Last week at an Interstate 35 underpass near St. Mary’s and Elmira streets, a black-capped, bespectacled street artist busily helped other artists paint 20-foot tall murals on massive concrete supports under the freeway.
David “Shek” Vega took breaks from coordinating mechanical lifts, transporting paint, and responding to curious passersby to work on his own mural with collaborator Nikolas “Soup” Soupé.
This Saturday, Nov. 3, from 6 p.m.-11 p.m., members of the public are invited to celebrate 16 new murals made expressly for them by local artists as part of the new San Antonio Street Art Initiative project 2@M: Music and Murals at Midtown.
The San Antonio Street Art Initiative (SASAI) was formed this year as a nonprofit organization to advocate for street art as a legitimate form of cultural expression and public art, and to seek support among community members and businesses to help revitalize neighborhoods throughout San Antonio.
Shek and street art enthusiasts Greg Rattray and James Sykes formed the group to move public perceptions of street art beyond notions of graffiti, tagging, and vandalism, toward seeing it as an art form equal to museum and gallery art.
“Let’s go big, show the community that spray-paint isn’t necessarily a bad thing,” Shek said of SASAI’s purpose, “and in turn maybe we can influence other artists to go big as well, and make San Antonio a more colorful city.”
A ‘knucklehead’ knuckles down
Two decades ago, Shek was a 17-year-old self-described “knucklehead” illegally spray-painting the blank walls of San Antonio with graffiti, he said. Other, more established artists took him under their wings, teaching not only the tricks of the trade, but respect for what they considered an art form.
Shek and some graffiti-artist friends then threw a public graffiti party, having convinced a Westside business owner to host their work on the side of a large wall fronting a dumpster lot. Shek was surprised that close to 300 people showed up, and his role as an advocate for street art was born.
“That goes to show you how long we’ve been fighting this battle, to legitimize this as a respectable genre of artwork,” he said.
Since then he’s run Gravelmouth, a gallery dedicated to street artists, and with “Soup” formed Los Otros Murals in 2014. Together, Los Otros has adorned San Antonio with more than 50 murals in diverse locations from The Rim on the North Side to Rudy’s Seafood on the South Side, at the AT&T Center on the East Side, and throughout downtown.
Through SASAI, Shek now spreads his own wings widely to teach younger street artists, gallery artists, building owners, developers, and San Antonians in general what street art can do for their city.
“Now that we’ve gained the experience, we’ve proven ourselves time and time again, we’ve proven that the art form is legitimate, and now it’s time to go back and influence others and help them out,” he said.
Among the 16 artists Shek invited to paint wraparound murals for the 2@M project are wizened street art veterans he wanted to pay back for their early support,such as Robert Tatum, Joe de la Cruz, Alex Rubio, Cruz Ortiz, and Andy Benavides, who gave Shek his first gallery show in 2005. Others are artists trying large-scale street art for the first time, such as Angela Fox, whose work Shek has shown at his gallery.
Other artists involved are Ana Fernandez, James Madrano, Paul Garsón, Justin Parr, Ed Sevedra, Kelly Edwards, Suzy Gonzalez, Mike Comp, and Shek and Soup as Los Otros.
The brilliant-colored first wall art Los Otros made together in 2014 still adorns the south-facing side of the San Antonio Current building at the corner of St. Mary’s and Camden streets, just a short distance from the 2@M project site.
The fact that the mural remains bright after four years in the South Texas sunlight is testament to the technical skills Soup learned from his father, a car-painter who recognized his son’s talents early on but wanted to make sure he understood his materials.
His father put the young Soup through what was essentially a three-year training program, painting the priming layer on cars.
“It’s process and procedure,” Soup said of the lesson he took from the experience. “If you want a certain result on your finish, you have to have a good foundation for it.”
A symbiosis with history
Early in his experience with San Antonio street art, Rattray recognized that the Hispanic art scene in San Antonio is highly influenced by and symbiotic with the Mexican muralist tradition. He particularly took to the work of Shek and Los Otros, and recognized in their work the value of street art as community expression.
“Street art tends to grow up in neighborhoods where people have less access to the arts,” Rattray said. “The fact that street art is out there, accessible to everybody, is a massively good thing for the artistic community” and visual arts in general, he said.
Mexican muralists were once lionized as great artists, according to scholar and curator Ruben Cordova. “In the ’30s, Mexican art had been maybe the most dominant and inspirational form,” in the United States, he said, and influenced the public art component of the Works Progress Administration (WPA) program.
But as art became more gallery- and museum-bound, murals fell out of favor, and street art fell to self-styled graffiti artists, who were most often seen as vandals despoiling public space.
What might have once seemed a gargantuan task, of legitimizing street art as a form of expression equal to museum-quality art, is now becoming a reality for Shek and his cohort.
The SASAI is “another mission taken upon ourselves to not just help propel the artwork, but the city itself,” Shek said. “I always believe that it’s our responsibility to leave the city better than when we received it.”
Rattray has experienced formalized street art districts in cities around the world, including New York, Miami, and Paris, and attests to their economic and cultural value.
Perhaps Los Otros’ Atlas-like figure painted on a massive support as though holding up not only I-35 but the world, attests to the staying power and potential of the art form.