Houston’s relationship with street art is a long-winded one. For years, we’ve seen vacant lots transform into awe-inducing graffiti grounds, perfect for photography and tourism. These expressive sketches range in theme, telling harmonious stories of Houston pride, social activism, fashion, and music. With this creative sphere altering the city’s landscape and growing into a respected art style, it’s hard to believe that street art was ever frowned upon. Long associated with the underground and underrepresented, street art didn’t tip into mainstream acceptance until the 1970s and ’80s, birthing creative pioneers such as New York streetwear legend Jean-Michel Basquiat and Pennsylvanian artist Keith Haring.
Over time, Houston coined its own roster of street visionaries and soon, Boston native Julie Gray joined that list. From a young age, Gray envisioned herself curating art and exploring how deep her creativity could go. But, once she got married and had two children, she exchanged those passions to be a full-time housewife. For 10 years, she traveled around the world with her family, settling in various parts of Europe. During that time, that gnawing desire to create impactful spaces in the contemporary art and fashion world returned, and she was ready to bring those aspirations to fruition.
“I was going through a divorce and my mom had passed away, so moving to Houston was a fresh start for me,” Gray tells Houstonia. “But upon coming here—you know, coming from Boston and living in other major cities—I felt that Houston was behind in the culture of sneaker heads and art. So, once I moved here, I created PlayHaus.”
In summer 2019, Gray introduced EaDo to her “project baby,” PlayHaus, an interactive pop-up gallery that seamlessly blends street and contemporary art with a fine mixtape of music. She proudly donned her visual art and creative director hat with this creation, seeking out nine Houston artists to produce their best installations and murals. With this Instagrammable haven becoming a hot seat for lively entertainment, Gray knew that expanding this concept with added features would only strengthen its already unforgettable presence. So, in November 2020, she returned with PlayHaus II.
This revamped paradise still follows the original recipe: astonishing technicolor, compelling and playful art installations, warm vibes, and incredible music. This time, however, Gray collaborated with Brooklyn rapper Fabolous to introduce a new line of seasonal gear at the grand opening. They worked with Japanese contemporary artist Takashi Murakami to blend his signature smiley-faced flower design on merchandise and other pieces in the gallery. To uphold those relaxed vibes, Gray also integrated a BYOB hookah lounge for visitors to enjoy.
“In the first PlayHaus, I worked with eight to 12 artists. Now, I work with two or three artists,” Gray says. “This time around, I wanted to create my own ‘no matter what I do, these are my people to do it with’ type of team, and that collaborative closeness really drove PlayHaus II.”
With this second launch, it’s clear that Gray, her business partner Shaun Turner and other team members wanted to show their appreciation to Houston. Every inch of Montrose is carefully stenciled in this art gallery, providing non-Houstonians a hearty glimpse to what the city has to offer. According to Gray, PlayHaus II’s enriching vibrancy has drawn visitors from Chicago, Detroit, Maryland, and Los Angeles.
“It’s interesting to see that we have so many out-of-towners, especially with us opening [PlayHaus II] in the middle of Covid,” Gray says. “I’m open to the idea of bringing PlayHaus to different places, but I just started this two years ago and this is a very intimate business for me.”
Outside of PlayHaus II’s fascinating detailing, Gray continues intersecting her love of streetwear fashion and art with several businesses in and outside of Houston. She’s worked with household name brands like Nike (even before she landed in Houston, Gray did a running campaign with the athletic brand in Miami), Jordan women’s, and SNKRS, Nike’s one-stop sneaker shop app for exclusive and premium drops. She also worked on a series of events for Travis Scott’s Astroworld festival, even commissioning a glow-in-the-dark 6's mural created by Houston artist Erik Del Rio.
Whether you’re taking a stroll through Montrose’s immersive art universe for a photo opportunity or stopping by during a lunch break, give PlayHaus II a visit. Though every wall boasts a stimulating story worthy of a quick snapshot, give Gray’s favorite installation, the Graffiti Hallway, a long look over.
Open from 3:30–10 p.m. Tuesday–Thursday; 3:30 p.m. to midnight Friday–Sunday. $25 tickets at the door, children under 3 get in free. Masks and social distancing are required. 1735 Westheimer Rd. More information at playhaushtx.com