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Austin is a city that wears its art on its sleeve. The city has plenty of galleries and museums, but some of the best – and certainly most recognizable – art is found on the sides of buildings and in city parks.
If you’ve ever spent a sunny Austin afternoon biking or hiking around town you’ve probably seen some of Federico Archuleta’s work. Known as El Federico, this self-taught graffiti artist is among Austin’s most prolific and beloved makers of imagery.
Born and raised in El Paso, El Federico has a style that is emblematic of the cross-cultural exchange that happens in this culturally flavorful corner of Texas. Although separated by the US-Mexico border, El Paso and Ciudad Juárez are sister cities that are “joined by bridges that hustle humanity, commerce and contraband to and fro between the north and south,” according to Federico. The muralist knew he wanted to be an artist since he was “thigh-high,” so it’s only natural that the cross-pollination of Mexican culture – like lucha libre and mid-century movie posters – with American Pop art of the 1960s made its way under his skin and resulted in a distinct style that incorporates both.
However, he told Culture Trip that he tries to stretch those ties to educate those who see his art about different facets of Mexican culture and not just reinforce familiar imagery. He pointed to his rendition of Sara García, the Mexican actress who is immortalized as the chocolate abuelita.
“I took that one and I put a joint in her hand and she’s got these red shades on, and that piece became very popular,” says Federico. “That’s one I really like because people always crack up when they see it and there will be people who know exactly who it is … and then there are the people who call it the pot-smoking grandma.”
Federico explains that depicting the quintessential Mexican grandma in this fashion not only makes it instantly accessible to everyone but also raises the curiosity of those who are not as familiar with Mexican pop culture. “I like to do stuff that a guy growing up Chicano will say ‘I get that’ but then … I like to make the white people curious.”
Among his most recognizable murals are a stencil piece called La Virgen, another called ’Til Death Do Us Part and of course Let’s Band Together – an homage to the Live Music Capital of the World, AKA Austin.
A striking favorite, ’Til Death Do Us Part, is a skull-and-crossbones motif that evokes images of El Día de los Muertos, as two skulls (one with lipstick) kiss inside a geometrically designed heart and surrounded by roses. La Virgen is a stenciled version of the classic Mexican motif, but El Federico reimagined the figure with his signature colors and roses in a way that makes it commercially reproducible to echo the familiarity that Austin residents have with the image. Let’s Band Together, a mural appropriately situated on the wall of favorite East Side hang Whisler’s, is an anatomical heart composed of musical instruments to display how deeply the city as a whole loves music.
His style is instantly recognizable. Part street art and part folk art, it’s all kinds of Tex-Mex spray-can sexy. Colorful and geometric, Federico’s melding of Mexican art with European-derived traditions is underscored by his use of modern media to paint. Perhaps because most of his iconic work is spray-painted onto the walls of Austin but based on pre-cut stencils, there is a feeling that it is art that belongs to the people both because of its proliferation through town and its fusion of the city’s two coexisting cultures. “It’s a two-way street,” he says. “I don’t like to be exclusive and be like this is only for the gringos or this is only for the Mexicans. Everybody get on board and enjoy it all.”
At the same time that El Federico contributes his paintings to the outdoor museum that is downtown Austin, he is also completing commissioned pieces for companies like Jarritos, a Mexican soft-drink company, and Indio Beer. At the same time, he regularly participates in art festivals like the East Austin Studio Tour and the Cherrywood Art Fair where Austinites and visitors can take home a miniaturized version of his work for themselves.
However, because his story began on the streets, it is the streets where El Federico still illustrates his heart and soul. He says he’s always on the lookout for the next great piece of blank real estate to paint on, but that the game is not like it used to be when he started. “Now there’s a lot of people doing great work so there’s a lot of competition out there and I’ve got to get my game up,” he says. It will be interesting to see what he dreams up next.
If you’re an art lover, be sure to check out our guide to Austin’s best art galleries.