Austin, Texas — Tightly grasping the tool of his trade, Ethan Cummins stares at the canvas that lies before him — eyes trained, unblinking as if he is trying to pull some hidden picture from its depths to the surface. It’s something you would expect of a student in an art class. He wanders a few feet to the right, then the left, then crouches down to get an alternate point of view. He is carefully contemplating his next stroke, his next color choice to bring the image in his head to artistic reality.
Yet Cummins isn’t standing before an empty canvas in a classroom at St. Edward’s University where he is currently a freshman. Instead, he is at the Hope Outdoor Gallery, an abandoned development project turned public art space. Tucked away at 11th and Baylor Street in downtown Austin, the once bland concrete beginnings of a three-story building invites accomplished street artists and regular citizens alike to cover every crevice with their own works of art.
A couple shakes of the spray paint can and Cummins begins to swiftly, but with great precision, form the iridescent red vessels of an eyeball.
What was once seen as an act of vandalism, street art is rapidly developing into a much admired and in-demand art form. Cummins and the Hope Outdoor Gallery are just two examples of the countless people and places helping elevate this artistic movement to a new level of popularity in the city. No one has helped create more buzz for this cause, though, than SprATX.
In 2012, after graduating with a bachelor’s in journalism and magazine design from the University of Texas, Molly Maroney began work at a local publication. There, she met Mouf, another artist looking to make a living off of his passion for creative design.
“[Mouf] told me to come out with him one day and I watched him do a huge mural with some of the friends that he had met that paint together quite regularly,” said Maroney. “By the end of the night, I had a can in my hand and was just flabbergasted that you could paint a mural so fast.”
Growing up as the daughter of a muralist, Maroney was familiar with large-scale paintings. However, she had never seen such an impressive level of work materialize within the span of two hours, something which might take her mother a week to complete with just a paint brush.
In addition to painting with Mouf and his friends, Maroney began to help him screen print shirts for a local print shop and design a book of Austin street art. It was here, amongst the ink-blocking stencils and page layouts, that the idea for SprATX was born.
“It was really good to be working with my hands again instead of just sitting at a computer all day,” Maroney said. “We gathered the initial seven artists together and told them the idea — it would be a magazine or something — we weren’t really sure. But, in the meantime we had this screen press so we said, ‘Why don’t we take everyone’s images and we’ll throw a website together and at least print some shirts for you guys just as a friend deal.’”
From there, the concept, whatever it was destined to become, took on a life of its own. Things truly ramped up with the creation of a social media hashtag that would eventually be the entity’s namesake: #SprATX.
“I got sick of [Mouf] sitting at his desk at work looking up 30 different hashtags to find cool new street art in Austin,” explained Maroney. “I wondered why there wasn’t one place for it all. That’s when we came up with #SprATX. Within two months, we had about 2,000 posts on Instagram.”
As of the writing of this article, #SprATX had 17,347 photos tagged with the hashtag on Instagram.
The trade name filing for SprATX was officially approved on March 7, 2013. In July, Maroney left her job at the publication to work on the project full time. By August, they had started Free Art Friday, a weekly social-media driven scavenger hunt where an artist hides a piece of work somewhere in Austin for any art lover in the community to seek out and keep. Just three months later, Fun Fun Fun Fest approached SprATX to perform a live painting activation at the popular music festival.
It just made sense said Maroney; instead of all these artists working separately, they could work together as the SprATX collective, or family, as she prefers to call it.
The next step in its evolution stemmed from the realization that affordable spray paint was hard to come by in Austin. According to Maroney, while a can of spray paint cost $9 to $12 within the city limits, it could be found for a much more reasonable $5 to $7 in San Antonio. With the T-shirt business already established, the collective was able to buy and sell spray paint to artists at a more economical cost.
“With that, we realized we needed a store, a home,” Maroney said.
On Jan. 4, 2014, the SprATX store, gallery and studio opened in East Austin. The creativity that flows within its walls cannot be contained there though. An outer wall of the building, which faces a railroad track, provides a canvas for local SprATX and internationally recognized artists to display their art to the passing trains and pedestrians.
While there is always the potential for evolution, SprATX currently focuses on helping the collective’s artists, now numbering around 30, get paid to do what they love. Because of the intimate family nature of the group, SprATX is uniquely qualified to pair clients with artists not only based on creative style, but also by their personalities. SprATX has helped artists find work doing everything from personal murals to public displays at events such as Austin City Limits.
SprATX has proven that street art is not only a vehicle for profitable business, but a way to spread important messages on a large and accessible scale. Just as journalists put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard these days) with the intent of preserving First Amendment rights, so too do street artists when they put spray paint to public walls and other spaces.
“[The acceptance of street art] shows that people accept your freedom of expression,” Mouf said. “You have these huge companies that pay a lot of money to go out and put stuff up that you don’t have an option whether you want to see or not. This is a way for you to make a mark, make a statement and be visible in that world without anybody telling you how to do it.”
“It’s the voice of the people. It’s art without the gallery,” Cummins said, hands placed on his hips in a stance of accomplishment as he overlooked the spray paint laden walls surrounding him at the Hope Outdoor Gallery. “I think it’s really expressive of things that can’t be expressed through words, of actions through legislation that we have little say in, of the other things we approve of, and disapprove of, in society. It’s an immensely important forum.”
The college student, who, with the push of a nozzle, on this occasion creates a commentary on the watchful eye of the government, is proof that the future looks bright for both consumers and producers of street art. For Cummins, who studies philosophy, it’s a way to project the complex conversations he has within himself about the society he lives in to a wider audience.
For a man who says he once felt voiceless, the spray can has given him the power to speak.