The year 2041 has been good for Larry “Krook” Martinez, celebrating his 54th birthday and his new job as director of the Con Safo Gallery in the thriving Lone Star brewery complex, which has overtaken the Pearl as San Antonio’s hot spot.
To mark the occasion, Martinez has mounted a 20th anniversary exhibition of historical photographs of the old complex, when it was still piles of rubble surrounded by decrepit shells of buildings barely held up by exuberant layers of street art.
Though the above scenario might read like speculative fiction, it is entirely in the realm of the possible.
The crumbling Lone Star brewery is about to undergo a major overhaul by its new owners. But for one week in July, a small group of street artists saw an opportunity to memorialize a beloved graffiti sanctuary, with a last act of guerilla art that drew a line from the brewery’s recent past to its future.
Street artist and muralist Rudy Herrera long appreciated that his friend Martinez has spent years photographically documenting the ever-changing panoply of graffiti paintings that decorate the hulking, rusting, skeletal infrastructure of the brewery.
He suggested they show Martinez’s images the way street artists should, without official permission and using whatever resources they could quickly cobble together. The result was a street-savvy effort that Herrera and Martinez dubbed the Krook Gallery, after Martinez’s street moniker.
While the concept of the “pop-up” gallery is now a common tactic for showing art, the Krook popped up almost out of nowhere, and out of little more than nothing, in a tumbledown plaster-walled shack tucked deep within the roughly 32-acre brewery grounds.
Working over a 12-hour period, the pair cleaned up the space, gave the walls a fresh coat of paint, and hung photos by Martinez, framed using materials found among plentiful trash piles on the property.
Fellow street artist Santiago “Slim” Lopez IV fashioned clever light fixtures using Lone Star shorties as sconces, and Herrera painted the exterior walls with an angular red, gold, and white theme echoing the classic Lone Star beer can design. He added a C/S “con safo” symbol — generally meaning “with respect” — for good luck and to ward off any adverse responses.
Alas, within days the unofficial gallery had been attacked by vandals, who grafittied not only all over the walls, but over Martinez’s framed photos.
Familiar with the street art ethos that every painting is temporary, Martinez said, “It was something that was already expected, just not the way they did it” — with a total lack of respect for the work of other street artists. After the vandal posted their act on social media, Herrera took a generous view, that the younger, inexperienced street artist hadn’t yet learned the meaning of the term con safo.
After less than a week, Herrera and Martinez returned to “buff out” the Krook Gallery with black paint, returning the shack to its former status as one empty room among dozens in the complex.
Something worth valuing
With no official opening reception or list of invitees, the number of people who actually saw the Krook Gallery is indeterminate, but Herrera estimates between 50 and 100 people familiar with the Lone Star environs witnessed the installation.
Peter French was one of them.
French had become aware of Herrera and Martinez when he helped Centro San Antonio negotiate permission for a large mural on the north face of the Kress Building downtown. Herrera was the muralist and Martinez documented the multi-week process. French met them both and admired their work.
But as director of development for GrayStreet Partners — which recently acquired the Lone Star property and plans to redevelop it with the Midway development company of Houston — French did not support or sanction the Krook Gallery, the establishment of which constituted illegal acts of trespassing and vandalism.
However, as an avid urban photographer who has also recorded the ever-evolving street art throughout the Lone Star property, French said he could appreciate the effort to memorialize the grafitti and temporarily beautify one small corner of the complex.
“Happily, I got to document it in its pristine state,” French said, adding to his own personal archive of Lone Star images, which he has collected for more than a decade.
French and the Lone Star Development team notified Herrera and Martinez that they could not invite people to trespass, but did provide them the opportunity to remove the gallery under supervision.
French recognizes that during its 25-year history of abandonment, Lone Star has become a respected site for street artists, which he feels is “something worth honoring. There’s certainly something worth valuing here. You don’t want to crush that.”
Even as transformational redevelopment plans for the old brewery take hold, French said GrayStreet and Midway would like to retain some sense of the authenticity of the place and its past. They have discussed a public art program for muralists, using containers placed on the property, but the Krook Gallery experience has given them pause.
“Watching how this played out instantly created some questions in our mind,” he said, that if they go ahead, the art might quickly get “hammered” just like it did at the Krook. Martinez assured French that despite a couple of young “jackasses” who haven’t yet learned the street ethos, a lot of respect exists in the street art community.
‘It’s going to be different’
Martinez and Herrera realize that the Lone Star-as-canvas of the past will soon cease to exist.
In May, a Google alert on Herrera’s phone announced that GrayStreet and Midway would receive $24 million in incentives from the City of San Antonio. “Usually when it’s announced, that’s when sh-t starts moving quick,” he said, having witnessed the process before, including at the building that is now the Judson Candy Factory Lofts on South Flores Street.
Inevitably, he knew, “it’s going to be different than whatever we think it is right now,” Herrera said.
For the moment, to Martinez it remains a valued sanctuary for street art. As he strolled the property, which he considers his “second home,” documenting new or previously unseen graffiti paintings, he recalled walking from his childhood home in the neighborhood to get a root beer at the old Buckhorn Saloon.
He said that no matter how much the place transforms over time, he will have his memories of graffiti paintings by favorite street artists, such as Grave148 and Relek, two of perhaps hundreds of artists who’ve left their mark on the Lone Star walls. They’ll be superimposed in his imagination over the new buildings that will one day occupy the complex, and his collection of street art photographs will tell the tale.
“They’re gonna look back, man, and be like … this is crazy, because I got history.”
Only one relic of the momentary, now historical Krook Gallery remains. For its unofficial opening reception, Martinez framed a letter-size sheet of paper that reads: This is dedicated to the artist[s] who were given very little and made the most of it. To those who can turn nothing into something and transform the ugly into something beautiful. Salud.