Life

One Street Artist’s Battle Against The Gentrification Identity Crisis

Austin, Texas, has been one of the country’s favored outposts for artists, ramblers, and vagabonds for a long time. Like Portland, people talk about the city with reverence, fantasizing about all the good music they’ll listen to, cool theaters they’ll visit, and donuts they’ll eat just as soon as they hit town.

Somehow, amidst more than a decade of hype, the city has managed to stay weird (adopting that exact phrase as a slogan) while still growing. As downtown prices rise and population booms, East Austin has become a sought-after destination — resulting in an all-to-common tale of woe in modern America. The cost of living has climbed, families are struggling to stay afloat, small businesses can’t compete, and old buildings are being uprooted to make room for McMansions, condos, and mixed-use development. These changes pave the way for businesses with no history or connection to the community to move in, while longtime residents get priced out of their neighborhoods.

Austin resident and street artist Eleanor Herasimchuk (who goes by the street name Niz) has witnessed the gradual erosion of culture in East Austin. Now, she wants to make a difference — capturing the spirit of local neighborhoods with murals on buildings before development leaves the city bland. Niz knows that her art can’t stop a bulldozer, but she believes there’s value in drawing attention to each neighborhood’s unique spirit while starting conversations about the untold costs of development.

Inspiration

For Niz, the idea to do pro-bono murals in Austin came after a trip to beautify abandoned buildings in Puerto Rico. “Their economy’s really bad, so there’s just abandoned properties all over the place. Just whole neighborhoods,” says Niz, who traveled to San Juan to work with Sofia Maldonado, who introduced her to an artist collective. “So, out of this group, each one of us was assigned an abandoned space, and told to create something super colorful, but in a way that’s shocking. Stuff you can’t really ignore. That’s what made it significant, doing a building like you’re the designer, versus just tagging it.”

The philosophy behind the project was to “take something that someone doesn’t care about at all and focus energy on it by caring about it. By doing something on it, then the politics of that place change. Suddenly, now that you care about it, other people care about it, too. As soon as you put some color on it, people go crazy.” There was more to it than just beautification, though. “[It was] is more of a political statement, some type of complete deviation from street art. How are people going to look at this? How are people going to define this? It’s not street art, even though it’s on a giant wall outside.”

Before she started painting, Niz sat down with Maldonado to rethink street art conventions. “To make it street art, there has to be some ego on it. There has to be ‘this is me, and I was here’ kinda thing. There has to be a signature on it. There has to be, generally speaking, lots of black lines. We went through this whole list.” Instead, Niz made her mural soft, avoided any specific form, and kept her usual signature off the piece. Due to revisions in Puerto Rico’s laws, thanks in part to Maldonado and the artist collective, the space (which may have been abandoned for more than a half-century) has since been turned into an active non-profit community center known as Casa Taft.

After seeing that kind of transformation, Niz was inspired to do something similar back home in Austin — though the idea had to be adjusted. “Real estate is so hot here, you’re not going to find abandoned buildings,” she explains. “What we do have, though, are businesses that struggle here, that can’t afford to paint a mural, or to beautify their space. So, my idea was to give these businesses a competitive edge.”

Like many neighborhoods across the country, East Austin’s history and identity come into question when chain stores move in and property values rise. “There are all these businesses around here, and they probably won’t be around here for long, and I feel like if I can just paint a few of them, I can bring attention to what it was before,” Niz said of her beautification plan, no doubt hoping that increased public interest and her unique style will drive business to struggling shops, as well as cast some light on the larger issues facing the city.

Niz’s first major canvas after Puerto Rico was a local beauty shop owned by Michelle Moore, a stylist with more than 30 years experience. Moore chose to open The Beauty Salon in East Austin six years ago to “bring back some of that Hollywood glamor and sophistication to the black community.” She calls Niz’s addition to her small, gray one-story building “a blessing.”

“I was just saying I wanted to do something on the outside of this place to bring more attention to this area, to right here in general,” Moore says, “and she came in with her bubbly attitude, saying she wanted to do some painting to give back to the small businesses in the area.”

Execution

It was during her first day at The Beauty Salon, painting the color backsplash across three of the building’s four sides, when Niz ran into her first major problem. The owner of the building told Niz that he was in the process of selling the property and that she needed to stop what she was doing immediately. This abrupt turn seemed to threaten the project — it was also the first time Moore had heard about a potential sale after leasing the space for more than six years.

