Philadelphia is touted as the mural capital of the nation, with Mural Arts Philadelphia boasting 3,600 murals and 1,000 sites on its waiting list. Closer to home, one online guide takes pride in Austin’s murals, listing 84 popular street paintings.

But San Antonio is quietly emerging as a leader among mural cities. Between the San Antonio Street Art Initiative (SASAI) and Centro San Antonio, two newer entrants on the city’s mural scene, 84 murals have been added in the last year alone. The venerable nonprofit San Anto Cultural Arts has been fostering what it calls “muralism” for two decades, adding 55 colorful community murals to the city’s neighborhoods.

Anyone strolling through downtown can hardly walk a block without running into a mural, with new street paintings popping up regularly as part of Centro’s recent Art Everywhere initiative, adding to an existing gallery of public art viewable on city streets.

The San Antonio Report asked Mayor Ron Nirenberg to take us on a brief walking tour of the area near his City Hall office, to gaze at the palettes of vibrant colors, new and old, that enliven downtown streetscapes.

Foundations and faith

Nirenberg remembers the first mural to catch his attention: The 1997 Spirit of Healing mosaic by Jesse Treviño gracing the nine-story wall of The Children’s Hospital of San Antonio by Milam Park.

“It’s quintessential San Antonio and it’s stunning,” Nirenberg said. “You can see it from the highway, and it represents the city’s foundations and faith.” Of Treviño, Nirenberg said, “Jesse? He’s a legend.”

The artist’s backstory, working through a devastating injury suffered while serving in Vietnam, reminded Nirenberg of another mural on the West Side. You Are Not Forgotten by Michael Roman commemorates Westside San Antonians who served in Vietnam. The mural is on the southwest corner of West Commerce and South Colorado streets.

Rounding the corner of the Municipal Plaza Building, the Adam mural by Venezuelan artist and current Ruby City exhibitor Arturo Herrera comes into view, hovering over the Bill Miller restaurant on the corner of East Commerce Street and North Main Avenue. Made in 2013 for the Linda Pace Foundation, Herrera chose red as its primary color in honor of Pace’s favorite hue.

“That’s an interesting piece of art, too, because that is a demonstration that a mural doesn’t have to dominate the wall or the scene in order to blend in and be a great frame for downtown,” Nirenberg said.

Another artist named Herrera represents the other side of the mural spectrum, with a 100-foot-tall mural covering the side of the historic Kress building on West Houston Street facing Jefferson Street and Peacock Alley. Rudy Herrera completed The Last Parade in April 2021, using every color of the rainbow to tell a story of his personal journey as an artist, represented as a young girl of Indigenous heritage.

Taking in the array of color and symbols, Nirenberg recognized the lamp she’s holding as “the light of truth,” and said of the artist, “he’s following his heart.”

Muralist Rudy Herrera poses for a portrait in front of his new mural titled “The Last Parade” in downtown on Thursday.
Muralist Rudy Herrera poses for a portrait in front of his mural The Last Parade in downtown in April, 2021. Credit: Nick Wagner / San Antonio Report

From graffiti to street art

Like many muralists, Herrera began his journey as a graffiti artist, then began working with San Anto Cultural Arts on sanctioned mural projects and, like longtime street artist Shek Vega, a co-founder of SASAI, has mentored younger street artists to help build a new generation of muralists.

Another self-taught street painter who goes by SCOTCH! recently joined in the Art Everywhere project by painting the walls of Peacock Alley with Fly with the Peacocks, an abstract representation of the brazenly colorful birds.

Asked about the long-term effort to bring graffiti artists into legitimate status, Nirenberg said, “I don’t think there’s a drive to legitimize it, I think it’s already been legitimized. It depends on who the audience and the artist is.”

Nirenberg recalled the opening sequence from the 1968 documentary Jimi Plays Monterey, which features artist Denny Dent in a trash-strewn alleyway suddenly pulling out paintbrushes and crafting a wall portrait of Jimi Hendrix within minutes.

