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Painting the town

SprATX collective builds community among Austin street artists.

From live spray painting at events — such as the East Austin Studio Tour and Fun Fun Fun Fest — to the giant Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle mural outside Alamo Drafthouse Slaughter Lane, the street artists, muralists and visionaries of the SprATX collective have become a growing creative force to watch.

Since the group’s launch last spring, SprATX’s visibility and community reach has quickly risen. With about 30 artists in the collective, SprATX connects businesses or charities with street artists who offer custom art services and live street art exhibitions. Earlier this year, SprATX opened its own storefront and gallery in East Austin, where it sells artwork, paint, apparel and gifts featuring street art.

But, perhaps most importantly, SprATX has cultivated a community among street artists who encourage each other to grow artistically and professionally, helping elevate the city’s local street art scene.

For some SprATX artists, the collective has served as a springboard into full-time careers. Former schoolteacher Mike Johnston, also known by his artist name Truth, spent the last 12 years teaching before dedicating himself to his growing art business.

Johnston, as well as his brother-in-law and fellow SprATX artist Lucas Aoki, painted the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle mural for the Alamo Drafthouse’s new art program called The Premiere Project, which transforms an exterior wall facing MoPac Boulevard into a giant canvas. Johnston also created the artwork for this year’s South by Southwest Film bag.

Originally, SprATX was envisioned as a book or magazine featuring local street artists’ work, said co-founders Molly Maroney and local street artist known as Mouf. They say they never imagined their initiative — which began as just a side project — would catch fire and grow in an unexpected direction.

After meeting with a small group of founding artists that included Johnston at Home Slice Pizza in 2013, SprATX launched by printing T-shirts featuring the artists’ work. “We created a simple website,” Maroney says. “And then people started purchasing like crazy. Customers started asking for commissions and asked us to come to events. Others asked where they could find affordable paint, and we started getting interview requests.”

The hunger for street art seemed insatiable.

“We had an initial idea, but Austin really told us where to take (SprATX),” Maroney says. “It seems like (Austin) was itching for a community around (street) art and that there was a future for what we were doing.”

SprATX’s popularity began to soar when it launched its Instagram account, which gave Austinites an avenue to search and post images of new street art that popped up throughout the city using the hashtag #SprATX. More than 11,000 followers now appreciate and help document the city’s street art scene that way.

“The power of Instagram in our evolution has been huge,” Maroney says. Instagram opened the doors for another highly effective social media project: ATX Free Art Friday. One day a SprATX artist known as Roshi_K decided to put a piece of her artwork up against a Bouldin Creek Cafe mural in hopes that someone on Instagram would recognize the South Austin location and go pick up the free piece. The photo went viral online. Other artists began participating and a new #ATXFreeArtFriday was born. “On Fridays, everyone’s phones were going ‘ping, ping, ping,’” Maroney says.

For Johnston, being part of the collective has also given him the incentive to sharpen his artistic skills. “I’ve learned a lot of techniques from watching other people in the collective,” he says. “They are like brothers — you love them, but then there’s also a little bit of competition. At least, for me, I don’t want to be the worst one in the group, so when I see the talent we have it pushes me to be better.”

When Johnston moved to Austin four years ago after living overseas in China and Kuwait, it was the camaraderie that he found within SprATX that made him feel like he belonged. Johnston got to know the city through the people who painted it.

“It’s not just the artistic side, but it’s the bonds that have been created as well that have been important,” he says.

Since its launch, SprATX has responded to the diverse needs of the local street art scene, but as the group evolves, it also hopes to take on more ambitious projects. Future goals include sponsoring artists to paint at festivals or events around the country.

“We have a vision for SprATX,” Maroney says. “But we’re also extremely interested in our collective’s vision as well as the community’s vision.”

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