an exploration of urban identity in the middle of Texas
In Austin, one phrase has become synonymous with the city: “Keep Austin Weird.” This slogan is found on everything from keychains to bumper stickers to tie dyed shirts in Texas’ capital city. Due to the pervasiveness of this phrase, and that the rise in its popularity as a way to brand Austin culture, I became interested in the issue of urban branding in Austin. Urban branding occurs through many different media in Austin, but perhaps the most exemplary is through the images of graffiti that have come to define Austin as a city. I sought to understand how and why people use graffiti in Austin experience, and facilitate the city’s brand as “weird.”
In order to look into the subject of graffiti in Austin, I chose a few local hot spots to get an idea of the role of graffiti in the city; the HOPE Outdoor Gallery (HOG), a large outdoor graffiti park/gallery, and the famous “I love you so much” graffiti at Jo’s Coffee on South Congress Street. When visiting these spaces, I was primarily interested in getting the perspective of individuals interacting with the graffiti, this could be someone taking pictures with the art, or simply visiting the sites to see the street art. Due to the growing prevalence and importance of social media sites, I also incorporated the way that these spaces were shown in posts on Twitter, Facebook and Yelp!.
I first visited Jo’s Coffee on South Congress Street. Through my own experiences, having lived in Austin for the past 3 years, and through my observations of the space, it has become clear that the area of South Congress where Jo’s is located in is largely utilized for upscale tourism. I spoke with many different people: friends, coworkers, and pedestrians to get an idea of why people go to South Congress and what they expect from the street. Many of the individuals whom I spoke with viewed South Congress as a place to bring visitors to the city, or to go as tourists because it showed off some of the city’s highlights. These highlights mostly included good food, drinks, and shopping in quirky or “weird” boutiques. Many people shared the similar sentiment that South Congress was a place with the ability to compactly embody the “weird” and “eclectic” spirit of Austin. Importantly, from walking around the area, it becomes easy to see that this space was designed with tourists and a higher socioeconomic class in mind. With expensive boutiques such as American Apparel, TOMS, and Allen’s Boots, South Congress provides a place for tourists and Austinites alike to fulfill their hip clothing needs. In order to further provide for tourists, Hotel San Jose, the number one choice of housing for the wealthy elite visiting Austin is located directly on the street and generally charges over $300 per night for a room. Food prices in the restaurants on South Congress vary greatly but it seems that, generally, one can expect to pay at least $10 for an entrée at most establishments. Many of the boutiques on the street also serve to enhance Austin’s weirdness factor through their own marketing. One example of this is a very popular store on South Congress called Uncommon Objects. In this store, you can find everything from a mounted animal head to vintage campaign buttons and typewriters. While I have rarely seen people buy anything but small objects or postcards here, it seems to be a popular place to window shop the “uncommon,” or “weird” tchotchkes that the boutique has to offer.
The attraction to South Congress is then culminated in the “I love you so much” written in red spray paint on the side of Jo’s Coffee Shop. This bit of graffiti gets so much attention from newcomers to the city that there is occasionally even a crowd around, waiting for the opportunity to take a picture with the text. The graffiti was originally done in 2010 and, due to the high volume of visitors to the area, the image went viral almost immediately due to people taking pictures and sharing them through various forms of social media (Mueller 2013). The graffiti has definitely been repainted due to destruction of the image with tagging, however it is unclear how many times the words have been defaced. The graffiti is maintained in this way due to the popularity of the words and the fact that the art is sanctioned by Jo’s.
The next site that I used to attempt to understand the role that graffiti plays in Austin was the HOPE Outdoor Gallery. This site is a three story concrete structure that is now covered with graffiti. This space was interesting to me originally because it too is regarded as a place to take visitors in the city due to the way that the park exemplifies the artistic characterization that Austinites use to define their own city. Similarly to the Jo’s graffiti, the surrounding area is helpful in explaining why so many tourists and locals come here to experience the city. The gallery is colloquially referred to by many as the Castle Hill Graffiti Park, due to its location in the Castle Hills area of downtown Austin. There are many higher-end businesses and residences in the area that contribute to making the area attractive and accessible to people hoping to experience some of Austin’s “weirdness”. The gallery is located nearby the South Lamar Whole Foods, one of the largest Whole Foods stores that I have ever seen. Many of the other nearby businesses are high-end furniture and clothing boutiques as well as other businesses marketed for the wealthy such as maid services. The gallery itself is located in the midst of many large, nicer houses in the area. This seems to be a surprising place for an outdoor graffiti gallery, when graffiti is often looked down on as an artistic style as specifically low-class and as a medium primarily used to deface property, not to beautify it. This is where the history of the space becomes important in understanding its role in Austin.
