When someone asks me about graffiti in Austin, I mention the HOPE Outdoor Gallery at Castle Hill, tucked away at 11th and Baylor Street. The project, launched in 2011 by the HOPE Campaign, with the support of international graffiti writer Shepard Fairey and Obey Giant Art, to provide local graffiti writers the opportunity to work on large-scale pieces unimpeded by legal restrictions. As a sanctioned graffiti site, it affords them 24-hour access to three levels of concrete walls on which they are free to paint to their hearts’ content, and it gives pedestrians a chance to get up close and personal with the art of the streets and its creators. It’s a unique experience and one worth seeking out if you have any interest in local graffiti.
The gallery hosts an array of work, ranging from the more competently executed mural pieces to quick tags and wordy scribbles. This diversity can be overwhelming, and in places the walls are so overpainted that the designs blur into abstraction. Some graffiti writers prime the walls first instead of painting on them directly, which gives the visual sensation of arbitrary chaos offset by careful planning, a novice play at tagging against the brushwork of professionalism—or, to use graffiti terminology, a “toy” sitting next to a “king.”
Several years ago, one graffiti writer told me that the different areas of the gallery are divided according to use. The more user-friendly and larger imagery is closer to the street, while the more wildstyle letter-based works are painted on the higher levels. I assume this relates to the public’s preference for the former over the latter and the gallery’s desire to promote the site as an “art space” rather than a “graffiti park.” However, these rules are not necessarily followed, and writers tend to gravitate to the spaces they prefer, regardless of what is suggested.
The one constant at Castle Hill is change. Graffiti is temporal, and the works at HOPE are no different. Any frequent visitor notes this as pieces vanish daily. Some guests consider this unfortunate, and I understand that even some of the graffiti writers dislike that their work can disappear so quickly. But being painted away into the wall is inevitable with graffiti, and this kind of constant change is the norm at Castle Hill.
Thankfully a photographer named Jules takes measures to preserve the works at HOPE Outdoor Gallery. He has a small trailer on the property, where he sells his prints (donating 30 percent of all sales to HOPE). HOPE does not employ Jules; he took it upon himself to begin the photography project in 2011. And the HOPE Foundation wants to foster this type of partnering geared toward bringing artists together in a collaborative format to promote the arts and contribute creative value to the project.
Jules is quick to point out his desires for the site.
“We need to get this trash cleaned out of here again, and I want to put some mulch down to soften and level the ground out,” he said.
I’m sure these would be welcome renovations. The gallery is littered with empty aerosol paint cans, and parts of the hill are steep and treacherous.
Jules is also not shy about expressing his preference for the larger graffiti pieces or his frustration over the temporality of it all. I compare his job to a wildlife photographer’s.
“Exactly; you got to catch it quick,” he said. “‘Cause if you don’t, some punk writes all over it or adds stupid things like mustaches.”
I find the ephemerality adds a level of intimacy to the work. Only a few people get to see a given piece before it’s gone. This rapid turnover attests to the vibrancy of the site and to the graffiti writers of Austin. As this city grows and changes, it makes sense that the art of the street reflects that evolution. HOPE Outdoor Gallery reminds us to slow down and take a minute to enjoy what we like because tomorrow it may be gone.
H.C. Arnold holds a Ph.D. from IDSVA (Institute for Doctoral Studies in Visual Art) in art theory, philosophy, and aesthetics. The subject of his dissertation is contemporary graffiti and community. Currently, his research focuses on countercultures, systems of resistance, and technology, and he is an instructor of art history at Austin Community College. He is the author of two articles on contemporary graffiti and is developing a larger text on the subject. He also plans serve as an advisor to the new Graffiti and Street Art Museum of Texas that is currently being developed in Houston, Texas.