When is a Mural just a Billboard?

Brad Tyer


As a more-or-less-native Houstonian and longtime resident now removed from the city of bayous, I take a certain rubbernecking joy in watching my hometown’s convoluted relationship with the facts of itself. Especially as exemplified by the city’s constant struggle to establish an identity on the national stage with a series of shortlived mottos.

So is Houston Hot? Or is Houston Cool? Forbes is split on the question. Last July, the magazine bucked convention and guaranteed a lively click-bait debate when it put Houston on top of its list of “America’s Coolest Cities,” based in large part on the city’s burgeoning arts scene. Then, just last month, Forbes named Houston “America’s Next Hot Startup Town.”

The Greater Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau, not coincidentally, has launched a new “Houston is Inspired” campaign that invites visitors to “Explore the arts & culture of America’s Hottest Coolest City!” And that Hot/Cool city is not just “inspired” (because Houston contains multitudes, dontcha know), but also “hip” “tasty,” funky,” and “savvy.”

I love Houston, I’ve got no bone to pick with the application of any of those adjectives, and I’ve got increasingly decreasing patience for the jingoistic tribalism that accompanies all these eyeball-trolling listicles of Best This and Coolest That and Most Livable Whatever.

But what I love most about Houston is that no matter how many layers of packaging are applied to that town, there’s always someone resisting the reduction, poking holes in the wrapper from the inside out.

Houston arts blogger Harbeer Sandhu does just that, beautifully:

Now scroll back up to the mural called “Houston is…”  The one with the random words: inspired, hip, tasty, funky, savvy.  The one that stands at Market Square, near the convergence of Buffalo and White Oak Bayous, right above Houston’s birthplace at Allen’s Landing and the place where the Houston Police Department beat Jose Campos Torres to death before dumping his body in the bayou, yet makes NO REFERENCE TO ANYTHING TANGIBLE in favor of some abstract curlicues and a “y” shaped like a fork.  Are you shaking your head yet?  Are you knitting your brow?  If not, please check your pulse immediately, like now, seriously.

The ENTIRE POST is worth a read for its free-range take on public art, civic boosterism, and content-free arts criticism.

Enjoy. Fume. Discuss.

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Observer contributor Brad Tyer is the editor of Montana Free Press, a nonprofit statewide news outlet in Helena, Montana.

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