Interestingly, the graffiti park was originally made to be a housing development. This partially explains the prime location so close to downtown and upscale businesses. The housing development was never finished due to architectural issues, leaving the concrete structure to lay waste for a number of years (Pino 2014). According to an interview I had with a man named Joe, who was a personal friend of the owner of the space, during the time in which the structure was not being used, it became a haven for squatters and drug users. Then, eventually, the HOPE (Helping Other People Everywhere) Organization came into the space and made it more accessible by picking up litter and painting the walls white, thus creating the HOPE Outdoor Gallery. Although the gallery is open to the general public, it is technically a private space, on which people are allowed to paint for free, with the stipulation that they submit a design and officially gain approval from the organization before actually creating the art. After talking to a few different individuals who spent a good deal of time in the space (went there at least a few times a week) I found out that the structure is usually painted on by a mixture of local artists and visiting artists as well as artists from SprATX, a local street art collective in Austin. Other than the larger pieces of art, there is also a vendor who is usually on-site selling cans of spray paint which people can buy to paint their names and leave their mark on the wall. The park does not have much in the way of security although I was told that police are sometimes in the area and there is a security guard who comes by after the park closes at 9:00pm.
These sites are the lens through which graffiti is seen in Austin. However, in order to further understand Austin’s brand and the role that graffiti plays in constructing it, it is necessary to draw from ideas that other academics have used to illustrate similar relationships. The most important ideas are the experience of the tourist in an urban setting, the common conception of graffiti as an artistic medium, and the city of Austin’s brand.
In reference to how the tourist experiences an urban space, there are two main topics that I will be using to analyze graffiti and tourism in Austin. The first is the idea of the “tourist bubble.” The tourist bubble refers to the way that a city can have sections that are sanitized, in a sense, and made more palatable to tourists who visit the city (Judd 1999). Due to the geographical placement of the graffiti sites, this idea also applies to Austin. Both the HOPE Outdoor Gallery and the Jo’s graffiti are located in areas that are upper-class in which most tourists do not feel overtly threatened by their surroundings. In this way, Austin provides distinct locations that allow tourists to comfortably access the “weirdness” of the city.
The second aspect of tourism that is significant to this project is the idea of the tourists’ interaction with the “Austin imaginary.” The imaginary of Austin can be described as the production of the image of what Austinites believe their city to be. Tourists in Austin, by going to the sites I observed, are attempting to interact with this imaginary in a search for authenticity in tourism. The way that tourists seek authenticity in the way that they experience urban space is closely related to the “increasing demand for experiential tourism” (Salazar & Graburn 2014) in that both ideas are tied to tourists seeking to experience the city in the way that the locals do.
The next important thematic element to understanding Austin’s graffiti is the way that the general public perceives the medium of street art. In many ethnographic works that discuss the role of graffiti, the style of art is perceived as negative by the general public due to the fact that it is illegal and an illegitimate “anathema to a ‘civil’ society” (Lee 2013, Rafferty 1991, Schacter 2008). This is relevant to my study as the sites that the graffiti are painted on were both private, and the owners support the presence of graffiti. This depletes the conflict that exists in other studies between authority and graffiti, and makes the graffiti in Austin specifically attractive because it allows people to interact with something that is usually illicit and not directly available to them. The glorification of the “illicit” activity that graffiti represents is a prime example of one way that Austin is “weirder” than other cities in the US.
The final aspect that has been explored in literature on urban imaginaries is the idea of Austin’s brand. One can hardly visit the city without hearing the phrase, “Keep Austin Weird.” This is the most prominent way that Austin is branded and known by tourists and outsiders. This is significant because, as many social scientists have noted, individualism and pluralism are becoming more important in the postmodern city (Stevenson 2003). When the graffiti artists in Austin paint at the sites I observed, their art gets commemorated in pictures that people take and share, therefore changing the city’s image. The fact that the style of the art is “unique” and often illicit contributes to the brand of Austin as “weird” as well.