That’s the kind of street art people would value enough to keep intact, the mayor said. “I’m a fan of street art, and that’s an example of why we should consider it a legitimate medium.”

Martha Martinez-Flores is an experienced artist who was invited to participate in the Art Everywhere program with SA Is Amor, a highly visible 40-foot-tall mural facing the busy conjunction of Broadway, 3rd Street, and East Pecan Street. The mural functions as a pandemic-era fundraiser for San Antonians in need, having raised $20,000 to date through print sales of the #SAISAMOR motif.

Nirenberg, who said Martinez-Flores is a family friend, also appreciates the political dimension of the artist’s message.

In his own interpretation, he said, “There’s this political grip on the state Capitol that is very regressive and dispassionate about the plight of people like immigrants, lower-income Texans, [and] it’s very evident in policies that attack transgender youth. [SA Is Amor] was a statement in response to that, that that’s not what our city will stand for. Our city is about love and compassion.”

A VIA bus travels north on Broadway past the SA is Amor mural created by the Art Everywhere campaign of Centro.
A VIA bus travels north on Broadway past the SA Is Amor mural created by artist Martha Martinez-Flores for the Art Everywhere initiative from Centro. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Nirenberg touted the city’s efforts to spread the message of public health through a series of COVID-19 themed murals throughout town, created in 2021 through a collaborative effort involving the City of San Antonio, Metro Health and Southtown-based arts nonprofit Supporting Multiple Art Resources Together (SMART). Longtime muralist Rubio was involved in that effort, adding to his growing gallery of murals at locations including Hemisfair and the East Nolan Street bridge connecting North Cherry and Chestnut Streets.

In speaking up for mural art during a recent City Council meeting, the mayor said he was thinking specifically about those COVID-19 murals.

“Some people may call them advertisements or public service announcements. But, you know, they’re works of art. We might forget 30 years from now what we went through with masks and vaccines and getting tested and all of that, but that’s a piece that will help us personalize and commemorate a period of time in San Antonio, better than a history book would.”

Room for more

Toward the end of the walking tour, the mayor encountered two unexpected artworks not on any official rosters: a parking lot garbage can painted with a cartoon image of the Alamo, and a second-story work by street artist Deleted, who was featured in a SASAI three year anniversary party on the St. Mary’s Strip, of a stylized chihuahua with angel wings.

Viewing the painted trash can, Nirenberg said, “One of the things that San Antonio must protect is our authenticity.”

Cities undergoing economic growth can be enveloped by commercial concerns, he said. “San Antonio is conscious about that and wants to ensure that we don’t become a different city, that we become the best version of ourselves, and that … the identity is not lost in the process. I want my city to have swagger. And to me, that’s a demonstration of it.”

Swagger is “about being yourself and not giving a damn. And that’s what this city does … we don’t get caught up trying to be like other people or other cities. We want to be ourselves. And I think that’s very attractive, and one of the reasons why people are increasingly attracted by this city. You can’t reproduce it, you can’t fake that.”

The Deleted mural just slightly encroaches on an old “Antique Sampler Mall” sign on the back of the Alamo Antique Mall building.

“It’s a great representation of our downtown, where you have these incredible … museum-worthy antiques, historic pieces, and it’s right next to this urban, vibrant, in-your-face youth movement.”

The historic and the next can coexist, he said, “and together, they make a very interesting montage.”

Ambitious muralists, take note: Nirenberg pointed out a towering expanse of the City Tower administration building’s 22-story blank gray concrete wall. “This is an example of where we’d love to see more art. We’re just walking down a block here, and all I see is gray.”

He acknowledged concerns about conservation and preserving historic spaces, “which, frankly, can be accommodated,” he said. “There should be very few restrictions in terms of let’s create art and make it part of our landscape. But look at this wall, this gray drab wall, and it’s begging to be brought to life, so wouldn’t that be fabulous to have something besides a block of stone there?”

Nicholas Frank

Nicholas Frank moved from Milwaukee to San Antonio following a 2017 Artpace residency. Prior to that he taught college fine arts, curated a university contemporary art program, toured with an indie rock...