Bryan Lopez aids in the installation of the mural for the artist "Werds" on the back wall of Joey’s & The Mix.
Bryan Lopez aids in the installation of the mural for the artist "WERDS" on the back wall of Joey’s and The Mix. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

For someone who works at a company called Gray Street Partners, real estate broker James Sykes is pretty down on the color gray. Too many of San Antonio’s buildings tend to be left a drab, neutral color, he said, when they could be brought to life with color.

“San Antonio’s an art city,” Sykes said, and he believes the walls of its commercial corridors should be adorned with the work of its artists. To that end, Sykes co-founded the San Antonio Street Art Initiative (SASAI) last year with David “Shek” Vega, a longtime street artist who works with Nikolas “Soup” Soupé as Los Otros.

The nonprofit organization SASAI debuted in November 2018 with 2@M – Murals & Music at Midtown, introducing 16 colorful murals on pillars beneath the Interstate 35 overpass at Quincy Street, painted by local artists with a range of experience and reputation, from Cruz Ortiz to Angela Fox.

Murals are painted under I-35 by the San Antonio Street Art Initiative.Murals are painted under I-35 by the San Antonio Street Art Initiative.
Murals underneath Interstate 35 are part of phase one of the San Antonio Street Art Initiative’s project. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

On Saturday evening, phase two of 2@M – Murals & Music at Midtown opens, extending from the original site all the way up North St. Mary’s Street to Tycoon Flats, near U.S. Highway 281. The free public reception will take place at the I-35 underpass, with the artists present alongside DJs, food trucks, craft artists, and other entertainment.

“The idea is for people to gather, then take a stroll up the street” to take in the new murals, and to patronize the many restaurants, bars, and music clubs lining the lively St. Mary’s strip, Vega said.

A total of 19 artists will have completed 17 murals. Business owners in the area have told Vega “We’ve been waiting for this to happen for so long,” he said. With so much new street art along the busy corridor, “It’s like a whole new face of San Antonio,” he said.

This map indicates the locations of the murals along N. St Mary's St.
This map indicates the locations of the murals along North St Mary’s Street. Credit: Courtesy / Google Maps

As the artists have worked on their murals during the week, Sykes said, “I’ve seen people walking down the street, children up to octogenarians, taking photographs of people painting, because it’s awesome seeing people painting at that scale. And it’s way better than what used to be gray, drab, cinder-block wall.”

The FRx Building at French Street, for example, presents a wall 30 feet high by 50 feet wide, providing a canvas large enough to accommodate multiple artists: Philip Wood, Paul Garson, and Matt Tumlinson from San Antonio, Anat Ronan from Houston, and Oscar Magallanes, a well-known street artist in Los Angeles.

The back wall of Joey’s pool hall and The Mix music club will be painted by San Antonian A. J. Rose, who goes by the artist name WERDS. Rose, a native San Antonian who relocated to Houston five years ago, will revisit a red monochrome mural he once made here but has since been covered up, at a much larger scale.

Nearby, Eternal Courage tattoo shop will be painted by its owner Kelly Edwards along with Sloke & Mez, who together comprised a renowned Austin street painting crew two decades ago. Other artists, listed on the SASAI website, will adorn walls at Paper Tiger, the Frio Building, the Lonesome Rose, the Aladdin Cleaning & Restoration Building, Janel’s Floral, and Page Barteau Catering.

For the second phase of the murals project, Vega reached out beyond San Antonio to artists from Austin, Houston, Dallas, Los Angeles, and Mexico City to demonstrate the influence that street artists from around the country and region can have on each other.

“It’s about bridging this network in the creative community that goes beyond the city,” Vega said. “But also to have these people [from other locales] see the creative, talented people we have here in San Antonio, and take that message out into the world.”

As for including a range of local artists, including several for whom painting at mural scale is new, Sykes said of his partner Vega, “it’s pretty awesome watching him help grow and cultivate these artists, and help them have the confidence to do stuff they haven’t done before.” 

Each artist is allowed creative freedom to decide their mural’s content and look, which might normally be a difficult sell to owners of the buildings. Sykes’s contacts in the world of real estate, along with Vega’s credibility, have gone a long way in selling the project.

A mural has been installed on newly opened Little Death wine bar.
A mural has been installed on the newly opened Little Death wine bar. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Building owners seeing the first phase of the project has also helped. “A lot of the building owners I have talked to or met with have seen some of the work that’s gone up,” which paints a clear picture of what’s possible, Sykes said. The next step is “taking time to talk it through it with them, letting them know what our goal and overall mission is, beautification of a commercial corridor of the city.

Also crucial is making sure the artists are properly compensated, a principle he learned from Vega, Sykes said. “A mural brings a huge identity to your building,” and the artists should be compensated like any master welder or master carpenter who’ve also worked on the building, he said.

The mural should be a line item in the beginning budget for a new or newly purchased building, he insisted. “The artists should be compensated, and make a good, living wage doing this stuff for our city. There’s a lot of bad-ass artists here.”

Sykes declined to specify costs, but placed the budgets of both phases at between $20,000 and $50,000.

Though unable to share details as yet, Sykes promised a larger third phase of the murals project, to be realized 12 to 18 months from now. This time, instead of having to go to business owners, SASAI is being contacted “by some pretty fun people for opportunities to be able to spread this throughout the urban core and add more color to what was once just gray,” he said.

“I take a lot of pride making our city better,” Sykes said.

The SASAI project also marks an evolution in street art, Vega said. “It goes beyond graffiti, street art. It’s public art. It belongs to everybody now.”

Further details on the Phase II: 2@M – Murals & Music at Midtown free public opening reception are available on the SASAI website and its Facebook events page.

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...