It is difficult to discuss urban discourse and imaginaries without understanding the idea of the “soft city.” The soft city is essentially all of the factors that go into creating the city’s imaginary and how that idea is communicated, especially through cyberspace (Stevenson 2003). Along with these ideas, an important racial element becomes apparent when considering the sites I visited and Austin’s brand. Significantly, as Arlene Davila illustrates in Chapter 3 of her book, Barrio Dreams, tourism has a tendency to play on “the tense relationship between culture as ‘industry’ and culture as ‘ethnicity’” (Davila 2004). This means that some ethnicized aspects of the culture of an area are emphasized in order to facilitate more tourism in an area. In Austin, the case seems to be the opposite. When observing Austin graffiti and other tourist attractions that make Austin “weird,” it seems to be limited to the “white spatial imaginary” (Lipsitz 2011). In this imaginary, the ways that white people view the urban space and create an idea of Austin are the only ones on display, while the racial issues and struggles of Austin are ignored. This is apparent at the sites that I observed because most of the participants in these places were white and the geographical areas that the graffiti was painted were in primarily white, upper middle class areas that are largely segregated from low-income and minority spaces.
HOPE Outdoor Gallery
As soon as you approach the three-story concrete structure that is the HOPE Outdoor Gallery (HOG), it is clear why so many locals and tourists are drawn to the graffiti-covered walls. Nested in between popular boutiques and a quiet residential area, the park stands as a testament to artistic expression and human creativity. When I see it, I remember the first time I went to the park, when I was trying to find something “Austiny” to do in the city I had just moved to, or the other times I had taken friends from out of town to see the local treasure. The same seems to be true for many at this park. People have come with their families and friends to see the place that they perhaps have already seen on their Facebook Newsfeed or the front page of their Twitter Profiles. While the landscape is not particularly conducive to climbing all the way up to the top level, many people, usually younger groups, brave the rocky, unpaved trek to sit at the top and take a picture with the view of the Austin skyline. Others stay towards the middle and bottom tiers to admire the art that fills the formerly white walls and take pictures with those pieces that they find particularly intriguing.
While most people use the cameras on their smartphones so they can easily post their photos to the social media site of their choice, others come fully equipped with professional-grade Nikons to take pictures of their friends or clients against the eclectic backdrop. Looking around the space, there is no doubt that most visitors come prepared for a day of picture-taking. Some have dressed to the nines in your typical Austin fashion: hip and trendy while maintaining the ever-important laid back bohemian attitude. Women have their hair done and are made up, and even some families have dressed up to take portraits in front of the graffiti.
Since the artwork changes almost completely every week, there is no single image that everyone aims to get into their picture, but there are favorites. This week, it is a large piece that covers one of the sides of the structure that says “LOVE” in an artistic font. Squares of color surround the word and after talking to one man who is a regular visitor of the space, I find out that they are the remnants of old attempts by the same artist. He informs me that she is a local who has been trying to work on the piece for a while, but it keeps getting “tagged.” This is her third attempt. It has been a week since I have been to the wall myself, and I notice that one piece on the main wall that I watched an artist paint, is now almost completely covered by tagging. There is a common complaint among visitors and artists alike that there is “too much graffiti” and that it is covering the “art.” Due to this, many call for more security and limitations as to the kinds of things that should be included on the wall.
As people speak to me about the issue of “graffiti” in the space, I can see in the background a number of people with cans of spray paint freshly bought at the stall or recently discovered on the ground who write their name or a simple phrase to commemorate the fact that they were there at the wall over countless other layers of spray paint. Many people partake in tagging the wall and there are recently created designated areas for tagging as opposed to larger pieces. The long portions of the structure which face the street that most people will see are reserved for large works of graffiti art. The areas which are more covered are marked as an acceptable place to tag. Although in the space, it seems that people are either unaware, or uncaring about the distinction.
