however.
Although the park is a free space for for artists, owner Victor Ayad of Castle Hill Partners pays about $30,000 a year in property taxes, according to the Travis County Central Appraisal District. Ayad was approached by Andi Cheatham of the Helping Other People Everywhere (HOPE) campaign, and together they set up a safe zone for writers, taggers and other artists in 2011.
Established as a temporary gallery to showcase graffiti and street art, the HOPE gallery — or the Foundation, as graffiti artists call it — is in its sixth year of operation. It’s not a city park, and lacks things such as restrooms, stairs or people to help protect the art. While the HOPE campaign has decided to move the art space by 2017, the new location hasn’t been announced, and artists have mixed feeling about the idea of a new Foundation.
“If I’m not painting here, where do people think I’m going to be doing it? In their neighborhoods.” — Nawh Lemmon
The sun baked the ground on a mid-August afternoon at the HOPE Outdoor Gallery. Some school kids wearing uniforms had found a spray paint can that someone left behind. The nozzle was defective and emitting a steady stream of black paint. Two of the kids drew random patterns on the ground for a minute before moving to the wall.
A nearby graffiti artist, shirtless and sweating in the Texas heat, watched as one boy drew a sloppy spiral over an adjacent tag. Mark “Nawh” Lemmon, 32, smiled at the kids but sighed in apparent relief after a bus arrived, its horn sending the kids scurrying to board. He said he’s glad people come to enjoy the place and have fun but that defacing art for no reason isn’t cool. His two pet peeves are when people write over a high-quality tag or draw genitals over other people’s work.
“Sometimes I see these kids and I just want to yell at them, because it’s not like they’re making anything. They’re just trashing work other people spent time producing,” Lemmon said. “I believe the park would be better if people would respect others’ art.”
Lemmon finished painting the foundation layer for a six-foot zigzagging version of “NAWH,” his writer name, and sat on his cooler to catch his breath while the pinkish-white paint dried. A couple walked up and asked to take a selfie with the unfinished work. He agreed with an easygoing smile, thinking that his work would be posted on social media later that day. The San Francisco Bay area native said he was relatively new to Austin, but enjoyed practicing his craft at the gallery.
Lemmon knows the graffiti park will be moving, but isn’t worried about where the new location might be, noting that the art he makes doesn’t last very long anywhere. There is an unspoken rule among graffiti artists: Don’t write over someone else’s work unless yours is better.
“I know I’ve gotten better since I stated painting there,” Lemmon said. “Honestly, I don’t know of any other spots to paint. I don’t really mind where I go. As long as I can paint, I’m good.”
“There are too many tourists and random people just scribbling on everything. A fresh piece will get scribbled on the minute it’s done.” — Mez Data
East of Interstate 35 in Austin, graffiti is a common sight. Some businesses pay artists to create custom works, while others simply enjoy displaying their skills. High-quality portraits bearing artist Mez Data’s signature, whether realistic depictions of celebrities such as Willie Nelson or cartoonish figures sporting a third eye or comical mustaches, stand out. His pieces enjoy longevity, something that would be unlikely at the HOPE gallery.
Blake “Mez Data” Bermel, 38, said he last painted at the Foundation in September, with students from the first class at the new Dell Medical School getting an introduction to the community. Even though the gallery can boost an artist’s profile, Bermel says he hasn’t painted there for most of the past year because of the headache that gawkers bring.
While Bermel favors the location and the artwork, he doesn’t favor the gallery. “In its current state, and the state it’s been in for the last few years, I personally can’t stand it.”
“To me, the word graffiti means illegal. It’s done on the streets, it’s done without permission. That can be tags, bubble letters, pieces, straight letters, but it’s done with risk.” — Sloke One
Nathan “Sloke One” Nordstrom, 44, recently painted at the Foundation for the first time in a while. A professional graffiti artist for more than 20 years, Nordstrom’s tags can be found all around Austin and as far away as El Paso, often as commissioned work. He is on the advisory board for the HOPE campaign and likes the park, but he said it’s discouraging when people disrespect the art by tagging over it soon after it’s finished.
“If another writer bombs your piece, that’s considered a huge diss,” said Nordstrom. “But civilians, they don’t get that. They think, ‘Oh, it’s just graffiti.’ ”
The HOPE gallery was scheduled to close as an open art space after six months, but it persisted. Nordstrom said that’s when he and other artists got serious about using it and that in its prime, the Foundation was effective at introducing novices to the art form while giving veterans access to the more prime spots.
“Graffiti on top, street art on bottom, with beginners in the pit,” said Nordstrom, “That lasted about a year and a half. It’s not that it’s bad now, but it’s not what it was.”