Support Local Journalism, Join the SA Current Press Club.

Meet the Muralistas: Outdoor Artists Tap Into San Antonio’s Cultural DNA 

click to enlarge Nik Soupè, David “Shek” Vega, Matt Tumlinson and Eva Marengo Sanchez (left to right) show off mural work on the St. Mary’s Strip. - JAIME MONZON
  • Jaime Monzon
  • Nik Soupè, David “Shek” Vega, Matt Tumlinson and Eva Marengo Sanchez (left to right) show off mural work on the St. Mary’s Strip.
Adriana M. Garcia recalls working on her first mural, “Líderes de la Comunidad,” a sprawling vision dominated by images of La Gloria dance hall and labor leader Emma Tenayuca.

Garcia was a crew member on the 2006 San Anto Cultural Arts project led by Valerie Aranda. A painter and graphic designer whose work frequently speaks to the history, culture and experience of the Mexican American community, Garcia says the artist was “baked” into her by the blazing sun as she worked on a scaffold near the intersection of Buena Vista and Colorado streets.

Garcia laughs when she tells the story. She knows it sounds a little cheesy. Be that as it may, she’s part of a San Antonio tradition of artists making murals — and murals making artists.

click to enlarge Adriana M. Garcia served as lead artist on the San Anto Cultural Arts mural “Brighter Days.” - COURTESY OF ADRIANA M. GARCIA
  • Courtesy of Adriana M. Garcia
  • Adriana M. Garcia served as lead artist on the San Anto Cultural Arts mural “Brighter Days.”
It could be said that muralism is in the city’s DNA. The historic missions, after all, were once brightly painted inside and out with geometric patterns, floral motifs and other designs.

As an entity, San Anto Cultural Arts, a Westside non-profit founded by Manny Castillo and artists Cruz Ortiz and Juan Ramos in 1993, has been the most visible and prolific generator of murals in the city for the better part of three decades.

Individual artists — both of the fine and street varieties — have also made a mark, perhaps none so conspicuously and successfully as Jesse Treviño, whose nine-story mosaic “The Spirit of Healing” towers over Milam Park and whose 3-D “La Veladora of Our Lady of Guadalupe” serves as a beacon for the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center.

Recent contributions from the San Antonio Street Art Initiative and Essex Modern City have added substantially to the city’s ever-growing portfolio of murals. So has Public Art San Antonio, which manages public art projects associated with the city’s capital improvement programs.

Even as the COVID-19 outbreak has brought activity in the city’s arts community to a crawl, artist Diana Kersey installed her latest ceramic mural on the Oxbow office tower under construction on Broadway. It’s an epic two-part visual ode to Mexican free-tailed bats, red-eared slider turtles, Indian blanket wildflowers and other native fauna and flora titled “The Riparian Edge.”

The beauty of all this artwork, especially at the moment, is that it’s out in
the open air where there’s plenty of room to mind your social distance. Websites for SASAI, SACA and Public Art San Antonio all feature maps that can be used to plan a DIY tour via foot, bike or car, something David “Shek” Vega, owner of Gravelmouth Gallery, president of SASAI, and half of the mural duo Los Otros, enthusiastically recommends.

click to enlarge Nik Soupè and David “Shek” Vega show off their work under Interstate 35, just north of downtown San Antonio. - JAIME MONZON
  • Jaime Monzon
  • Nik Soupè and David “Shek” Vega show off their work under Interstate 35, just north of downtown San Antonio.
Under the Highway

A good place to start is the North St. Mary’s Strip, which Vega and his SASAI cohort have designated the nexus of “The Largest Outdoor Gallery in Texas.”
Launched in 2018 by Vega, James Sykes and Greg Rattray, SASAI announced its presence in a big way with a series of 16 murals painted on the pillars under the highway at St. Mary’s and Quincy streets.

For the project, the nonprofit recruited a mix of street and fine artists, veterans and newbies venturing beyond the confines of canvas or paper for the first time. The results were stunning — an urban gallery of monumental works with a soundtrack provided by the whoosh and thump of traffic overhead.