When I asked why people come to the HOG or why they enjoy the space, for most the answer is the same: “Because it’s cool.” When speaking about it, people say that there is a “laid back,” or “free for all” attitude to the space that is “unique” and attractive to them. It is widely appreciated that the space is interactive, however people obviously also have a problem with some of the ways that other individuals participate in this space. The tagging was constantly referred to negatively as “graffiti” while the larger pieces were referred to as “art.” This distinction was made time and time again by most of the visitors that I spoke with. In this sense, the distinction between high culture and street culture became clear and people’s opinions about graffiti came out.
While most could appreciate that the art too is categorized as graffiti even though they assigned greater value to it, no one I spoke with thought that people’s tags were of artistic value. This was interesting, especially considering the take on graffiti in other ethnography as a “technology of the self” (Lee 2013). In this way, people who graffiti are expressing themselves by leaving their mark on the structure. This is further complicated by the fact that “artistic expression” was a common theme that people spoke about when asked why the space was valuable to the city. This exemplifies the fact that visitors to the space have a level of respect and interest in graffiti, but only when they feel that it falls into the more sophisticated category of “art.”
The theme of authenticity was also extremely important to this space. People whom I spoke with used words such as “raw” or “no rules” to describe the park. This exemplified that people believed this space to be something unproduced, authentic and almost natural to the city. The space was further tied to Austin’s brand when people would say that it is a “unique” or an “Austiny” place, or sometimes people would even say the mantra: “Keep Austin Weird” when I asked why they liked the space. In this way, people seemed to feel that through participation in this space, they were able to connect with the spirit of the city and play into the urban brand.
The phrase “Keep Austin Weird” also came up a good deal in social media. Many people who I have known personally have posted photos of themselves at the park to Facebook, often with something in the caption about Austin’s creativity. On Twitter, when I searched “#KeepAustinWeird,” images of the park were extremely prevalent in the search results. This shows that the graffiti artists, by continuing to paint at the park and continuing to paint large, “artistic” pieces, are actively contributing to the branding of Austin as a unique, creative space. Furthermore, this shows that the tourists and locals who take pictures with the art to share through social media are then further propagating the brand of Austin by contributing these images to the “soft city” of Austin.
The geographical area is also important in understanding how the use of this space plays into the white spatial imaginary of Austin. There are many different places to see graffiti in Austin, but the most is located at the HOG. This is significant, because historically graffiti is a prevalent medium used by individuals of lower socioeconomic status or who belong to minority races; however in this instance it is in a higher income, primarily white area and it is visited by mostly individuals who fall into that same demographic category. Due to this, the location can be thought of as being in a part of Austin that makes up the “tourist bubble,” where tourists do not think of the city as dangerous or inhospitable because, while graffiti is sometimes associated with urban decay or social and racial issues, here they are not exposed to those types of problems even though they still occur in Austin.
“I love you so much” Graffiti at Jo’s Coffee
Whether you have been in Austin for five minutes or five years, walking down South Congress Street gives you an idea of what the city is about. The ideal Austin mixture of trendy boutiques, eclectic restaurants, hip food trucks, as well as craft booths and street performers, South Congress has provided many a tourist and Austinite alike a good way to spend an afternoon and get the “weird” Austin experience. It may be the Uncommon Objects shop where you can find items to fit any eclectic palette or the TOMS shop, one of only two in the nation, or perhaps the endless array of food trucks that offer diners a unique experience in eating, but there is something about the street that seems to exemplify the space as a contributing factor to Keeping Austin Weird. South Congress has become a popular tourist attraction in Austin not only due to its shopping and eating opportunities, but also because of its accessibility. It is located a little past Downtown Austin, but still within a mile of many of the high-end hotels in the city. One, the San Jose Hotel, is located on South Congress, and is rumored to be a popular place for celebrities to stay when they visit the city.
At a certain point in the walk up and down South Congress, you will come across a small green coffee shop with an outdoor patio. They are known for having great, line-inducing coffee, however the crowd around the building does not lead to the window to order, but rather stops at the far outside wall where simple words are written in red spray paint: “I love you so much.” On any given Saturday this phenomenon can be seen at Jo’s: people waiting to take their picture next to the graffiti to commemorate their time in Austin. People come here to take pictures with their families, friends, significant others and often as individuals as well. Pictures are taken with phones, but usually by another individual, not the “selfie” we’ve become so accustomed to these days. While people come with many different kinds of groups, most are either visiting Austin or have just moved to the city and are memorializing a first of many outings to South Congress.
