Chances are if you work or visit downtown regularly, you’ve seen the amazing murals painted on the side of Houston’s buildings and skyscrapers. They’re part of Street Art For Mankind’s Big Art, Bigger Change, a series of 19 additional murals aimed at raising awareness on social environmental issues in the city and beyond.
The latest addition to the mural family is the Bob Lanier Public Works Building on Walker Street, where U.K. Artist Louis Michel has spent more than a week creating his work on the garage wall, a plushy stuffed bear wearing a unicorn mask.
According to Michel, whose work tackles awareness about environmental catastrophes, the multicolored mural resembles a giant stuffed bear with its multiple colors and quilted patterns that include images of bananas, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and the Roadrunner just to name a few, is meant to start a conversation about topics people tend to dance around.
“Bears are apex predators meant to rid rivers and streams of old fish, allowing the younger ones to breed and keep the water fresh to consume, he explained. “The unicorn is a fictional creature, so the bear wearing unicorn mask is disguising the conversations we have regarding environmental issues,” he said.
These types of observations and discussions are the purpose behind SAM Art Projects, a non-profit organization whose mission statement is “art for social change." With the support of more than 80 prominent international street artists, SAM curates and produces large murals, interactive exhibitions and live performances around the world to bond communities and generations around human rights, according to its website.
So how did the City of Houston get involved with this project? According to Mayor’s Office of Cultural Affairs Program Manager Theresa Escobedo, they were asked.
“We were invited to participate by SAM, who has been working for some time to secure walls and funding for the Big Art, Bigger Change, Season 2 effort,” Escobedo explained. “We’re participating to encourage the program’s engagement with artists who call Houston home. This year, three artists from Houston are creating large-scale murals downtown.”
Escobedo said COH did not commission the murals for “Big Art, Bigger Change” effort. “We’re participating to encourage the program’s engagement with artists who call Houston home,” she said.
Approximately 15 murals have been added to Houston downtown buildings between 2021 and 2022, said SAM Co-Founder Audrey Decker. She and her husband Theaubalt were in Houston watching Artist Dragon76 paint a mural for the group’s Zero Hunger series when they met Harris County Commissioner Rodney Ellis who was passing.
“He thought that the mural was of the artist. He asked more questions and I guess he liked what we were doing,” Decker said. “He then took a bike ride past it everyday and was there for the unveiling with the commissioners and the mayor.”
The messages the murals share is also significant. Escobedo said each mural is created on a theme inspired by the United Nation’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals, many of which parallel local initiatives, like the city’s work to address climate change in Houston’s Climate Action plan.
Local artists also involved in this round of the project include W3r3On3, Mr. D; and Alex Arzu, Escobedo said.
“The entire collaborative group, from key sponsor Downtown Houston to Harris County Precinct 1, the art review committee and the artists themselves have made and are making a concerted effort to honor and depict Houston’s diversity through art-making,” Escobedo said.
“We want to highlight our enthusiasm and support for the work of Houston-area artists and are pleased to see a growing number of Houston’s artists among the international cohort of muralists creating these large-scale works.”
Because Houston itself is a diverse city, projects like this tend to fit neatly in their backyard. Decker said it’s important to find people who have the bold vision and same spirit to make it successful.
“This is a very bold city already doing projects and it reflects on the idea to be bolder and do bigger things to make change happen,” she said. “Houston is a city that knows how to handle change and adapt to a new world.”
“This is the DNA of the city. That’s so Houston. They truly have big dreams here. They don’t see small,” Decker said.
Michel said bringing environmental awareness to an oil and gas city like Houston is challenging.
“It’s a beast,” he said. “The thing is with art; I can’t change that because I’m always going to be an artist. I could choose to pain safer, or I could paint with a different subject or context. If my audience doesn’t get it, then it’s just a painting. If they get it, it causes a chain reaction.”
It’s the chain reaction from his work that will be the reward. Whether the embedded environmental message will be received from residents is too soon to tell, but Michel said he does know his previous work has been successful.
“I can say it’s working because I’ve seen where it’s influenced people to donate to charities,” Michel explained. “So, I know the message is getting across. I also realize that just because the work is in the public domain of Houston, it doesn’t remain in Houston. As soon as it hits social media it changes the context.”