Vega and Nik Soupè, the other half of Los Otros, created a wraparound mural in their signature style — a central subject in black and white surrounded by colorful design elements — featuring the Greek sea god Poseidon on one side and the unlucky Titan Atlas on the other. Instead of holding up the heavens, however, Atlas is shouldering Interstate 35.

Fun fact: the first mural project Vega and Soupè did together adorns the exterior of the Current’s office building on Dallas Street.

With works by artists including Cruz Ortiz, Tatum, Paul Garson, Angela Fox and Suzy Gonzalez, the under-the-highway site became an instant attraction for locals and tourists, not to mention a ready-made backdrop for videos, graduation photos and, of course, selfies.

Since its inception, SASAI has created 46 murals, most of them along the Strip. With its concentration of bars, restaurants and nightclubs, the area made the perfect setting for SASAI’s vision.

“It’s our entertainment district,” Vega says. “It’s always been a creative hangout, and it’s about time that we have a neighborhood where people can come in and spend the day and enjoy art, maybe have a drink, listen to music — just have a neighborhood for ourselves or a place to bring visitors that’s outside the traditional tourist routine checklist.”

For inspiration, the organization looked at the Wynwood district in Florida, a once-derelict neighborhood transformed into a thriving art district with murals by a Who’s Who of street artists from around the world.

click to enlarge Sanchez had just five days to complete “The Morning After: Plan A,” her first large-scale mural. - JAIME MONZON
  • Jaime Monzon
  • Sanchez had just five days to complete “The Morning After: Plan A,” her first large-scale mural.
‘An Artist Community’

As a nonprofit, SASAI’s goal is “to showcase these artists, help connect the artists with these walls, push their career, gain them experience in the public art realm,” Vega says. Artists engaged by the organization to create murals are paid for their work.

Sykes recently left the organization, but SASAI remains a trio with the addition of Burgundy Woods of Style Lush TV as project coordinator. Woods is also tasked with developing an education program.

One artist who’s gained a boost from working with SASAI is Eva Marengo Sanchez. The mural projects she’s done have raised her profile and changed the way she works.

Vega enlisted her to paint a mural on North St. Mary’s as part of Phase II of SASAI’s North St. Mary’s project — 20 murals on the exterior walls of buildings lining the Strip completed in March 2019. Before that, Sanchez’s only experience with the form was painting a mini-mural in a breezeway at the Blue Star Arts Complex.

The artist, known for her meticulously detailed photo-realist paintings of food, took a month to complete the Blue Star piece, part of a project organized by Tatum. However, for the SASAI project, she had just five days to complete a painting on a 12-by-30-foot wall.

Faced with that daunting task, Sanchez asked for extra time, then maximized her workdays by starting at sunrise. On the day of the reception, she was still putting the finishing touches on “The Morning After: Plan A,” her tribute to the restorative powers of takeout breakfast tacos and coffee following an evening of debauchery.

“I went at it hard, just put in so many hours, but it was such an incredible experience,” she says.

Part of what made the experience so positive for Sanchez was sharing it with other artists. While she painted, local multidisciplinary artist Cassidy Fritts was literally around the corner.

“Painting is such a solitary practice. I’m really introverted, so that works really well for me and I hadn’t questioned that,” Sanchez says. “That was kind of the introduction to the idea of an artist community.”

Sanchez’s second mural for SASAI was part of a project at the San Antonio International Airport’s long-term parking garage. She painted “The Rise of the Concha,” an image of a piece of pan dulce with bright yellow topping, on a set of elevator shaft doors on Level 2.

Since working on the murals, Sanchez traded her home studio for a space at Mercury Project in Southtown, both for the communal vibe and extra space to fit the growing scale of her art. When we spoke earlier this year, she had recently completed and sold a 10-by-5-foot painting of a taco cocooned in crinkled aluminum foil.

New Life

While SASAI has been quiet in recent months, plans are underway to add another 10-15 murals in the North St. Mary’s Street area “COVID permitting,” Vega says. The organization is also looking to branch out into other neighborhoods.

“This year could be shot, and it’s all pointing in that direction,” Vega adds. “But some of the relationship building and some of the plans for 2021 are going to just pick up super quick. We’re going to hit the ground running.”

