Behind the Walls

How Street Art Took Over Houston

Today, you can’t throw a rock in Houston without hitting a piece of commissioned street art as the city embraces the once-illegal art form. Here's how the transition happened.

By Paul DeBenedetto Photography by Marco Torres June 21, 2017 Published in the July 2017 issue of Houstonia Magazine

Daniel Anguilu is a graffiti artist, though he doesn’t dabble in the art form the same way he did when he was 18. As a teenager and into his twenties, Anguilu, armed with nothing but spray paint, crafted pieces on walls and on the sides of trains. He would save up money and travel to places like Spain, Italy, Peru, Morocco, China, Turkey—dodging law enforcement and crashing on couches, sometimes smuggling his own spray cans, just for the opportunity to paint.

Now 38, Anguilu is one of the most celebrated street artists in Houston, with his work featured at Lawndale Art Center, Station Museum of Contemporary Art, and even inside the Mexican Consulate. He also helps maintain the Harrisburg Art Museum, an East End warehouse focused on showcasing community graffiti and street artists in Houston.

In front of the warehouse, nicknamed HAM, Anguilu points to the public-facing murals—some painted by him, others by noted Houston street artists including ACK!, DECK and Wiley Robertson. He says he keeps those pieces front and center because they look more like what the greater community might consider “art.” In a flip of the usual script, inside, there’s more graffiti-style work, which he’s more familiar with. Walking among the tags and murals, Anguilu reflects on a shift—from graffiti artist to “street artist”—which has become more and more common in cities across America.

“It took a long time for me to say, ‘I guess I’m doing art,’” Anguilu says. “Because I didn’t see it. I still don’t see it.”

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Just about any surface can be a canvas, as evidenced by this truck painted by Daniel Anguilu.

Image: Marco Torres

Today, you can’t throw a rock in Houston without hitting some form of commissioned street art, and the city itself is beginning to embrace the form, using murals to promote tourism and sponsoring urban artists to paint utility boxes across town. More and more, businesses too are hiring these artists to paint murals on the sides of buildings, turning a tradition that was once considered solely the purview of criminals into citywide beautification.

“The artists are learning to use some of the tools, which is strange, to see like a regular person with spray paint,” Anguilu says. “You guys are catching on. Go ahead, knock yourself out.”

He pauses before laughing. “You skipped the whole process to get there…”

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Anguilu in action.

Image: Marco Torres

The whole process, Anguilu explains, is the path he and others took to get where they are today. While street art has become mainstream, they feel more of an affinity to the culture of graffiti, which began in the late 1970s as part of hip-hop and became associated with gangs, though Anguilu’s quick to dispute this point. While there may be some gang members who’ve been part of graffiti culture, he says, the association between the two has long been a canard used to harshly punish these artists.

These days, while the methods used by the guys who’ve been around a while may be different—Anguilu says he leaves the illegal graffiti to the younger generation—the spirit is the same. And he admits the street art movement has exposed them to a wider audience.

“I’ve seen the shift. It’s insane to see it,” Anguilu says. “‘Oh, street art! Crazy guys who do art outside!’ And that opened doors for people to want to learn more about it.”

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GONZO247 in front of one of his murals promoting the city, located at the Houston Graffiti Building downtown (1503 Chartres St.).

Image: Marco Torres

Like Anguilu, GONZO247—real name Mario E. Figueroa, Jr.—got his start practicing behind buildings, in back alleys and in train yards for years before becoming Houston’s most famous street artist. Figueroa’s artistic journey began around 1985, after he was inspired by hip-hop albums, tapes and videos featuring graffiti pieces. At the time, it was difficult to find any information on graffiti in books and magazines, but after careful digging in his local library, he came across Norman Mailer’s “The Faith of Graffiti,” a 1974 essay detailing its early days. But in Houston, the kind of work Figueroa admired was hard to come by.

“There was no influence,” Figueroa said. “There were no references. How do you move up, or how do you move forward, if there’s no context in the city? I felt like, if I want it, I’ve got to make it.”

More and more, Figueroa worked to hone his craft, corresponding with artists across the country and world. Eventually, he realized that if he wanted to gain any traction, he needed to reach a larger audience, and that meant moving some of his artwork indoors. He started cold-calling people throughout the city until he made his way into Houston’s fine art world, and was eventually able to show his work in galleries. In 1993, he participated in what he says is likely Houston’s first graffiti and street art show, entitled “Bombs, Burners, Scribbles and Tags,” at REF Studios in Montrose.

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A portion of French artist Sebastien “Mr. D” Boileau’s “Preservons la Creation,” also known as Houston’s biggest mural, painted in Midtown in 2014.

Image: Marco Torres

As Figueroa continued, and grew more popular, the city of Houston started to notice, and in 2013 commissioned him to create the now-famous “Houston Is Inspired” mural in Market Square, used in tourism advertisements and reproduced inside George Bush Intercontinental Airport and the Galleria.

