The Mexican muralist tradition of the 1920s is finding its counterpart in modern-day San Antonio, during what might be the most active period of mural-making in the city’s history.

Luminaria has been actively installing artist murals at Hemisfair for years, including a cleverly situated 2018 artwork by Spanish artist SAN that populates the boarded windows of the Magik Theatre building with South Texas icons. In recently expanding its placemaking efforts, Luminaria joined with Centro San Antonio in June for an open call for three new downtown murals, part of Centro’s ’s Art Everywhere Initiative to install 10 public artworks downtown by the end of this year.

The San Antonio Street Art Initiative (SASAI) debuted in 2018 with 16 murals installed under the Interstate 35 bridge at St. Mary’s Street, then in 2019 expanded the initiative with 17 new murals installed up and down the St. Mary’s Strip, where years earlier the Los Otros muralist team had made their mark with a popular Fiesta-themed mural.

On Monday, SASAI unveiled a new mural and a new strategy to expand its reach.

The new, brightly colored We Love Our South Side painting covering the wall of the E-Z Wash laundromat on South Zarzamora Street and Southcross Boulevard pays homage to San Antonio Southside culture and signals SASAI’s intent to bring more murals to a part of town many street artists call home.

Homage to Southside cultura

Muralist David “Shek” Vega, one half of the street art duo Los Otros and a SASAI co-founder, had eyed the wall for years.

Vega joined Nik Soupe, his Los Otros painting partner, to publicly dedicate the new mural along with its two other artists, Eva Sanchez and Joe de la Cruz, as noisy traffic zoomed past on South Zarzamora.

Soupe compared the street artist’s quest for a prized wall to Captain Ahab’s odyssey to capture Moby-Dick. “This was Shek’s wall,” he said. “We all have our white whales here and there.”

Soupe said Shek had been eyeing his “big fish” wall for years, and that the patience and persistence required to negotiate with property owners, neighborhoods, developers, and artists demonstrates not only the maturation process of Los Otros, but of the art form itself.

Vega had approached building owner Jeff Wagner a few times over the years without success, partly due to a previous experience with grafitti-like wall art that drew unwelcome attention. Meanwhile, Los Otros went to work painting the walls of small businesses in various locations around town, including the 1906 building on South Flores Street that served as their home base.

Vega formed SASAI in 2018 with street art enthusiasts Greg Rattray and James Sykes, in part to help bring the legitimacy of a nonprofit organization to an art form that was once largely considered grafitti, even vandalism, to mainstream culture.

Soupe described the evolution of street art as moving beyond “the stuff that you do without permission” to seeking chances to leave a lasting mark on communities.

“What can you do if you actually have permission?” he asked rhetorically. “It opens up so much more opportunities.”

Shek Vega, artist and a principal with the SA Street Art Initiative, touches the clear silicone coating that protects the mural from graffiti.
Shek Vega, artist and a principal with the SA Street Art Initiative, touches the clear silicone coating that protects the mural from graffiti. The We Love Our South Side painting covering the wall of the E-Z Wash laundromat pays homage to Southside culture. Credit: Nicholas Frank / San Antonio Report

The opportunity to paint what is now the E-Z Wash Laundromat wall on South Zarzamora finally arrived as the product of coincidence.

Community First Health Plans President and CEO Theresa Scepanski grew up on the South Side and said she fondly recalls coming home from school to the smell of her grandmother’s fresh tortillas. That image, familiar to many Southside residents, is now immortalized on the laundromat wall along with other icons such as the paleta man, pan dulce, and silhouettes of Missions San Juan and Espada.

To celebrate Community First’s 25th anniversary, the organization reached out to SASAI through its website application portal, and SASAI board member Burgundy Woods saw an opportunity to reach for several goals.

“This particular mural project came about because Shek [said], ‘We need to bring some art to the South Side,’” Woods said. She reached out to Wagner, who recognized what Los Otros and SASAI had accomplished, and he agreed to give street art another chance on his wall.

With the help of Live from the Southside magazine editor April Monterrosa, Woods and SASAI collected input from 40 neighborhood business owners and influencers on images, symbols, and ideas they’d like to see in wall paintings representing Southside cultura. That input shaped We Love Our Southside and will help inform future mural projects, she said.