If the Mexican muralists inspired Chicano artists to create murals in the 1970s and decades that followed, Vega contends graffiti and street artists injected new life into the form.

“It brought older muralists back out into the street. It brought traditional studio artists out into the street,” says Vega, who’s created murals for the San Antonio Spurs and the Fiesta San Antonio Commission with Soupè. “Now it’s this whole global movement where every city has an organization that showcases the talents of these artists.”

Soupè, who started out as a graffiti artist in his teens, has seen the public perception of street art shift “from people just not really liking what we’re doing as far as graffiti goes to, ‘Oh, street art.’ Like this is cool now.”

Like SASAI, Essex Modern City looked to Wynwood as a model. In 2017, developer Jake Harris enlisted Los Angeles-based street artist Jon Leonardo to curate the walls of the former pallet-manufacturing site.

In the nearly three years since, a 40-60 split of local and out-of-town street artists have created some 140 murals at the site, which is open for Second Saturday viewings. Some of the paintings are on warehouse walls, others on changing panels.

click to enlarge A portrait of Lonely Horse's Nick Long painted by Los Otros on the St. Mary's Strip. - JAIME MONZON
  • Jaime Monzon
  • A portrait of Lonely Horse's Nick Long painted by Los Otros on the St. Mary's Strip.
Branching Out

More recently, Essex began branching out into the surrounding neighborhood. In March, Houston-based artist Tarbox and New York-based artist Jason Naylor were in town to paint murals on the expansive exterior walls of the Ace Foam warehouse on Florida Street. The outline of another piece by Paul Garson — an image of a pair of floppy-eared koalas — waited to be filled out.

“[Wynwood] were one of the first to say, ‘We are allowing street art in our neighborhood,’ and what it did for that community was fantastic,” curator Leonardo says. “As we were looking at going off-site [with] Essex, that was actually a huge inspiration. Wynwood isn’t one thing, it’s an entire community. So, that’s why we’re now looking at how do we expand this and continue to work with people — as many folks as we can locally — to help get some more art up on the walls.”

Nearby, at the Appliance Liquidation Outlet, a series of murals decorate a wall that unspools southward from the intersection of Carolina and Hoefgen streets. The project, curated by graffiti artist Risk 184, is a smorgasbord of styles. Periodically, the wall will be buffed and repainted by a new slate of creators.

One common thread between SASAI, Essex Modern City and the outlet wall is the work of Paul Garson. Though Garson only began painting in his 30s, he quickly made up for lost time. In the past seven years, he’s created roughly 20 murals.

Garson started out painting on canvas, but he traded his brush for an aerosol can and airbrush equipment so he could work faster. He taught himself to create large-scale pieces with guidance from Soupè, whom he met while buying art supplies.

Garson’s works for SASAI includes a mural of a chimp grinning into a smartphone camera at burger joint Tycoon Flats — a good-natured jab at the selfie-obsessed and bait for same. On a pillar under I-35, he also created a wraparound Día de los Muertos-themed piece of a woman in calavera makeup surrounded by monarch butterflies.

Garson understands that some street artists have an issue with what they perceive as the commercialization of an art form that’s independent by nature. He has his own way of balancing things out, however.

“For every one piece they pay me to do, I do another piece for myself,” he says. “No one’s paying me. No one’s asking me to do it. I just go and ask somebody, ‘Hey, man, can I paint on your wall?’”

Building on a Movement

At San Anto Cultural Arts, the work produced by the organization’s mural program is still rooted in the ideals — and to some extent, the imagery — of the Chicano movement. Most of the murals serve to educate or celebrate the culture and history of the surrounding neighborhood.

Many SACA murals are visible along the main thoroughfares of the West Side. Others are tucked away on residential streets and smaller avenues. Located on El Paso Street, the headquarters of the organization is itself half wrapped in artwork. The side of the building facing Chupaderas Street is covered by “Salvacion” a mural featuring an image of Jesus and a pair of angels. The trio bring hope to prison inmates, represented by arms stretching out from a pair of small windows. The mural on the front of the building — an idyllic barrio scene with cutout figures and a mosaic tree — is dedicated to founding Executive Director Manny Castillo, who died of cancer in 2009.

