Changing Lives One Can Of Spray Paint At A Time At Hope Outdoor Gallery in Austin

Written by Lauren Jones

Photos by Tony Moreno

HOPE Outdoor Gallery is one of the most visited tourist destinations in Austin. A three-story paint park in the charming Old Austin Clarksville neighborhood, it has become an epicenter for connection, education and creativity, welcoming nearly 500 visitors a day.

The HOPE Foundation, short for Helping People Everywhere, was founded by entrepreneur Andi Scull Cheatham in 2006 to raise awareness about the genocide in Darfur. Through art and music, she aimed to make an impact overseas and soon connected with well-known street artist, graphic designer and activist Shepherd Fairey, famous for his iconic Barack Obama “Hope” poster during the 2008 election. But by 2009, Scull Cheatham switched her focus statewide, leveraging HOPE to organize events and projects and act as an intermediary between artists and the Austin community at-large. In March of 2011, the HOPE Outdoor Gallery made its debut as a place where artists could come together and paint in a safe environment. At the time, graffiti art, as well as street art such as murals, were still not generally accepted by the city, and therefore many artists turned to tagging or painting illegally in the streets.

She found the perfect location, a piece of land at 11th and Baylor Street. While rundown, it was in a heavily trafficked part of the city.

“Our intentions started simply by wanting to utilize a space that had been underutilized for 30 years and convert it into something that could support several art forms of which don’t normally get the chance to be supported,” Scull Cheatham says.

“We wanted to have a place where artists could practice large-scale murals in a safe environment,” adds HOPE Program Director Miles Starkey.

The many coats of paint which cover the gallery’s walls all represent something different, but regardless it has given Austin artists and the community a place to gather and showcase their work, as well as a platform to share ideas.

“Art is becoming a new form of media that is unbound by any constraints,” Starkey says. “It’s not limited to any sort of age group or social group and it allows whoever is viewing or interacting with it to take away their own meaning from it.”

In addition to acting as the largest outdoor gallery in the United States, the existence of HOPE has led to many opportunities for education.

“In any medium of art and any idea, there is always an educational aspect of things,” he says.

For instance, HOPE’s artists are keeping the history of graffiti art and street art alive. Back in the 1980’s and 1990’s, and even into the 2000’s, many of HOPE’s artists were painting illegally, but the landscape is starting to change.

“Street art and graffiti is still in its infancy, but I think that people are now just starting to see the purpose and what it has the ability to do,” he says.

HOPE has additionally become a place for local families, and even doctors, lawyers and other professionals, to pick up a can of paint. Starkey and his team are also proud to work with at-risk youth.

“We took part in a community mural with Facebook on the side of Native Hostel and got to paint with kids from different groups,” he recalls. “Some of them shared stories with us about how getting to paint with these artists opened their eyes and gave them so much confidence and strength in their day-to-day lives.”

The gallery, which closed on January 2 is set to reopen in the beginning of 2020 near Carson Creek Ranch, an even larger location which will provide more for the community.

“It’s been an incredible journey finding the perfect permanent home for this project. We had no idea that a temporary art experiment would become so well loved, so internationally recognized, and so needed in our culture and city. This new, evolved art park will be a special place for the community to call their own,” Scull Cheatham concludes.

Zuzu Perkal. HOPE artist

Artist Zuzu Perkal, recognized for her high-energy style, was first introduced to graffiti art and street art in high school. But it wasn’t until 2009 that she picked up her first spray can.

“I began photographing my friends painting around the city and spent the next few years collecting photographs of street art and graffiti wherever I traveled,” she says. “It was almost an obsession; I couldn’t get enough. Eventually, I was encouraged to pick up a spray can and haven’t stopped since.”

A HOPE artist for the last seven years, she sees the outdoor gallery as a “place for artists to go and have creative freedom.”

“It’s a wonderland for visual artists,” she adds. “HOPE and the HOG (Hope Outdoor Gallery) have fostered a multitude of creative opportunities for the local community.”

Over the last eight years, Perkal has recognized the great importance cultural centers like the gallery, as well as the general support of art, can have.

“Art in public spaces transforms the bland urban environment into interactive works of art. It also brings people together and encourages community engagement,” she says. “Street art brings this city to life.”

And while Austin offers a supportive community for artists, she says that it can be a challenging way to make a living.

“It can be [difficult] sometimes to validate the value of an artist’s work,” she says. “Some clients and businesses don’t understand that creating artwork is our career; It’s how we pay our bills and how we navigate the world.”

“Creatives play a vital role in society by having the courage to put their artwork out into the world in hopes of bringing life and color to otherwise unused spaces,” she adds. “Creatives spark conversations, raise awareness, create positive relationships and have the power to educate the public.”

