I have seen some of the Houston street art while hanging out in the Heights and scrolling through Instagram, but never investigated further. In fact, when I asked around, my research shows that most people pass by street art and initially think nothing of it, but Laurie Mills is the exception. Just Vibe Houston has written about inspiration graffiti seen around the Houston area. I’ve read that article, but after I took a tour with Laurie Mills’ Houston Mural Tours, it gives me a whole new perspective on Houston street art, the artists behind it and the meaning of the painted wall.
Laurie Mills Path to Houston Mural Tours
Laurie Mills’ path to leading street art tours began with Instagram. Three years ago, while stuck in typical Houston traffic, she noticed how certain “tags” on the sides of the trains were more elaborate and complicated than others (“tags” are graffiti signatures). She jokingly posted a picture of the more simple and less original tags, commenting
Come on, taggers; you can do better.
Immediately, she received likes and fell in love with street art. She would go out of her way to find murals and more information on the art and artists.
It was like a research project for me.
Being an artist herself, Laurie has an immense appreciation for art in any form, but was in awe of the talent she saw in street art. Serendipitously, at this same time, Houston street artist, Gonzo247 began Free Art Friday.
On Free Art Fridays, artists around Houston are encouraged to hide a piece of their art, post a photo clue on Instagram as #htxfreeartfriday, and whoever finds the art gets to keep it.
This event appealed to Laurie’s love for community strengthening events, so she participated. She hid a piece of her art at the Black Hole and got to meet the woman who found it, and they are friends to this day.
After such a positive first time, Laurie eventually became a regular participant. Several months later, she was invited to be a part of a show with other Free Art Friday participants at Gonzo’s studio, Aerosol Warfare. While at this art show, Laurie became acquainted with Gonzo and other street artists. Laurie laughs, thinking of herself compared to the street artist crowd at the show, saying,
There I was, the “mom” in the crowd.
If Laurie Mills is any mom, she’s the cool mom.
All Laurie’s daughter, Audrey, wanted for her fourteenth birthday was for her mom to take her and a few friends to see some of the Houston’s murals and take pictures of them. After spending the day in front of the various Houston street art, they posted the pictures on Facebook, where other friends asked about where these places were taken.
A few years before creating Houston Mural tours, Laurie had gone on street art tours in New York and London. When she tried to see if such tours existed in Houston, she came out shorthanded. A friend of Laurie’s asked if she could take several moms and their elementary aged children to see the murals on an early dismissal day. This mom had sought something that a group of parents and their kids could do together, something different and new. Laurie took the gig, and it became her first paid tour! Once the moms posted their pictures from the tour, more people sought Laurie out, and Houston Mural Tours was born.
Houston Mural Tours The View From The Street
Several days before the tour, Laurie had suggested everyone going watch Banksy’s Exit Through The Gift Shop, which can be found on Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, and more. I’d highly urge everyone to watch this film if you know nothing, little, or a semi-acceptable amount on street art (That or if you want to figure out who Banksy is, because who doesn’t?).
My friend, Allison, and I met with Laurie at Empire Cafe at ten that morning. Laurie was there early and had brought her books featuring the work of famous street artists and a packet full of street art examples.
After greeting us, Laurie asked us what we knew about street art.
But this meek answer ultimately wouldn’t matter, because, by the end of the tour, that answer would drastically change. She debriefed us on the difference between graffiti and street art, introduced us to street art lingo (Guess who now understands what wheat pasting is? Me!), and let us pick our very own sticker/slap of local street artists.
Slaps are essentially stickers with the artist’s art on it. Slaps are also traded amongst street artists (“Like business cards, right?”; “Exactly!”) or put on laptops, skateboards, telephone poles, etc. So cool, right?
After our mini-lesson on street art, we embarked on our tour. The primary mode of transportation was Laurie’s car (equipped with phone chargers and water bottles!), which seats six tour guests. For larger tours, Laurie takes a tour bus. For a tiny portion of the tour, walking is involved, but it’s limited to when you get out of the car, walk to the art piece, and take pictures in front of it or take pictures of it.
When we reached one of the murals out of the many on our tour, Laurie was grinning and saying, “No way!”. The huge and brightly colored mural in front of us was brand new and had replaced a mural Laurie showed on her last tour, just one week before.
Street art is temporary.
Laurie told us as she took a picture of the mural to post on Instagram.
What’s here today may not be here next week.
Houston Street Art Social Media Tip
Street art’s name seems to imply it merely stays on the street, but this couldn’t be further away from the truth. Street art has expanded into the vast realm of social media. Street artists and appreciators of street art use Instagram to promote their work and follow others’ work. Most of the street art we saw had an Instagram handle (“Handle” = social media username) in the corner somewhere, so those who enjoy the art can find the artist.
If there isn’t a handle on the piece, then there is usually a hashtag. Open Instagram, type in the hashtag and see if you can find more on the artist or their work. The only way I knew of some murals before the tour was through Instagram. Many of my friends and I-kind-of-remember-her-from-second-grade acquaintances would post pictures, posing in front of these murals. Their Instagram posts would never put the exact location of the photo because to do so would take away from the excitement of discovering street art on your own.