“We had it in our minds that we wanted to do a handful of murals, because there’s some really beautiful walls out here,” she said.

Evidence of life downtown

Andi Rodriguez started at Centro San Antonio in February as its vice president of cultural placemaking, with an ambitious agenda to install 10 new artworks in the downtown area. Slowed at first by the onset of the pandemic, Rodriguez and Centro recovered in August with a surprise street painting that appeared overnight, paying homage to the Black Lives Matter movement and the idea of racial equality in San Antonio.

Next, one artist who helped paint the streets around Travis Park with the verse of San Antonio Poet Laureate Andrea “Vocab” Sanderson, received his own mural assignment.

Anthony Dean Harris teamed with Flight! gallery owner and artist Justin Parr to paint Instructions for Use for Adapting to Our State of Constant Change on a Houston Street wall. The mural is unusual for its textual focus and its wry wisdom appropriate both to the pandemic and to bridging racial divides. Its last line reads, “despite our being apart, we’re all in this together.”

Anthony Dean Harris teamed with Flight! gallery owner and artist Justin Parr to paint Instructions for Use for Adapting to Our State of Constant Change on a Houston Street wall. Credit: Courtesy / Centro San Antonio

Several projects followed, including illustrator Kathy Sosa’s lighthearted Keep Calm et Macar•on series of sign paintings on the side wall of La Boulangerie bakery, the four-story SA Is Amor mural by Martha Martinez on the Historic Travelers Hotel, and Touch by artist and curator Suzy Gonzalez on the Herweck’s building on Third Street.

When the Jennifer Khoshbin mural Interwoven came down from its placement on the Navarro Street side of the Houston Street Garage, Rodriguez worked with the Department of Arts and Culture to replace it with And yet, we bloom by artist Kat Cadena. As described by the artist, the 8-by-16-foot painting depicts “two women, one indigenous, one black, touch[ing] hands in the water,” eyes interlocked “in a gaze of support, trust, and solidarity.”

Such themes are particularly important during recent times, Rodriguez said, with artists struggling due to lack of opportunity, and downtown streets largely vacant due to business closures and pandemic safety measures. Murals re-enliven the streets, she said, while helping artists find work and connection, and letting people know there is still life downtown.

In the larger picture, she said, “we call ourselves a cultural city. Well, let’s make it real, let’s make it materialize.”

Rodriguez helped usher the next ambitious mural project through its various stages of development, finally achieving full approval from the Historic and Design Review Commission on Dec. 16. Artist Rudy Herrera, an experienced street artist with at least 10 murals stationed around the city, will undertake his largest work yet with a 50-foot by nearly 100-foot-tall mural to be painted on the brick side wall of the Kress building on East Houston Street.

Like many modern muralists, Herrera began as a self-described “punk kid” grafitti artist, who grew to work regularly with San Anto Cultural Arts, long known for its mural activity throughout the city. Herrera now recognizes both the opportunities and limitations presented by legitimacy. He said that even after five years working as a professional muralist, it still feels odd “because it’s new that people like me are getting opportunities” to make large-scale artworks officially sanctioned by the City of San Antonio.

“I never thought the trajectory of my artwork would take me into working with the City. I don’t know if it was just being shortsighted, or maybe amateur thinking about it,” he said. Businesses, developers, and civic entities are now seeking out street artists in part because of the perceived hipness they lend to projects, Herrera said.

“It’d be kind of naive to not see that people are getting hip to this new flavor, this new ‘umami,’ if you will,” he said, laughing.

Working independently, he can paint what he wants, he said, but working with the City can mean rejected proposals and multiple revisions before a project can move forward.

While the official process of getting approval for a proposed mural can be onerous, he said it’s ultimately worthwhile as long as he can maintain his ideals, which include expressing the complexity of his mixed ancestry, and finding room for free expression.

“The whole process is exciting,” he said. “And I’m fortunate to have the opportunity, especially now. I can’t complain too much. We’re in a pandemic, and I’ve got work.”

If San Antonio continues on its trajectory of encouraging street artists to cover otherwise empty city walls with colorful images that celebrate its cultura and heroes, the names of these and other local muralists might one day join Diego Rivera, José Clemente Orozco, and David Alfaro Siqueiros as founders of an important art historical tradition.

Nicholas Frank

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...