Under a shady tree just south of Longhorn Dam, a group of East Austin artists gathered on a Saturday morning ready to restore a mural by their friend, the late Alfredo “Skam” Martinez, whom many credit with helping elevate the city’s graffiti art scene more than 25 years ago.
As soon as the spray cans rattled and began their intermittent swoosh sounds, it was clear they weren’t only keeping the memory of a fallen artist alive but also preserving Austin’s cultural history.
Arte Texas, a group of artists and community organizers dedicated to restoring and preserving longtime street art and graffiti murals, emerged last year after the “La Lotería” mural on East Cesar Chavez Street, which had been up for more than two decades, was painted over by a South by Southwest art project. Neighborhood residents fought to bring the beloved mural back and the festival paid for its restoration. Some of the mural’s original artists helped paint its new incarnation, which reflects the area’s Chicano roots.
“I believe that made people realize that there’s still a voice in East Austin,” says Arte Texas Founder and Executive Director Bertha Delgado. “People still care about their culture, art and homes. When (murals like these are lost), it’s heartbreaking.”
Since then, Arte Texas has been on a mission. While strengthening the collective memory of a community through mural preservation, they’ve also been creating new murals throughout the city and participating in art shows. At the Dougherty Arts Center through Aug. 6, Arte Texas is presenting a cultural barrio art exhibit called “La Lucha Sigue” (or “The Struggle Continues”).
“It’s important for people who didn’t grow up in the neighborhood to see these murals so that they can see what’s happened in the area that’s so dear to us,” says Delgado, a native East Austinite and granddaughter of Edward Rendon Sr., who has a city park named after him at Festival Beach. “I want everyone to be a part of it.”
Some Arte Texas artists got their start painting in Austin in their teens and early 20s as part of an early wave of the city’s street art and graffiti scene. During the late 1980s and early 1990s, many of them received commissions and contracts to put up murals across the city.
Arte Texas Co-Director Robert “Kane” Herrera, 46, remembers earning his first mural contract with the city at 19. He worked on several murals, including some at Gillis Park, several housing projects and the “For la Raza” mural surrounding the decommissioned Holly Power Plant. But after Martinez’s untimely death in 1994, Herrera stopped painting. He went on to become an electrician and raise a family.
“For me, painting was opening up an old wound,” he says. Through Arte Texas, Herrera says he now hopes bringing back historic murals can inspire a new generation. When children walk to school, he says, they should be able to see murals that represent the diversity of the community and feel pride and resilience. “I don’t want to see these murals destroyed,” Herrera says.
Spray-can art, says Arte Texas Co-Director Mando “Taner” Martinez, is a lot like riding a bike. “You don’t forget.” Martinez, 45, had also enjoyed some of the notoriety that came as an early participant in Austin’s graffiti art scene. But eventually he also moved on. About three or four years ago, a fellow artist from his youth encouraged him to start painting again. He soon connected with Delgado, who was searching for some of the original artists behind the murals at Holly Shores, which includes the walls surrounding the former Holly Power Plant site. “Coming back has been a blessing,” he says.
Last year the city of Austin’s Art in Public Places program selected Arte Texas to restore the existing murals at Holly Shores. They expect to start work on it later this month.
The group has also begun working on various other projects, including the restoration of an Our Lady of Guadalupe mural at the current site of the Launderette cafe on Holly Street. According to Delgado, the East Town Lake Citizens Neighborhood Association and Launderette have a neighborhood agreement to keep the mural, which went up in 1992. The original artist has passed away, but artists Martin Coronado, Raymond Robledo and Mike Treviño have helped bring vibrancy back to the piece.
At Springdale and Bolm Road, the group recently put up a new mural depicting various Chicano cultural art scenes including an homage to the late poet Raúl Salinas, who founded Resistencia Bookstore.
As the Arte Texas artists gathered in late July to restore Alfredo “Skam” Martinez’s mural at the base of an electrical tower off of Pleasant Valley Road, the late artist’s friends and family joined the bittersweet occasion.
In the early 1990s, Martinez, who was fatally shot during a mugging in Houston, partnered with Mothers Against Drunk Driving to produce a graffiti-style mural that would connect with youth.
Although excited to restore the work of his late friend, Herrera says “at the same time it breaks my heart that he’s not here to enjoy it.” During the restoration, Arte Texas artists also added a memorial portrait of Martinez, which was especially touching for his family.
“He turned everything into a canvas,” says his sister Yvette Martinez. “It didn’t matter where we were, if there was a napkin or a flier, he’d draw on it.”
Arte Texas plans to restore the other walls at the base of the electrical tower as well, including the popular mural honoring Tejano music superstar Selena. A new version of those murals, Delgado says, may incorporate a Tejano music legends theme.
“When we painted these walls, I couldn’t see more than three or four years down the road,” Herrera says. “So to see them now, it makes me happy that we created something that has lasted this long and that people found it worthy to remember all these years later.”
IF YOU GO
What: Arte Texas presents “La Lucha Sigue” (The Struggle Continues) exhibit
When: Now through Aug. 6
Where: Dougherty Arts Center