Of course, sales like this are the very definition of gentrification. As more modern buildings crowded the neighborhood, Moore, who’d just renovated the inside of the shop, began to fear that she could be priced out. Still, she didn’t plan on only having a few days to vacate the premises and abruptly relocate. Despite all this, Niz decided to finish the mural. “What do we really have to lose putting the images on there?” Niz recalls thinking. “If it’s gonna get bulldozed anyway, we may as well put the shit up.”

Even if the building had sold right away, the whole process would take time, and Niz assumed her work might last awhile — allowing her to at least partially accomplish her goal by keeping a small sliver of East Austin unique until it was inevitably toppled or scrubbed.

Playing off The Beauty Parlor’s theme of Hollywood sophistication and glamor, Niz returned a week later and painted a Marilyn Monroe stencil on the back of the building and laid out stencils for an Audrey Hepburn on the building’s east-facing side — the one with the most visibility. It was a far cry from the dull gray color that had preceded the mural. “Every week I’d drive by this building,” Niz recalls, “and after a while, it just started to get to me. I got to the point where I just couldn’t handle it.”

While each of the images would normally be at least five or six layers of stencils, Niz remarked that, due to the time constraints, she was only using two or three. The second day she was there working, not only did the forecast call for rain, but it was her last chance to finish the project. Moore was closing the doors at the end of the day and had already relocated to a new space in North Austin.

As Niz painted, the impact she’d longed for became immediately evident. People from all around the neighborhood came to admire it and offer compliments, and customers came out from the shop at regular intervals to marvel at her progress. Cars pulled over along the side of the road to ask her about it. Even a couple sitting at a bus stop across the street started cheering her on as the wall came closer and closer to completion.

After the images were in place, she added some information about the business, including the phone number in hopes that the building would stay around long enough that customers would be able to find Moore at her new location. Without any time to make additional stencils, she spray-painted the letters by hand.

Even though she was rushed, Niz successfully completed the project before the incoming rainstorm, which gave Michelle Moore a chance to drive home from her last day at the shop with the vivid mural reflected in her rearview mirror. It turns out it would be the last time anyone would get the opportunity — when Monday rolled around, the stenciled images were covered up with flat gray paint again. A few days later, the rest of the building was painted over. The bright building was just a memory.

Aftermath

Niz holds her thumb and forefinger apart about a half-inch when asked if the whole thing discouraged her from finding the next building-sized canvas for her project. “It was a lot of work. That and I got caught in all this drama crossfire, which I’m sure is common,” though she insists that she’s glad she took that last day to finish the mural.

“We’d talked about all those images, she’d gotten all psyched about those images, and buildings like that, they can sit there forever,” says Niz, pointing out that, for now, a “gray, nasty building is probably gonna sit there a while — before it gets bulldozed, or whatever they do to it. I figured people may as well have something nice to look at while it was stuck in permit-land. I also put all her information on there, given that she had to leave so suddenly. I wanted people to have a way to reach her.”

Niz says that the project has helped her to elevate her own particular style. “Painting an entire building with no form, with just abstract colors and all that, is one way of deviating it from traditional street art,” she said, citing the mural as a kind of foray into commercial art, putting the project into a category all its own.

The setback may have been discouraging, but it wasn’t enough to kill her idea, though. After all, it’s not the first time that Niz has seen her work painted over, nor does she expect it to be her last, which is part of the essence of street art, after all. “It’s like anything that’s created and destroyed. If you’re lucky enough to have seen it when it was a thing, then that’s pretty cool.”

Though her mural may have come and gone, it’s hard not to see the endeavor as a success on some level. Those few hours it stood seemed to have a tremendous impact on those lucky few who were able to see a piece of art that reflected the soul of this tiny corner of East Austin. In the way that only art can, Niz’s mural offered hope and restored pride — the exact opposite of the dull gray that preceded and followed it. The future of reimagining East Austin through art and color is left up to muralist like Niz. Can they beautify their neighborhoods, draw attention, and maybe even spark real conversation about what’s lost as our cities grow?

Hopefully we’ll get a chance to find out.


The Beauty Parlor owner Michelle Moore stands in front of the finished mural on August 20, 2016 — minutes after it was finished, and a day before it was painted over.
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