Photo caption: A Houston mural by Israel Rodriguez calls for justice in the murder of Fort Hood soldier Vanessa Guillén.

Vanessa Guillén should be turning 21 today. Instead, the Houston native’s name became a rallying cry in the ongoing battle for justice when her remains were discovered on June 30, three months after the slain U.S. Army specialist disappeared from Fort Hood in April.

In the wake of the tragedy, made all the more painful by the startling news that her death was caused by a fellow soldier, Congress has opened an investigation into the base, and both state and national officials have called for long-overdue legislation changing how the military handles sexual assault and harassment claims. This Saturday, a group will march through downtown Houston from Guadalupe Plaza Park to honor Guillén and demand action.

None of this can replace the life lost or the Houston community that has been shattered. “She would be turning 21, but she wasn’t able to get there,” Gloria Guillén, Vanessa’s mother, told the The Houston Chronicle on her daughter’s birthday. “I want us to remember her like an angel, a beautiful girl whose life was cruelly snatched from us too soon.”

A Montrose mural by Vanessa Sanez is one of 20-plus pieces of street art honoring the life of slain Houstonian Vanessa Guillén.

One circle of Bayou City creators is doing just that in the way they know best—through street art. Over the past five months, murals honoring Guillén’s life have replaced bare walls from the Greater Heights to Southbelt-Ellington, transforming the city that continues to mourn.

After completing a mural of Guillén near the slain solder’s alma mater, Cesar Chavez High School, in early July, Alex “Donkeeboy” Roman, Jr. began recruiting fellow artists to help him “paint the whole city” in her memory. 

His initial goal was to organize 20 murals across the Bayou City, one for each year of Guillén’s life, but between his efforts and those of artists outside the project, like Emily Ding, many more make-shift memorials have popped up in the Houston area.

Many of the Vanessa Guillén murals, including one by Alex “Donkeeboy” Roman Jr. (pictured), have become make-shift memorials for grieving members of the Houston community.

It took just one conversation for Amanda “Icebox” Quintanilla, who had worked with Roman on a mural honoring George Floyd a month prior, to hop on board the project. Even before she had secured a location for her mural, the 28-year-old artist knew she needed to be involved because of how deeply Guillén’s death affected her. “I actually had friends whose younger siblings went to school with her,” she tells Houstonia. “And then, as a Latina woman it hits home double time because we’re already a minority as women. It just broke my heart.”

Luckily, a close friend’s father gave her the wall space on his business, Latino’s Meat Distributors on Canal Street, to create what would become one of the first iconic pieces of the project: Guillén, with the camo on her military uniform transformed into clouds and the city skyline crowning her head, flanked on either side by peaceful protestors and calls for unity.

Quintanilla says she began creating the design just minutes after leaving a July 4 march for the slain soldier. “We drove straight to the mural site, and I jumped right on the mural—sweaty from the protest. I had all my cans of paint with me, and I had that energy. I took everything from that protest.” 

Amanda “Icebox” Quintanilla started her mural on Canal Street after participating in a July march for justice.

While artist Chris Castro was also brought into the project by another painter, Fernando “Noke” Aragon, his mural asks the community the larger question at the heart of Guillén's murder. In front of a black and white portrait of the solider in dress uniform, bold red letters spell out "Cuantos más sin Justicia," or "how many more without justice," compelling viewers to wrestle with how many similar deaths will take place before a change is made. “It’s like how Vanessa’s mom said, ‘I don’t want this to happen to anybody else,’” explains Castro. “That was one of the things that really triggered my creativity.” 

As Castro worked on his piece and assisted on another, a mural at the soccer field Guillén played on as a kid, the artist was able to see how immediately the tributes affected those in the community. Many, he recalls, made an emotional impact even before they were finished. “When people walk up, see what we’re doing and ask questions about it, you start having that feeling of unity amongst people,” says Castro. “During these times, that’s something you really want. You want to be more unified with people than separated.”

A mural by Fernando "Noke" Aragon.

With more than 20 of the Bayou City’s most talented artists united behind a single cause, there’s really no doubt the Vanessa Guillén mural project’s sweeping range of diverse and creatively complex memorials will bring a spark of light to a grieving community. 

But, more than that, the project’s ability to celebrate the many facets of Guillén’s short life—from her roles as a daughter and sister, to her Mexican heritage, to her deeply rooted patriotism— while simultaneously broadcasting a call for justice speaks volumes to the important part street art plays in fostering connections and sparking conversations when we need them most. “The Houston art community isn’t very big,” says Quintanilla, “but I think that in this time artists are really on the same page about using our art for a message.”

Visit all 20 Vanessa Guillén mural project murals, as well as others: 

Taqueria Del Sol
8114 Park Place Blvd
Houston, TX 77017

Kid-N-Play Daycare and Learning Center
10560 Fuqua St
Houston, TX 77089

610 Wheels & Tires
13101 S. Post Oak Rd 
Houston, TX 77045

Guerrero Meat Market
25602 1-45, North Bldg C
Spring, TX 77386

Latino’s Meat Distributors
7405 Canal St
Houston, TX 77011

1006 N Wayside Dr
Houston, TX 77011 

Auto Medic
6734 Canal St
Houston, TX 77011

Laredo Taqueria
915 Snover St
Houston, TX 77007

Los Tres BBQ
702 S. Shaver St
Houston, TX 77506

 TacoKeto
1401 Cullen Blvd
Houston, TX 77023 

4830 N Main St
Houston, TX 77009

Traveling Mural

Painted on back of a truck

Cut Loose Hair
1711 Westheimer Rd
Houston, TX 77098 

The Glamour House
2517 N Main St
Houston, TX 77009

Guanajuato Barber Shop
6500 Harrisburg Blvd
Houston, TX 77011

York St. Barbers
317 York St
South Houston, TX 77587

Steve O Kutz
159 E. Edgebrook Dr
Houston, TX 77034

Soccer Field
1301 Virginia Ave
South Houston, TX 77587

111 N. Ennis St.
Houston, TX 77003

Break Free Hip Hop School
1018 Shaver St
Pasadena, TX 77506

3001 Elgin St
Houston, TX 77004