Figueroa now runs the East End’s Graffiti & Street Art Museum of Texas and Aerosol Warfare, both of which, like the HAM, promote the graffiti and street art culture and work to connect the art form to the surrounding community.

Not everyone is happy with Figueroa being the face of graffiti in Houston, something he is the first to admit. He’s gotten pushback from people who have called him a sellout. It’s part of an age-old struggle, not unique to street art: whether art and commerce can properly coexist.

“There are purists who say, ‘I’m only going to go bombing. I’m only going to do illegal work.’ And there’s nothing wrong with that,” Figueroa says. “And then there’s people who say, ‘because I have scaffolding, and because I have permission, and a lift, or whatever, look what I was able to accomplish.’ Both use the same medium.”

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An Aerosol Warfare mural at downtown’s Houston Graffiti Building. 

Image: Marco Torres

There are, of course, plenty of Houstonians who would disagree with those Figueroa calls purists, first and foremost our police and elected officials. The mayor’s office is careful to call its commissioned public artwork murals, as opposed to street art. And while many of those murals use the trademarks of graffiti in their design, the city is serious about cracking down on vandalism, fighting graffiti through the Department of Neighborhoods, the mayor’s Anti-Gang Office, and HPD.

“We recognize and appreciate that style as an art form,” says Deborah McNulty, the director of the Mayor’s Office of Cultural Affairs. “But random tags put up by graffiti vandals that deface properties and structures are a problem both aesthetically and financially.”

Meanwhile, just about everyone agrees that the city’s approved murals are an important part of beautifying and marketing the city, as well as cultivating the arts more generally. The hope is that they could even generate new business opportunities for Houston. “Creative cities have a thriving pulse that is attractive to investors in industry, business and tourism,” says McNulty, “and the arts are a substantial part of what makes Houston a great place to live and visit.”

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A piece by Chris Garcia on Canal St. in the Second Ward.

Image: Marco Torres

Which is why, among other efforts, the city has co-sponsored the Mini Murals Project, a city beautification effort similar to others across the country, featuring 13 graffiti and street artists painting murals onto utility boxes across the city, from Greenspoint to Alief to Harrisburg, and everywhere in between.

The project is the brainchild of Noah and Elia Quiles of UP Art Studio on Winter Street, whose mission is to create public art projects that promote “civic pride through civic art,” and to bring the arts to underserved communities. While the Quileses are happy to partner with the city, much of the studio’s focus revolves around graffiti art in its original form—Noah Quiles, himself a former graffiti artist, calls street art “the bastard child of graffiti,” and each year UP and Pilot FX help put on the Houston branch of worldwide graffiti art series Meeting of Styles. Still, the studio doesn’t turn its nose up at traditional muralists.

“I’m not here to gauge whose art is the best art,” Quiles says. “I’m just trying to produce what I feel is the best for my community.”

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The Mini Murals Project artists include (clockwise from left): Roger Seward (Houston Ave. at White Oak Dr.), Tra’ Slaughter (Westheimer Rd. at Taft St), Wiley (Heights Blvd. at Center St.), and W3R3ON3 (Jensen Dr. at Navigation Blvd.)

Image: Marco Torres

One of the artists UP collaborates with is Anat Ronen, who Quiles praises as one of the finest muralists he’s ever worked with—and who, in fact, has no history in graffiti. An Israeli national, Ronen moved to the U.S. and transitioned into art as a profession in part because of her desire for a visa and, eventually, a green card (She obtained the latter last year.).

Ronen, who has no formal arts education and is one of the few non-graffiti artists who participates in the Meeting of Styles each year, works in realism and surrealism, mostly using paint, switching between styles to keep herself motivated. Over her eight-year career, she’s gravitated toward street art because of its public nature and a desire to share her work with as many people as possible.

“It’s more important for a lot of people to see my work, than just a few,” Ronen says. “I like the street. I think it’s the most free place to display your art. It’s not a gallery that’s confining you, it’s not a certain clientele or audience, or a certain art, or somebody telling you what to do. In the street, you can do whatever you want. Of course, there are street rules—you can stay there for a day, you can stay there for a month, it’s not up to you.”

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The Big Moe and Pimp C wall—painted by artists Lee Washington, a.k.a. The One Lee, and Cease MZK—at the Houston Graffiti Building.

Image: Marco Torres

Ultimately, that’s the connective tissue between traditional graffiti artists and street artists like Ronen: the medium’s ephemeral nature. Houston’s street art history is incomplete without talking about the graffiti pioneers whose names aren’t known in fine art circles, and whose contributions have largely disappeared—artists like NEKST, who passed away in 2012, and who is considered among practitioners of both legal and illegal street art as one of the greatest in the city’s history. Despite that almost cult-like status, you aren’t likely to come across his work. As with most other graffiti and street art over the years, it’s either been “buffed”—painted over—or otherwise destroyed, a victim of a temporary medium.

It’s not something you can spend a lot of time worrying about, Anguilu says. It just is.

“You can’t personalize the work. It’s something that happened. Graffiti is an action, it’s what you do,” Anguilu says. “You’re only really as good as your last piece.”

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