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Spray paint paradise

Visitors examine the various tags, murals, and paintings at HOPE Outdoor Gallery. (Ann Hermes/The Christian Science Monitor/AP)


Spray paint paradise

Austin’s Graffiti Park attracts eager spray-painters and thousands of visitors

On a derelict building foundation in Austin’s Castle Hill neighborhood, graffiti artists have painted a cacophony of vibrant colors, squiggles, and shapes. For years the abandoned hillside site was empty except for three tiers of retaining walls surrounded by a cyclone fence. A planned condominium project fell apart with the 2008 economic crash.

The fence couldn’t keep out the graffiti artists. Armed with cans of spray paint, they turned the walls into spray-painted masterpieces, many of which remained for years. Then in 2011 an Austin-based collective of artists, musicians, and designers formalized the site, signing an agreement with the landowners to create HOPE Outdoor Gallery—a place where select artists painted murals in support of a variety of causes, from recycling and foster care to the plight of Native American culture.

Kimberly Brotherman/Getty Images

(Kimberly Brotherman/Getty Images)

Although Austin likes to think of itself as unique, the website keeps track of some 1,500 public walls around the world on which painting graffiti is legal. The art form has come a long way since the 1960s, when most people associated it with defaced subway cars in New York City. Many cities now actively encourage street artists, and graffiti walls have become tourist attractions.

In Austin, HOPE—“Helping Other People Everywhere”—estimates that roughly 1,000 people come to the gallery, also known as Graffiti Park, each day. Some, like Dustin Switzer, a 23-year-old exhaust welder from Lansing, Mich., come to get inspiration for their next tattoos: Switzer says, “You see what a lot of people are made of, what their hearts are dedicated to.”

In the early days artists had to get permission to paint. Now almost anyone equipped with a can of spray paint can make a mark. Local graffiti artist SEAZR said when school is out kids “come with a couple of dollar cans they bought at Home Depot to have some fun and express themselves.”

Ann Hermes/The Christian Science Monitor/AP

Chris Torres helps Vincent Robleto write his name in spray paint at HOPE. (Ann Hermes/The Christian Science Monitor/AP)

The downside, SEAZR says, is that “it only takes them a second to destroy what someone else worked on for over an hour.” Some neighbors don’t like the paint fumes, steady stream of visitors, or traffic. Parking has become a pain, and the privately owned site doesn’t have bathrooms. Landowner Victor Ayad told the website Tribeza that he’d spent more than $1 million on property taxes, insurance, and interest over the past six years—a cost he was willing to bear to preserve “one of the last vestiges to when Austin was a hippie college town.”

But Castle Hill real estate is becoming more valuable year by year, and with Austin booming and Graffiti Park’s popularity outgrowing its small area, the HOPE Outdoor Gallery is looking for a new home.

—Mark Hanson and Douglas Flanders are graduates of the World Journalism Institute mid-career course

‘The visible gospel’

Sixteen years ago when Paul and Robin Pennington began Hope for Orphans they had a simple goal: “Engage the local church to understand the need to care for orphans.” From their own experience with adoption they knew that “millions of kids around the world and in foster care needed a family.” As the message spread through church conferences, they became convinced that when Christians love fatherless children, it’s a picture of the gospel—“the visible gospel,” Paul Pennington says, quoting a John Piper phrase.

Flash forward 16 years and the Penningtons are still involved in orphan care, but their mission has evolved. Over banana muffins in their Austin-area kitchen, they described problems they didn’t anticipate back in 2001. Adoption is a calling, they say, like being a pastor or missionary: It’s not for everyone, and in some circles adoption has become “the thing to do” to prove you’re on the spiritual A-train. Robin Pennington says she’s talked to people who feel guilty if they don’t adopt—and that’s not the way it should be.


Robin and Paul Pennington (Handout)

Put unprepared parents together with traumatized kids, and many families have found adoption to be a harder journey than they expected. Adoption agencies sometimes ask Robin Pennington to talk to families in crisis, so she’s heard many heartbreaking stories. They saw a need to provide gospel-driven parenting help for families in crisis. Last year Hope for Orphans released Rooted, a video-based curriculum dealing with issues unique to families with children via adoption or foster care.

Paul Pennington says many Christians are looking for the behavior modification program that will fix things, but “the only power that can heal these traumatized kids is when they attach to Jesus.” —by SUSAN OLASKY