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What Happens When Iconic Austin Street Art Is Defaced?

As home to the state capitol, a flagship university and natural treasures like Barton Springs, Austin isn’t hurting for landmarks. But there’s also an underground placemaking collection: the city's street art.

There’s the “Greetings From Austin” mural on South First Street, movie stills on the old Varsity Theatre building across from campus, even the “I Love You So Much” scrawled on the side of Jo’s Coffee on South Congress Avenue.

There’s also “Jeremiah the Innocent,” more commonly known as the “Hi, How Are You?” frog. Painted by songwriter Daniel Johnston, the design was famously worn by Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain.

This week, the frog was defaced by taggers. And while it’s not the first time that’s happened, it raises an interesting question: What happens when unofficial landmarks like Johnston’s frog – which, with its charmingly crude design could itself be mistaken for graffiti – get tagged?

It’s tough to find a hard and fast line separating graffiti from street art.

Ken Slack owns a Chevron service station on the corner of West Riverside Drive and South Congress Avenue. It’s adorned with a mural featuring Austin icons like the Stevie Ray Vaughan statue, the bats of the South Congress bridge, the UT Tower and more.

“Graffiti is damage and this most certainly is not,” Slack says. “This is a commissioned mural by a professional artist, and not a hoodlum looking to deface one’s property.”

That said, not all instances are as cut and dry. The “I Love You” wording spraypainted on the side of Jo’s Coffee makes it a popular backdrop for engagement photos. But it was initially left there as an unsanctioned – but appreciative – message to Jo’s owner Liz Lambert from her partner Amy Cook. (When it was removed, a public outcry made Cook repaint her message.)

Daniel Johnston was commissioned to paint Jeremiah the frog years ago. While the space now houses a Thai restaurant, it was previously occupied by independent record store Sound Exchange. According to Johnston’s family, Sound Exchange owner Craig Koon paid Johnston $100 and all of the records he could carry for the mural.

“I remember me and my friend Dale – we were graffiti artists in our minds – put like Bruce Springsteen lyrics on the side of a house,” Johnston says.

But Johnston doesn’t think graffiti needs to always make a statement. “That’s funny,” Johnston said when he found out Jeremiah was tagged. “As long it wasn’t anything obscene.”

“These kids today, they probably, they’re rich enough not to care about cheap avant garde art, playing whoever they listen to these days,” he says.

Normally, the city is responsible for cleaning up graffiti. But through an agreement between the city and Johnston to preserve the mural, the artist has been tasked with maintaining the image. The Johnston family says they plan on cleaning up the image in the coming months

Aside from bestowing a sense of place, some see graffiti as something more.

Dick Clark saw an opportunity to use graffiti to strengthen his community. He owns the property at 11th and Baylor Street. When the construction of his condominium development stalled, the walls of unfinished buildings stood empty.

Andi Scull of the nonprofit arts HOPE Campaign contacted Clark with an idea for the space: turning it into a gallery of local graffiti artists. What was once an eyesore is now an art space. “But it kind of got bastardized,” Clark says. He says artists began “tagging for tagging’s sake, saying the same old stupid things with those bubble letters that are so out of date.”

“The dilemma with graffiti is that it’s temporary,” Clark says. “It’s a different art form.”

Wells has been a part of KUT News since 2012, when he was hired as the station's first online reporter. He's currently the social media host and producer for Texas Standard, KUT's flagship news program. In between those gigs, he served as online editor for KUT, covering news in Austin, Central Texas and beyond.
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