Two artists share a dream: to create the largest outdoor art gallery in Texas. They've already taken huge strides towards making that dream come true.
Shek Vega is one of those artists. His company, "Los Otros Murals," is successful. Their work is wildly popular. It's often underwritten by huge corporations. And he's made his mark all over town. Last year, he created the non-profit San Antonio Street Art Initiative.
"It was a real grassroots kind of thing. We went knocking on doors. We went trying to raise money,” Vega said. “We hit the streets and hit the pavement and got enough capital to get the ball moving."
That money paid 16 San Antonio artists to paint freeway supports under I-35 near the Pearl. This place was a no-man's land, forbidding and artless. But, Vega said, not anymore.
"I can pass by any time of day at any day of the week and watch people taking wedding photos or graduation photos or shooting music videos, and it's just wonderful. They're taking their friends there," he said.
Southtown resident Mark Horvatitch was there recently with his wife and mother-in-law. He said this wasn’t his first visit to this atypical art installation.
"We were driving by when my parents visited a couple of months ago, and we stopped. And now my wife's mom is here, so we took her down as well," he said.
"With Phase 2 we added 17 new murals to the St. Mary's area," Vega explained. "We try to focus on local talent, of course."
He also worked with artists from Austin, Houston, Dallas, L.A. and Mexico City. Those new murals were completed on March 30 and were concentrated on 13 blocks of St. Mary's and a few side streets.
Vivian Holder owns a building on St. Mary's and French Place, which has half a dozen of those murals. She recalls it all began with a phone call from someone with a name she's never forgotten.
"He definitely had a different kind of name. It was a guy named Nik Soupe," she said.
"Vivian was great help," Soupe said. "She was really happy to work with us."
"And he said, 'would you be willing to give up some of your building exterior on the French side for a mural?'" Holder recalled. "And I said, 'yeah, as long as it's not too controversial, I'm into it. And I might even be into it even if it is controversial. You know, let's look at it.'"
"I'd been eyeing that wall for about 15 years," Soupe said.
Most people see big blank walls, but muralists...they see possibilities. Google Fiber underwrote the mural with only these instructions: convey connectivity. Soupe and Vega thought music conveyed connectivity, and when they found a picture of guitarist Nick Long, they knew he was the one.
"He's actually in a jam," Soupe said, recalling the design. "So he's got his head kind of thrown back a little bit. He's holding his guitar and you could just picture his hand ... just like strummed through a chord."
The mural too seemed to strike a chord.
"It was gorgeous," Holder said. "We loved it."
INTERACTIVE MAP | Check out the Phase I and Phase II murals
Nearby, there was another wall that called out for a mural. Red Bull funded the work, and it was supposed to have a Fiesta theme.
But Soupe wondered, "How do you capture Fiesta?" And on top of that uncertainty, the beginning of Fiesta was looming and the deadline was tight.
"I think we had like eight and nine days to not just create the mural but to paint the mural," he said.
But the mural was completed. It was big -- 60 feet wide. At left and right were two bold words: "Let's Fiesta."
But there was a problem with the original version. It read, "Lets Fiesta."
Holder explained: "When he first painted it, he didn't have an apostrophe. And I'm an old English major..."
Soupe laughed at the memory: "Oh my gosh, the apostrophe!"
Holder was diplomatic with her request: "And I said, 'look,' I said, 'I don't want to offend you but would you please put an apostrophe up there?'" Soupe made the change.
The mural was an instant hit. It quickly became a selfie sensation. And not just for pictures.
"There's a guy in San Antonio who's a Zumba instructor," Soupe said, "He films his class and his dancing with his groups in front of that mural."
Shek Vega's long journey to successful muralist began 20 years ago as a tagger. He's convinced tagging and graffiti are simply preamble to real art. He wants San Antonio Street Art Initiative to be a bridge for young artists, helping them go from tagger to muralist.
"Everyone has to start somewhere," he said, "and you know under every masterpiece painting that's hanging in the Louvre, there's probably some sketches on the under painting where you have to kind of work out and figure out what you're trying to create. And that's what tags are, and that's what graffiti is."
The pair's grand vision still inspires them: How to create the largest outdoor gallery in Texas?
"How can we change things?" Vega wondered aloud. "How can we change our landscape from just the billboards we see all over the place — the plain walls that we see — to something that's really magical?"
If Vega and Soupe keep true to that outdoor gallery, it could be magical indeed. Phase III is next.