When current Executive Director Ben Tremillo interviewed for the position in 2018, he had a surefire calling card. His face is on one of the organization’s murals, “Brighter Days” on Zarzamora Street. A friend of lead artist Adriana Garcia, Tremillo modeled for one of the figures on the 2006 project.

SACA typically produces two or three murals a year. The organization recently completed its 60th, though a few have been lost along the way.

“I know other programs decommission murals over time. I don’t know if they can realistically last forever. The city’s always changing. Things are always happening that are unexpected. We had a recent mural that was lost in a fire,” Tremillo said. “It’s always a shame to lose a mural unexpectedly or realize that it’s gone, but it’s part of the living embroidery of the city.”

click to enlarge Tumlinson added his George Strait mural to the nightlife district as part of a project painting Texas musical icons on walls across the state. - JAIME MONZON
  • Jaime Monzon
  • Tumlinson added his George Strait mural to the nightlife district as part of a project painting Texas musical icons on walls across the state.
Taking Ownership

An essential part of the organization’s process involves community input — gathering insight from residents in surrounding neighborhoods who will see the murals every day. Volunteers also help paint on projects. Each mural, from start to finish, typically takes about six weeks.

“Community members, they’re able to take ownership, because they helped create [the murals],” says Cuauhtli Reyna, coordinator and managing editor of El Placazo, SACA’s community newspaper.

Though SACA has many better murals from an aesthetic standpoint, the one that’s perhaps closest to the heart of what the organization does is “Peace and Remembrance,” a piece created by a crew of middle school-aged girls in 2001 on the wall of a corner store at Trinity and San Patricio streets. The mural is dedicated to victims of inner-city violence, their names hand- printed on colored blocks.

SACA repainted the mural last summer.

“That mural is really heavy to be at, because it’s a real close-quarters, tight-knit community right there, and every day you would see somebody there sharing a story about somebody they lost,” says Victor Zarazua, coordinator of the organization’s mural program.

Each year, SACA adds names to the wall as part of the organization’s Día de Los Muertos celebration.

“And I know throughout the year the neighborhood, [residents] will add their own names too,” Zarazua said. “When we restored it, I made sure we had enough room for 20 more years of names.”

Permission to Be Large

It’s a testament to the relationships that SACA has built with community members that when a couple of young graffiti artists tagged “Vortex,” an abstract mural by artist Rubio on the Nolan Street underpass, they caught flak not only from area residents but from other, more established street artists. Zarazua — a street artist himself who creates work under the name Supher — was able to track down the perpetrators.

“I was like, ‘I’ll reach out to you when I’m going to go fix it. Maybe you’ll come to join me and we’ll be squared away,’” he says.

Many city’s well-known Latinx artists have either worked on mural projects or on the staff of the organization.

“You could say, very much, that San Anto Cultural Arts was developed to create Westside artists, in the sense that very well-known artists now that are public artists or gallery artists got their start as teens doing projects or coming to programming here,” Reyna says.

While muralist Adriana Garcia was already making art when she worked on her first mural for SACA, the experience helped her think on a larger scale — and outside of conventional boundaries. One of her recent projects is a 117-by-11-foot tile mural at San Pedro Creek Culture Park.

“People get fined for writing on walls. We discourage that in our youth, like, ‘Oh, no! Don’t paint on the wall. Don’t put the marker on the wall,’” Garcia says.

“You’re discouraged from being large, right?” she says. “(Making murals) is permission to be large.”

Stay on top of San Antonio news and views. Sign up for our Weekly Headlines Newsletter.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Support Local Journalism.
Join the San Antonio Current Press Club

Local journalism is information. Information is power. And we believe everyone deserves access to accurate independent coverage of their community and state. Our readers helped us continue this coverage in 2020, and we are so grateful for the support.

Help us keep this coverage going in 2021. Whether it's a one-time acknowledgement of this article or an ongoing membership pledge, your support goes to local-based reporting from our small but mighty team.

Join the San Antonio Press Club for as little as $5 a month.

Read the Digital Print Issue

December 1, 2021

View more issues


Join SA Current Newsletters

Sign Up Now

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.


© 2021 San Antonio Current

Website powered by Foundation