Nathan Nordstrom. HOPE Artist/Austin OG Graffiti Artist

A graffiti artist for more than 25 years, Nordstrom, better known as Sloke One, has done art shows all over the world and made a mark on the Austin scene as a mentor. He’s also very passionate about educating up-and-coming artists and the public on the difference between graffiti art and street art.

“Street art came from graffiti,” he says. “Graffiti art is letters, one’s name and one’s style, while street art is more wheat pasting, stencils and [depicting] an icon. Street art in Austin is relatively new and with graffiti we go back to 1984. A lot of what you see going on today in Austin and around other cities in the US is relatively new.”

Nordstrom began his career under the mentorship of Skam, considered to be one of the founders of Austin graffiti art, but back then it was entirely different world for artists than it is today.

“From 1990 until about 2003, I painted on the streets in Austin,” he says. “I painted illegally on freight trains and rooftops. But, painting on the streets bring consequences. I was caught and went to jail three times. Back then, Austin was a much different city. The resistance that we got was very strong. We were told it wasn’t an art form and that we were criminals and thugs.”

When artists like Shepherd Fairey and Banksy became popular, Nordstrom noticed a slow progression toward acceptance of both street art and graffiti art within the city. But, what other factors have been involved?

“I think now a lot of street art is painted to be geared toward Instagram with cute sayings, nice images and colors,” he says. “I think it’s the public’s acceptance and money too. Plus, people like art. Even to this day, I’d rather see a nice mural on a street than a blank grey wall. I think what’s happening now is art is being seen as more of a commodity as opposed to a luxury.”

The unveiling of the HOPE Outdoor Gallery has also made a big impact on the city.

“I used to paint the graffiti park illegally back in the 1990’s,” he says. “But back in 2010, Andi approached me about painting at Castle Hill. It was a place for people to come create safely without having to deal with the police. It really changed the local arts scene in a lot of ways. I’m a creative and at the end of the day, my job is to create something that people can enjoy.”

Over the years, Nordstrom’s focus has also shifted. Now, he works with the City of Austin, Austin ISD and the Mexican American Cultural Center.

“There’s a whole new generation of artists coming up and that’s what keeps the art form alive. As someone that’s been in the game for a while, I am a mentor,” he says. It’s not what I originally signed up for, but I care about the preservation and continuation of graffiti art.”

Nordstrom was also on the board to help choose the new location for the HOPE Outdoor Gallery.

“My dream is to see the new park become a world class destination for artists and the community.”

Andrew and Nikki Horner. HOPE Artists

Andrew Horner, AKA APSE, and Nikki of The Color Cartel, a husband-and-wife team out of San Antonio, Texas, have found a freedom in graffiti art. And even though life as a freelancer is challenging, they wouldn’t give it up.

“It’s always hard but getting so much faith and love from supporters makes it easier for me to put myself out there and do this for longer,” he says. “I used to be an economist and it would be very easy to go back and have a stable salary, but there’s so much fulfillment in doing this.”

Andrew’s work has always been inspired by his affinity for “playful, fun and exciting letters and the active lifestyles of snowboarding and skater culture.”

Since elementary school, he would experiment with different lettering styles, incidentally finding his way into the world of graffiti art.

The couple first got involved with the HOPE Outdoor Gallery when they moved to Austin in 2014.

“I started painting up there and meeting other artists,” he says. “I think the founder, Andi, reached out to us because we had our craft together and we are both business-minded.”

And, just as Perkal and Nordstrom noticed, graffiti art became more and more accepted in the Austin community, especially within the first few years of the gallery.

“The public perception of graffiti art is killer,” he says. “I’ve never been to a city so welcoming of it and the graffiti park has a lot to do with that. It’s a place where it can be done legally. It makes it super accessible and really friendly.”

Furthermore, HOPE offers a place for curious artists to try out the art form.

“A lot of people have spray painted for the very first time there and have gone on to be career artists because of it,” he says. “Having a place to paint is neat and it’s a great initiative for those who wouldn’t have access to it otherwise.”

As an artist, he feels that the outdoor gallery has not only elevated individual artists, but the community. Plus, the support from the organization, as well as from the city over the last few years, has further pushed him to become the artist he is today.

“People who want to make art will make art, but the support helps people be braver in marking that art and making a life in art.”

Guayaki Presents Come To Life Austin: The importance of art goes beyond its ability to connect and inspire. It is the conduit that spreads important ideas when barriers are present and words simply are not enough. Unfortunately, creators often do not have access to fundamental basic needs. During our time in Austin we are partnering with local groups that are solutionary in ensuring artists’ needs are met so they can not only continue to be makers in their community but movers as well. Join us on, and at our many events over the month of April as we explore this theme.