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Graffiti Artist Spices Up the Streets of Austin

by Published on
Courtesy of Federico Archuleta

If you’ve ever been to Austin, odds are you’ve seen art by Federico Archuleta.

Sprinkled throughout the city, his paintings pop with comic book pizzazz from the walls of buildings on the drag and bars on 6th Street. His mural of a surly Bob Dylan glares from the side alley of Hole in the Wall, a local bar and music venue. On the front of the old Tower Records Building, his portraits of Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson and Janis Joplin peer out at passersby. If you’ve been to Lucky J’s Chicken and Waffles, La Fantabulous, Chupacabra Cantina, Santa Rita Cantina, or Austin Land and Cattle Company, you’ve eaten surrounded by Archuleta’s work.

In the 10 years that he’s lived in Texas’ capital, Archuleta’s art has become a part of the city’s culture. As street art has grown in popularity in Austin, Archuleta’s paintings have stood at the forefront of the movement, all done in his own unique style. “The one term that I came up with is ‘Tex-Mex Sexy,’” Archuleta said, sitting in the oak-shaded backyard of his East Austin home. He chuckled at the term quietly and scratched the ears of his roommate’s Labrador-mix, which he was taking care of for the day. “That’s I guess my catchy, jokey way of putting it.”

Defined by strong lines, high contrast and vivid colors, Archuleta’s work is easy to spot – Roy Lichtenstein with a loose, Latino edge.  The bulk of his art is made using stencils, which he cuts out of sheets of oak or cardboard. After a stencil is completed, he uses spray paint to transfer the stencil’s pattern onto the surface he’s painting.

Though he’s best known for his street art pieces, which businesses hire him to paint on the outer walls of their buildings, Archuleta also does work on the insides of establishments, on canvases and on pieces of wood. Though his subject matter varies, he often paints rock’n’roll musicians, pinup girls and Western themed art.

Growing up in El Paso, Archuleta was heavily exposed to Mexican art styles and pop culture. “My parents are from Mexico, the Cuidad Juarez area, so we would go to Mexico a lot and visit relatives and do some shopping,” he said. “And you know, just watching stuff on TV – Mexican wrestling movies, even right down to candy wrappers on Mexican candy – they had a different look than stuff in the states.”

Archuleta was further influenced by comic books, like Mad Magazine, and Warner Brothers’ cartoons and old film posters. Music and album covers, he says, have had perhaps the greatest effect on his art. “When I was a kid, I had an uncle who was kind of like a hippy type,” Archuleta said. “He had a humongous album collection, and I would just stare at these album covers when I was young and I would wonder, ‘Wow, what do they mean? What’s going on here?’ That just ingrained itself.”

Today, while the 43-year-old paints, he sips on a beer and blasts his tunes (ZZ Top) to get into an artistic mood. His studio, located in the garage behind his home, is comfortably cluttered with odds and ends – cowboy hats, a paint caked screwdriver, loose-leaf paper and spray paint cans. A Fleetwood Mac album rests at the top of a neat stack of vinyl records in the corner, next to speakers and a turntable. The walls are plastered with pictures of his work, photographs of art he admires and sketches.

Archuleta uses his studio space to sketch out ideas and make his stencils, but likes that his commission work allows him to get out of “the office”. “That’s one thing I’ve enjoyed about doing the stencil work,” he said. “Part of the work is hunched over a desk, and then once you get out and stretch your legs and move those spray cans around and flail your arms around – that’s great.”

Archuleta, who chose not to attend formal art school, held a series of art-related jobs that allowed him to hone in on his skills before he came to Austin. After he left El Paso, he lived in Guadalajara, Las Vegas, San Francisco and Dallas, working as a portrait artist, a silk-screen t-shirt maker and a display artist for Tower Records. When Tower Records in Austin closed down in 2004, Archuleta entered the world of street art. “I started doing some [art] outside on the walls [of the closed Tower Records building] just to kill some time,” he said. “Once I got the public feedback and reaction of how much people enjoyed it, I started doing it more…it took on a life of its own. So I didn’t really set out to be a graffiti artist or a stencil artist, it just happened more by accident.”

Fortunately, this accident has allowed him to have a steady stream of commission work. Jason Burton, the owner of Chupacabra Cantina and The Jackalope bar, has commissioned multiple works from Archuleta and says that his art adds to the atmosphere of his businesses. “People love his stuff,” Burton said. “They ask who he is, and if they can buy the stuff…it’s really popular.”

Archuleta is flattered by people’s reactions to his work. Fans contact him on a regular basis to praise the art, tell stories of how it has affected them and even ask permission to have it tattooed on their bodies. “I think one time I bumped into an old friend, and then she was with a friend, and she said, ‘Oh look, she has the Virgen de Guadalupe [Archuleta’s popular Madonna painting] tattooed on her calf,’” he said. “I think I saw Johnny Cash [tattooed] on somebody once. There’s a bunch of other ones that are done that people have told me about.”

Archuleta hopes that, through his work, he communicates the themes of peace, hope and love. This is especially true of the art that he has done in the El Paso/Juarez area, which includes a Mexican eagle and the Virgen de Guadalupe He is saddened by the political unrest and violence in the area and says that it is an entirely different place than he remembers from his childhood. “When I do the pieces that I do on the street, as far as large wall pieces, it’s a way of giving a gift to the city, to the public, to decorate what was once a barren wall,” he said. “So that’s the thing – it’s something that will brighten somebody’s day, which is, in the end, what I try to do.”