While perusing the Keep Austin Weird website I came across a quote that probably best sums up what the “Keep Austin Weird” and “Keep Portland Weird” mottos really stand for: “If the way Austin is going makes you mad, don’t get even. Get odd.”
Now that’s an ethos, right there. One which has launched a thousand pieces of art, a deep love of food and drink, a music culture, and even a TV show.
It all started way back in the year 2000. A librarian named Red Wassenich called into The Lounge Show on a local radio station to pledge some money and the ensuing conversation produced a phrase that would change Austin forever. The radio DJ asked Wassenich why he supported the show, and without much thought Wassenich replied, “I don’t know. It helps keep Austin weird.” With that simple turn of phrase a movement was born.
The Austin Independent Business Alliance loved the line so much that they ended up adopting the slogan to help promote local small business. This led Wassenich to start a very 2000s website and even author two guidebooks to Austin: Keep Austin Weird: A Guide to the Odd Side of Town, and its sequel Keep Austin Weird: A Guide to the (Still) Odd Side of Town.
Eventually, the movement got so big that trademarking companies descended on the Keep Austin Weird slogan and then other cities started jumping on the Keep It Weird bandwagon. Now, it’s a slogan carved in stone for both Austin and Portland and an almost inextricable part of both cities’ respective identities.
The Weirdo Who Started It All
I sat down with Red Wassenich, a local librarian and author, and we had a chat about the origins of Keep Austin Weird and where it’s going.
What was weird about Austin before the slogan?
Cheap, very liberal in a very conservative state, emphasis on music, dedicated to fun.
What was the process in coming up with Keep Austin Weird as the slogan?
It fell out of my mouth while making a donation to a local volunteer radio station. A couple of years later, others used it to promote local biz.
Austinites always say they have a ‘day jobs’ instead of careers. How have the locals made Austin weirder since the slogan was adopted?
The very nature of the slogan says it is gettingless weird. There has been an increase in some nice things, like restaurants and bars, but the price of being a cool town often outweighs the perks.
There have been some battles over trademarking the slogan. What was your motivation in challenging that?
I wanted anyone to use the phrase freely. I dislike the idea of it being a commercial product. Too much irony.
Obviously people are always going to try and capitalize on something unique, what’s your take on Portland, Louisville, and Indianapolis doing their own Keep It Weird campaigns? Can those cities really compare to Austin’s weirdness?
They’re welcome to the phrase, although I question their creativity. Portland is great. Indianapolis didn’t strike me as weird at all, but I was only there once, for three days. Never been to Louisville (Should have been Keep Louisville Batty).
These other towns almost totally use the phrase to promote local businesses, which is great, but not my motivation.
Now that the slogans are so well known, do you think Austin can keep it weird like was initially intended?
Austin still has its essential slightly goofy vibe, but I don’t like the huge increase in the cost of living that is driving all-but-the-rich out. Gentrification is rampant. It’s still a friendly, fun city.
Any anecdote that you feel summarizes the experience in the Keep It Weird movement?
I’m amazed how long-lived and widespread the phrase has become. I was at a great graffiti park here taking photos. A young couple walked up. She was wearing a KAW t-shirt, so I asked her to pose for a photo. They had just arrived an hour before from their home in Paris, bought shirts at the airport, and took a cab to the graffiti. I was proud.
The Fight Over Keeping It Weird
Keep Austin Weird highlighted the creative nature of Austinites — all of those mad ones who chased their passions after hours in the honky-tonks, art salons, and kitchens of their great city. Of course, something so perfect couldn’t stay untouched for long. Outhouse Designs filed trademark papers for the Keep Austin Weird slogan so it could sell bumper stickers and t-shirts, much to the chagrin of Red Wassenich.
From the outset Wassenich and his wife, Karen Pavelka, started producing bumper stickers and mugs with the slogan. Students at UT Austin would often paint shirts with the slogan. Then one company wanted to trademark the slogan and it didn’t sit well — Wassenich and Pavelka didn’t produce their merch for profit, they were donating all their proceeds to dog charity in Austin.
Wassenich was taken aback by Outhouse Designs actions. In his mind, the movement was a DIY project for the city, not a single entity for profit. At the time, Wassenich said, “‘It’s a perfect illustration of what is unweird about Austin. Somebody’s trying to make a buck off of everything.”
Scott Jackson and Brian Riebe of Outhouse claimed they’d heard the phrase around town and wanted to make their own t-shirts from it. Wassenich didn’t fight for the trademark for himself, he instead fought Outhouse to keep the phrase in the public domain, so anyone could use it to promote Austin.
Brian Riebe was quoted in the NYTimes saying that it was, “honorable but a bit idealistic.”
Alas, Wassenich’s income prohibited him from pursuing a long legal battle over the trademark. Outhouse did end up trademarking the slogan for t-shirts and hats. In 2014, they sold 36,196 t-shirts (at $25 each) just at Austin’s airport.
In spite of the commercialization, the city’s denizens stayed attached to the slogan. Art, music, food, and fashion bloomed and flourished around the notion of Keeping Austin Weird. It became a rallying cry, a commiserator’s talisman, a beacon for the weird to gather.
The Westward Expansion Of Weird
In an article in the Portland Tribune, travel writer Becky Ohlsen pointed out Portland’s charms. “Something about how cheap and isolated Portland is, allows oddballs to explore odd behavior without being squished by economics or the harsh judgment of fashion people.”
Terry Currier, owner of Portland’s most iconic record store, Music Millennium, brought the slogan to Portland in 2003. By 2007, Currier had trademarked ‘Keep Portland Weird’ (having learned from Wassenich’s travails). The slogan started popping up on murals, t-shirts, and bumper stickers across the city. The residents of Portland — already noted weirdos — went all in with the shopping cart Iditarod, the celebration of Voodoo Doughnuts, the citywide acceptance of yarn bombing, and… unicycle riding flaming bagpipers.
Portland’s weirdness manifested on a national pop culture scale when Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein started the sketch comedy show Portlandia and forever enshrined the weirdness of Portland in the nation’s zetigeist. The entire show is arguably built around Portland being weird.
The Weird Future
How is Austin going to keep it weird as more and more people flock there to “keep it weird, but also we’ve always dreamed of a nice house and probably a few cars and we need to expand the kitchen a little”? It’s hard to say. Austin novelist Sarah Bird talked to the Smithsonian about that very issue and finds the contradictions of Austin to be the best hope for the future. “I think the BBQ/vegan contradiction is the essence of Austin.” Bird continues, “we seem to have cherry-picked and claimed what we like about Texas — dream big/fail big, don’t judge, but do dance.”
As for Portland, it’s hard to imagine a world where the weirdness stops anytime soon — if it can stay weird while that weirdness is being played for satire by Portlandia, it can stay weird for anything.
Both cities are seeing a massive upswing in new residents with around 110 new people arriving daily in each city. Can a city keep it weird with tens-of-thousands of outsiders coming in every year? Let’s hope.