For somebody spray-painting a brick wall on private property in broad daylight, Brian Hendricks is remarkably calm. The aspiring graffiti writer has felt the invisible pressure of knowing that the police could show up at any moment. But today, as he outlines a tag in light blue spray paint, Hendricks isn’t worried about the cops. They’re not coming.
“I come down here every now and then to get some practice in,” Hendricks says. “I’m not really the best painter in the world, but it’s nice to come out here and be able to paint freely without having the fear of someone standing over your shoulder telling you not to be here.”
Hendricks is one of dozens of graffiti artists who pass through the HOPE Outdoor Gallery (HOG) in Austin, Texas on any given day. Founded in 2011, the graffiti-covered maze of brick walls has become a beloved local treasure and a destination for graffiti writers and mural artists from around the world. Celebrated though the park may be, its future is by no means a given. Indeed, it’s lucky to exist at all.
The HOG occupies a 1.25-acre expanse in Clarksville, a historic neighborhood that’s quickly becoming one of Central Austin’s most expensive places to live. Not far in the distance, the skyline of Austin–a city that gains more than 100 new residents per day–is lined with construction cranes barely able to keep up with the city’s exploding population. The owners of the HOG’s land could profit handsomely from just about any other usage–anything built there would have an incredible view of downtown Austin. Instead, colorful graffiti tags and elaborate murals cover every surface on the hillside, which is itself peppered with the skeletal remains of a doomed condominium development. It is both an urban ruin and a public art mecca.
The HOG sees a wide range of visitors–about 50 a day during the week and as many as 20 an hour on weekends. Some come to hang out, take Instagram selfies, film music videos, and even host the occasional birthday party. Then there are the artists, from Sharpie-wielding teenagers to famous street artists like Shepard Fairey, who painted one of the first murals at the HOG when it opened. Officially, anybody writing graffiti there is required to register with a local street art collective called SprATX and get a wristband. Not everyone does.
With little in the way of official oversight, the park’s walls change constantly. During South By Southwest this year, a street artist who goes by the name Def3 spent days painting a highly detailed illustration of Chris Farley from a scene in the movie Tommy Boy. When I returned to the park again two months later, Chris Farley was nowhere to be seen, having long been replaced by a new mural (or more likely, two).
“What we’ve learned has really created a huge justification for paint parks in urban communities,” says Andi Scull Cheatham, the founder of HOPE (Helping People Out Everywhere), a nonprofit focused on pairing social activism with creative work. Originally pitched as a vehicle for local arts education, the HOG quickly turned into a local landmark–not to mention a model for how cities can turn urban decay into a tourist magnet.
In the 1980s, the hill beneath the Texas Military Institute castle was being turned into condominiums. But after contractors mislaid the foundation, the project was abandoned. In 2008, landowners Dick Clark and Vic Ayad were set on reigniting the development process. Then the housing crash hit and dash their plans. Like so many urban eyesores, “The Foundation,” as the area came to be known, was littered with poison ivy, garbage, and human feces from the homeless population that had begun to take up residence there. It remained that way for years.
Then Scull Cheatham showed up.
At the request of a good friend who lives nearby, Scull Cheatham visited The Foundation to see if anything could be done to visually restore it on the cheap.
“It looked like a very daunting challenge but I thought the walls could be used for murals and street art and graffiti,” Scull Cheatham says. At the time, the former marketing specialist was running a farmers market under the HOPE name. At the very least, she thought the dilapidated walls could be artistically repurposed to help promote the market.
After getting permission from Ayad and Clark, Scull Cheatham enlisted the help of friends and artists to start reimagining this trash-strewn hillside. Once the lot was cleared of debris, artists began applying the first of many coats of paint to its walls. Shephard Fairey, a friend of Scull Cheatham’s from the early days of the HOPE nonprofit (whose name bears no relation to Fairey’s iconic Obama “hope” poster), painted one of the first murals at the HOG, giving the project a hefty dose of street art credibility.
Since then, the park has become a magnet for street artists from the amateur to the well-known. Some artists spend days painting elaborate murals. Others scribble their tags in black marker and leave (indeed, one of the only complaints Scull Cheatham hears is from artists whose work is quickly defaced by teenagers armed with Sharpies). Photographs from the first few years of the HOG’s existence have been turned into a hardcover coffee table book.
The HOG probably won’t be around forever. Keeping it open costs the land’s owners $75,000 annually, according to the Austin Chronicle. They’ve committed to maintaining the park through the end of 2015, but after that there are no guarantees. It’s almost fitting that the HOG would be every bit as fleeting as the graffiti on its walls.
“The property owner had no idea that this would become one of his favorite projects he’s ever been involved in,” Scull Cheatham says. “So it’s looking like he’s going to try to let us continue as long as possible.” Scull Cheatham and Ayad are discussing potential alternatives, including relocating the HOG.
For now, the park lives on. In mid-September, the HOG unveiled a decorative fence made of recycled aerosol cans as part of an ongoing effort to encourage people to properly dispose of the cans. Last month, the park saw the addition of picnic tables, bike racks, cement seats for artists and flower beds lined with plants known to attract monarch butterflies.
While plenty of cities have graffiti destinations, few have spaces quite like this. The HOG is expansive, safely located (even if its hills can be a little treacherous to navigate) and most importantly, legal. Graffiti artists in London enjoy a long list of graffiti hotspots, but few of them are technically legal. For years, New York had the graffiti-covered 5 Pointz Aerosol Art Center, but that former factory in Long Island City is being demolished to make way for new condos. Philadelphia, whose sites of post-industrial urban decay are too numerous to count, attracts graffiti writers to an abandoned train viaduct and a secluded, semi-secret spot along the Delaware River known colloquially as The Graffiti Pier. Neither spot is legal and the train tracks are slated to become Philly’s version of New York’s High Line.
Whatever the HOG’s fate, Scull Cheatham thinks its story is full of lessons for other cities. For one thing, graffiti doesn’t always have to be a nuisance: If you give graffiti artists an optimal space for writing tags and painting murals, they’re probably less likely to deface private property. In cities with a lot of post-industrial decay–Philadelphia, Baltimore and Detroit come to mind–a host of abandoned structures could be converted into public spaces for artistic expression more easily than they could be redeveloped into new homes or businesses.
In Austin, the graffiti park has not only become a tourist destination and popular Instagramming spot, but for many, it’s an advertisement for Austin itself.
“Someone came to one of our book signings and say that he went and stood on top of the HOG to decide whether he was moving to Austin to work for the new technology company that recruited him,” Scull Cheatham says. “It’s really fascinating to me to show the importance of creativity in the environment for these other companies who are trying to grow what they’re doing here.”