Finding street art is a mix between a community scavenger hunt and a brightly colored rabbit hole, making for a very interactive and surreal version of Alice in Wonderland.
Street art is like a gallery that never closes.
Why Laurie Mills Has Taken It To The Streets
Part of the appeal in Laurie Mills Houston Mural Tours is that people love to see new sides of their city and discover more about the people in it. Laurie feels that her tours add another layer to looking at street art because she gives you the story about who’s creating it. Her street art friends know how much she supports and admires them, and they have helped her help them. It’s not uncommon to meet or run into the artists on the tour because they’ve been known to join the tours.
The Houston Street Art Community
One of the most surprising things about Houston Street art is the community and its members. When one thinks of “street art,” he or she typically thinks of graffiti. So it’s no surprise that when one thinks of street artists, he or she thinks of young hooligans with nothing else better to do.
It’s the nicest group of people.
Here are some interesting facts about some of the Houston street artists. One street artist’s day job is as a Realtor and analyst. Another is a Metro light rail driver. Many street artists are middle-aged men and women who use street art as a creative outlet. For some, street art is even a creative outlet to their creative outlet, as many have fine art backgrounds, but persist in street art.
Probably my favorite aspect of the street art community is the emphasis of love, goodness, and peace. Gonzo’s Free Art Friday is all about spreading art for free and giving art to those who want it and can’t afford it.
Street artist, Wiley, is well known for his “Love.” Seriously. You’ve seen Wiley’s wood panels nailed to telephone poles all over Houston. That or the “Vote Wiley” stickers all over car bumpers.
There’s the iconic “Be Someone” on I-45. There’s “You Are My Sunshine”. Street art is intent on bringing hope to a passer-by’s day. Regarding the artists she’s met involved with street art, Laurie Mills laughs,
I haven’t met a single jerk!
Street art, being such a public medium, also promotes creating as a group, or “crew”, as street artists say. There are many collaborations amongst its members, proving to defy standard art stereotypes of art being an isolated endeavor.
Building The Bridge
Laurie is a patron of street art and bringing people into the culture that normally wouldn’t get involved otherwise. She builds bridges between those who want art and those who create it. On several of her tours, she has given the contact info of artists to those who expressed interest in commissioning a mural for their businesses.
One corporate executive of a chain store realized an empty wall on his building could have a mural to differentiate their store. Street art on buildings makes those businesses destinations.
It feels good to know that these artists’ work is being recognized and appreciated.
All it takes is for Laurie to show interested Houstonians the street art and the story behind it. Even the artists love the exposure, as Laurie gets messages from artists sending her their newest work so that she can include their pieces on her Houston Mural Tours. Laurie smiles, thinking about how everyone gains from the experience.
It just makes me feel really good.
Are You Ready To Hit The Street With Laurie?
Laurie Mills’ Houston Mural Tours is an excellent way to spend a few hours enjoying Houston and the talent of those in it. Allison White said the tour was
… a really neat way to explore a part of Houston I had never known about.”
Believe me when I say you will feel like you’ve discovered a new dimension of Houston, no matter how familiar you think you are with the city. Laurie took us to HSPVA and pointed out a Banksy-like stencil. Despite standing right in front of that piece of art for the past year, I had never seen it before! And there is no way I’d have noticed it if someone hadn’t pointed it out to me.
Houston Mural Tours would also be ideal for those who are new to Houston or just visiting. Laurie is working on her website and marketing Houston Mural tours to reach out to Realtors and hotel concierges. When thinking about the Super Bowl, Laurie laughs. She knows that there are going to be visitors who want to do something different and out of the box while they’re here.
I’ve got to get ready for that!
Street art may seem like an acquired taste, but it isn’t. There’s something for everyone. One time, two couples went on the tour for a date night. Laurie was worried that the men would be bored or feel conned into looking at walls all night, but to her surprise, they loved it. She couldn’t believe these older men were taking selfies next to the murals! A large family went on a tour a different day, with children ranging from tenth grade to fourth grade. They had always struggled to find something entertaining for everyone, but after going on Laurie’s tour, they found it!
After the tour, it will take your eyes a good length of time to adjust to the sight of bare walls. You’ll also ask yourself,
Why would anyone leave their walls bare?
Laurie Mills The Artist
When Laurie isn’t giving Houston Mural Tours of other artists’ art, Laurie is making her own. She does everything from graphic design to collage to T-shirts. You can find here art here. In addition to tours and her art, she is the mother of three children.
A future endeavor of Laurie’s will involve compiling the works and stories of female street artists. Laurie helps lead the cultural tours organized by Destination English that help ex-pats become familiar with the city. The founder of Destination English, Tracy Chandler, is offering a Labor Day street art tour Laurie will be guiding. Interested? Purchase tickets for the ultimate Labor Day activity!
In the past, Laurie has also given “off the beaten path” tours of Houston, looking at landmarks like The Beer Can House and David Addickes’ Sculptureworx, as well as the public art at Rice University.
Are You Ready To Take The Plunge Into the street art rabbit hole? Then I suggest you follow Laurie Mills’ Houston Mural Tours on Facebook or Instagram. Want to learn more, check out The Street Art Museum before you book your tour with Laurie and read up on your street art lingo!
Be sure to come back and tell us how you enjoyed your visit with Laurie!