Driving around the streets of Austin, it’s hard not to miss the vibrant street art scene in its various forms. Who hasn’t seen Daniel Johnston’s “Hi, How are you” on the drag or “I love you so much” at Jo’s Coffee on South Congress? These images, whether short-lived or iconic have become part of Austin’s culture.
The images we may be familiar with, but what about the artist behind these images? If you’ve ever heard anything about graffiti art you have likely heard of the big names like Banksy or Shepard Fairey. In Austin, the big name behind the familiar and poignant graffiti stencils is Federico Archuleta, or El Federico, as he’s known.
Federico was raised in the border town of El Paso where, as a young boy he was influenced by cultures from both sides of the border. It was this cross-pollination of pop-culture images from rock and roll album covers to cartoons, Lucha Libre and comic books that inspired him to express his appreciation through art. Although he doesn’t have a formal art school education, he credits his expression and skill set from various jobs in silk-screening, portrait commissions and a career-defining stint in the art department of the now obsolete, Tower Records. It was this job that landed him in Austin. By 2003, with the eventual decline of most record stores and the closing of the Austin store eminent, Federico had a lot of time on his hands. He used that opportunity to hone his skills and plunge whole-heartedly into his craft. It was a “sink or swim” moment and thankfully for us, he started work on larger- scale projects, starting with the Tower Records storefront. The response was more than he could’ve hoped for; not only from the media, but also the public. That acceptance was the springboard for his success.
While wealth and fame are one way to measure success, Federico measures his success by public feedback. Some of his greatest complements come from photographs. As he says “it’s one thing to take a picture of a piece, it’s another thing to pose in front of it”. A couple of his most popular works like “Till Death do us Part” or “la Virgen de Guadalupe” are local photo-op hot spots. Every weekend you can catch engaged couples standing in front of the lovelorn skulls, amid a bed of roses or witness a pilgrimage from a nearby church admiring the Virgin Mary.
Unlike some street artists that shove a political statement in your face or incite controversy through their art, Federico is not a provocateur. This unassuming artist has motivations that are much more wholesome – peace and love. Whereas some people may see graffiti art as vandalism or public defacing, El Federico sees it as a gift – a gift to the public signed with a message of love. The ability to take back a public space that has been overexposed to advertising and product placement. There’s no pretense in his intensions. He simply wants to improve the landscape. Of course, like most artists, he also wants to leave his mark – to show that he was here and that he made a difference. In his East Austin neighborhood, he continues to keep the Latino culture alive and vibrant with tributes to Cesar Chavez and other iconic Latino influences, even as the gentrification of the East Side creeps in.
Although, most street artists work under a cloud of anonymity, El Federico, has quite a following in the Austin art community and is slowly getting used to the idea of being recognized by fans. He often participates in art crawls, like the East Austin Studio Tours or small art shows around town. He still does portrait commissions as well. Nowadays, you’ll see a lot of his commissioned stencil work at local nightclubs and restaurants. This exposure has even landed him work with the Mexican soft drink company, Jarritos, among others. Even while he’s working on the paying gigs, he’s still got an eye out for the perfect wall with the best traffic to express his next public image.
Just like with his stencils, El Federico is very precise with his words. Of all his words during our interview, there were three that were repeated the most and resonated with me, even after the interview. “Lucky”. “Grateful.” “Fortunate.” With his successes, he never seems to forget how blessed he is to be a working artist. From his modest beginnings to his continued success he hopes to continue to spread his message to the public and other aspiring artists.
As we discussed his plans for the New Year, he anticipates that travel is on the horizon. He’s ready to make his mark beyond Austin, Texas, & Mexico. With a passport itching to be inked, he’ll be taking on the world. With immediate plans for Austin still hush,hush, one thing he did tell me was this – “Keep your eyes open Austin. There’s more to come.“
Credits: Photography by Ruben James Leal, Art by Federico Archuleta, Interview by Jessica Hudson
Written by Jessica Hudson