People are willing to wait for their turn to pose next to the words. Some groups stop by Jo’s afterwards to get a cup of coffee while others continue on to another South Congress attraction to get some lunch or stop to play with the puppies with the Austin Pets Alive organization. In this way, people seem to identify the image of the graffitied wall with South Congress and Austin as a whole as opposed to the coffee shop as a discrete entity. The constant flow of foot traffic on South Congress gives the spot even more attention as people see the commotion and decide that they too would like to take a picture next to some “local art” or to recreate one of the many images of the wall that they have seen on their Facebook or Twitter feeds from friends who have visited the same spot.
Although the words written on the wall of Jo’s are simplistic, people refer to this graffiti as “art.” This was done in person and on social media, using the hashtag “local art” on Twitter. This was interesting to me because it seems that people were playing into the construct of Austin as an “artistic” place, similarly to the way that people experienced the “artistic expression” of the HOG. Although here there was no comparison to the negatively associated “graffiti” like at the park. This was primarily due to the fact that the Jo’s graffiti had been maintained by being redone whenever it had been tagged in the past.
In contrast, while the HOG was revered through social media in the sense that it was identified as “unique” and “weird,” the wall at Jo’s was often referred to online as “touristy” or a place that a “typical tourist” would take a picture on the Yelp! page for Jo’s Coffee. This was representative of the role that Austin imaginary plays in tourism in the city. While the tourists and new Austinites were participating eagerly in the tradition of taking pictures next to the Jo’s graffiti because they saw it as an authentic representation of the city, locals who are familiar with the wall see it as mundane, and even an overdone image of Austin.
Other than Yelp!, the wall was pictured often on InstAustin, a Twitter account that posts emblematic pictures of Austin found on Instagram. Along with the Jo’s wall, many other Austin staples were posted by this Twitter account: the Barton Springs Pool, 6th Street, Franklin’s BBQ, and even the capital building itself. This was interesting because it was an overt expression of things that the creator of the account thinks of as symbolic of Austin. All of these types of images play a role in the way that the Austin imaginary is constructed through the soft city. This was especially interesting in showing the spread of the images, because it illustrates the way that images of people at the graffiti at Jo’s circulate across the bounds of different social media sites to reach more people, in this case the jump from Instagram to Twitter.
The writing at Jo’s also significantly exemplifies the “tourist bubble,” in many ways even more obviously than the HOG. The fact that the surrounding area has many establishments geared towards tourists makes it more obvious how separate the touristic experience is from the authentic Austin experience as a whole. This is also important to the way that even Austinites themselves view interaction with the graffiti as specifically touristic and therefore unauthentic to the city. This is a stark contrast that could largely be due to the fact that images of the Jo’s wall were so much more overtly prevalent in social media. Thus, since many people have seen pictures with the wall online, it makes the pictures kitschy to those who see the wall often because they are local. Furthermore, this acts in conflict with the Austin imaginary because there is tension between what the locals and the tourists believe to be the true Austin.
Through analysis of both sites it has become clear that although people seek something unique, authentic, and artistic when they visit popular graffiti sites in Austin, most tourists and locals do not want to go far out of their way or outside their comfort zone to experience the raw authenticity they crave. In this sense, it is obvious that while the Austin imaginary can be epitomized in the phrase, “Keep Austin Weird,” this brand primarily appeals to the sanitized version of Austin that is largely related to higher socioeconomic status and a white majority. Thus, graffiti brings up an important issue, and one of the most obvious here in Austin: although Austin sees itself as a place where the weird and unique aspects of culture can be displayed openly and accepted, there is a major disjoint in this ideology in that minorities and lower socioeconomic classes are hidden from the sanitized image of the city, and therefore excluded from the “authenticity” of their own city.
Morgan Ireland is currently a senior at UT, and will be graduating with a degree in Anthropology and a minor in Asian Studies. Within Anthropology, she is focused on Cultural Anthropology. Her primary areas of interest are urban anthropology, anthropology of gender and race, anthropology of tourism and South Asian studies. She hopes to go on to a graduate program in Anthropology after graduating and earn her PhD in Cultural Anthropology.
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