Notes from Underground: The Siren Song of Say Girl Say plus Ack! and the Outlaw Artists

By Phil Walk

The 25th of May — a dull, cloudy Saturday — found me at the Station Museum on Alabama near Main Street. I had come with my girlfriend, Brenda, and our mutual friend, Monica, lured by the siren song of my favorite local ukulele band, Say Girl Say, which was scheduled to perform at 8 p.m. I was also happy to see the street art exhibit also opening that night.

Street art is alive and well in Houston and ever present — on freeway overpasses and traffic signs, one can see hurried tags or hand-printed posters and even sweeping, intricate, multistory murals. Also ever present is the underlying patch of ugly, gray paint that reminds the would-be viewer that clandestine street artists are engaged in a political battle for freedom of expression.

Work by Ack! can be seen all throughout the Houston area.

Work by Ack! can be seen all throughout the Houston area.

I have been to the Station Museum before, some years ago, to see a show of Iraqi expatriate artists. This exhibition was unique, though, with floor-to-ceiling murals painted directly on the walls. It is a special experience to see up-close the eye-popping levels of detail that can be obtained simply with cans of spray paint. Some of the artists I recognized immediately, like pop-art graffitist Ack! and prolific muralist Daniel Anguilu, but among the active Houston-area artists, there were many I couldn’t immediately place. Most works were overtly political, one featuring caricatures of Supreme Court justices. A trompe l’oeil security camera stood vigilantly on guard near the corner of one mural, while a Predator drone swooped menacingly over a Pashtun child holding an AK47. Israeli-born Anat Ronen depicted a helmeted soldier alongside a keffiyah-clad Palestinian, both brandishing Super Soakers.

Other works were more abstract. One sprawling mural featured a Mayan pyramid and planets interlaced with graffiti letters, a fiery mushroom cloud and an eclipse. There was little room for subtlety in an adjacent, smaller room, both walls dominated by opposing portraits of MLK and Malcom X.

The ineffable Suzan

The ineffable Suzan

Belying the preternaturally edgy, underground nature of street art was the oddly large crowd. Yuppies, offspring in tow, filed into the museum to gawk at the murals and, outside, the bourgeois attendees took turns at milling about and waiting in line for the margarita machine. After circling through the gallery and watching an interesting short-film feature — artists painting on billboards, walls, and elevated trains — I headed out to catch the Say Girl Say performance. Regrettably, the show was running behind schedule. The first performer, whose name I didn’t catch, was a grizzled, older man sporting shoulder-length, graying hair and several inches of goatee. He warbled, for more than half an hour, to a wholly disinterested audience, the experience surely as painful for him as me. The next musician wore a mask, screamed off-key, political lyrics to the tune of an electric guitar, and was equal parts aurally and philosophically offensive. Some people laughed audibly over the din while filming with their cell phones. Wincing through the performance, I chatted with Suzan, one-third of Say Girl Say, about the band’s upcoming debut album, and had my face painted by the incomparable Y.E. Torres.

An energetic siren's song

An energetic siren’s song

More than an hour after they were scheduled to play, Suzan, Brigette and Luke finally took the stage. The crowd gathered — with purpose this time. Say Girl Say owes their warm, folk sound to a combination of beautiful, soaring vocals, ukuleles, and hand drums. A fan, myself, I try to catch their shows as often as possible, and it is always a great experience when a large crowd latches onto their energetic performance, feeding from it and becoming part of it. Shouldering through the swaying audience, I was sadly able to snap only a few good photos. It was a great show, though, and made sweating in the muggy spring evening worthwhile. But as I said previously, I only came for the band — once their show was over, we said our goodbyes and went home.

Street art is ubiquitous in Houston

Street art is ubiquitous in Houston.

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