There is a rich cultural tradition of public murals in San Antonio that is being kept alive by a diverse group of young artists. Many of the mural examples that San Antonians identify as unique to the city were created on the near West Side in the late 20th century. In these economically distressed neighborhoods, artists began painting walls to cover graffiti and to show Hispanic pride. Some of the best-known works were painted on public housing that has been torn down. Weather and time have damaged others. However, the West Side continues to have the largest concentration of murals.
Colorado Street, which turns into Brazos Street at West César E. Chávez Boulevard, is the spine of a series of murals by various artists that have been painted on walls from Ruiz Street on the north down to Laredo Street. Guadalupe Street intersects Brazos and acts as an axis for another series of murals that continues to Zarzamora Street. In all, there are at least 17 murals on or near the Colorado/Brazos and Guadalupe axis. One of the most prominent is “La Musica de San Anto.” Designed by lead artist David Blancas, it is at 1303 W. Commerce St., beside the western foot of the heavily trafficked West Commerce Street bridge, a block east of Colorado.
“La Musica de San Anto” is a commemorative mural dedicated to the musicians of San Antonio, Blancas said. By each featured musician is a fictional show bill that describes the musician and venues in town where they once performed. Blancas said the mural and its location were inspired in part by Manny Castillo, a drummer who wanted the artwork to be a gateway element to the West Side. Castillo, who died in 2009, was ill during its development and did not live to see its completion.
Most West Side murals are specific to the Hispanic culture of the neighborhoods. There is the painted Virgin of Guadalupe mural dedicated by La Prensa at 549 Ruiz St., by Colorado, and the mosaic mural of the Virgin of Guadalupe in the form of a giant prayer candle at the Guadalupe Theater. The quinceañera tradition appears on a wall at the corner of Colorado and Martin streets, and family life is recognized at La Popular Bakery, 1225 El Paso St., with “Familia y Cultura Es Vida” (“Family and Culture is Life”). This mural is one of five within a block of Avenida Guadalupe. The loss of La Gloria, a popular dance hall, was memorialized with a mural in warm orange, red and brown tones on another historic building at 1202 Buena Vista St., near Colorado.
The murals also speak to social clashes and sacrifice. A wall at 1500 W. Commerce St., by Colorado, titled “You Are Not Forgotten” honors the sacrifice of military service members killed in foreign wars. And at the corner of Brazos and Laredo, “End Barrio Warfare” takes on the tragedy of gang violence. Most murals attempt to provide an uplifting message. Jacqui Von Honts, an internationally known artist who died in 2011, created and installed “Fragments of Our Lives,” a 66-foot gestalt mural with a welded steel sculpture inside the bottom-floor lobby of the Texas Diabetes Institute, 701 S. Zarzamora St. Von Honts installed a second mural that continued this theme on a clinic building across the street, 806 S. Zarzamora St. Unfortunately, two panels are missing due to weather damage. However, it remains a beautiful work of art.
Of course, murals exist all across the city. One of the largest murals is perhaps the least known. A group of mural and graffiti artists used a series of old industrial sheds in the 1300 block of Hoefgen Avenue on the East Side to create a gallery of mural art that extends the entire block from Essex to Carolina streets.
Also on the East Side, Blancas was lead artist of “Spirit of a Leader,” 3518 Martin Luther King Drive. Blancas reproduced an iconic photograph of Martin Luther King Jr. at the National Mall in Washington, D.C., on the day he delivered the “I Have a Dream” speech. The MLK mural was painted to coincide with the 25th anniversary of the San Antonio MLK marches.
Jane Madrigal and Rabbit Rye found a way to unite communities while shining a light on gender. Their East Side mural – “Mujerista” at 2603 E. Houston St. – started with the intent of bridging the Hispanic and African-American cultures in the neighborhood. Its theme touches on the conversations that minority women have with each other.
“I feel like these are conversations that are talked about behind closed doors, or maybe mumbled, and now it’s a loud conversation,” Rye said. A quote on the wall that is directed at teenage girls sums up the examples of life as a woman: “What you do today will affect the woman you become tomorrow.”
Muralist Chris Montoya took on one of the most iconic women as a project when he painted Tejano singer Selena Quintanilla-Perez on the wall of a small South Side strip center at 4913 S. Flores St.
“I grew up in this neighborhood. My grandmother lives a few blocks down that way,” Montoya said. “You know, I always wanted to paint this wall.”
Montoya approached the strip center owner in 2012 and asked for permission, which the owner granted. He did not do preliminary sketches. Montoya was so inspired, he said, he went straight to the wall. He was 19.
There is probably no mural in town that has been viewed by more people than “SA Wall.” Henry Cantu, known as Can2, painted the side of a warehouse that is visible to northbound drivers from Interstate 10, between Fulton Avenue and West Hildebrand Avenue.
“I was going through a lot when I did this,” recalled Can2, the mural’s lead artist. “I had quit my job, and this opportunity came up and I wanted to do something crazy.”
It was the spring of 2014, and the Spurs were on a winning streak and championship bound, which sparked a lot of community spirit.
“It was super exciting. Everybody was honking and yelling as they were passing by when I put the SA up. I got little kids to come out, and they drew little flowers all over, like a garden,” Can2 said.
He credits that last little touch by the youngsters for the mural’s longevity. The neighborhood involvement acted like an insurance policy, keeping it from getting defaced.
Alex Rubio works with young artists, too. Students from the Mosaic art program helped him create the 218-foot-long “Vortex” on an underpass wall on Nolan Street between Chestnut and North Cherry streets.
To include the most students, Rubio had them work on PolyTab mural fabric in the studio. He then took the fabric to the work site, where it was adhered to the wall in 2013.
“I think mural painting is a very important tradition. I’m continuing this tradition with our students at Blue Star Contemporary, as well as continuing the tradition of putting San Antonio murals on a national scale,” Rubio said.
“Hopefully, our high visibility will inspire other students to continue this mission.”