the circles of life
Viral San Antonio chalk artist starts targeting the city's dirty sidewalks
As social media grows as a creative outlet, onlookers become more and more enamored with "the process." For a well-rounded view of art, this is probably a good thing; An eloquent painting in a stark gallery can be deeply moving, but real art can also be found on the streets — literally — with the artists on hand to discuss as it evolves.
San Antonio's Lakey Hinson, who goes by Lakey360 on Instagram, has started going viral for his sidewalk chalk pieces. The in-person undercurrent is foot traffic past the eye-catching, colorful compositions. The spark in the media was a wrongful arrest by Leon Valley police for using sidewalk chalk in public, which resulted in a $16,500 settlement in the artist's favor.
The fuel for the social media fire has been his constant video documenting, which in the past several weeks has shifted the narrative to a new question: Is the city more willing to clean art than grime?
Made to fade
A guiding element in Hinson's work has long been its impermanence. It is meant to be washed away, and he has even publicly turned down offers for donations of non-permanent art materials. But the swiftness of the arrival of sanitation workers is creating dissonance for the artist.
In the first video that signaled Hinson's more concentrated pivot to the topic of cleanliness, he walks viewers through a piece outside the Central Library.
"If you're looking down here, you can notice how the top half up there [gesturing to the art] is more stained than the bottom half," Hinson narrates. The video does show a clear demarcation on the paved area. He alleges that this is due to a prior chalk piece being pressure washed away. "So, I was like, 'Well, I'll come back here and maybe if I mark over the areas that are really dirty ... it'll be a service of me getting the area kind of clean.'"
The piece in the video depicts a few key elements that appear across Hinson's work. First, in a burst of text on the left, is a "Speech from The Great Dictator," delivered by Charlie Chaplin in a film that mocked Adolf Hitler. The speech calls for universal brotherhood and democracy — even without context, the words have a strongly peaceful tone. (Hinson has stopped using the quote, to distance himself from Chaplin since learning of sexual abuse violations against him. But he says he still loves the message.)
Also present are writings underneath the benches, in areas of especially concentrated discoloration: "They clean the art before the filth" and "They never clean me." Most of the area of the piece is covered by a geometric space-filling texture that has become his signature.
"The design I draw is just a bunch of overlapping circles," Hinson tells CultureMap. "The more hippie or New Age crowd commonly calls the design the 'Flower of Life,' and that is cool in a lot of ways, but then a lot of people will sometimes connect it to [psychedelics]."
Hinson recently appeared at a City Council meeting and talked about his history with parents who used heroin, as well as his long period of unstable housing. Since he does not want his work to be associated with drugs, he has been adding a tag to explain his take on the design: "Overlapping friend circles bring a community to blossom."
"The idea behind that is like, it's unrealistic to assume that all of us can be friends with everyone," he explains. "But if our different friends circles overlap, then it creates a super interconnected community, where ideally, people won't be silenced or forgotten."
Does chalk need a point?
Much, if not all of Hinson's work includes these abstractions, but some pieces are more explicit about their intentions. Pieces the artist has shared on social media include a list of banned books outside the library, a visual representation of the number of Palestinian children killed since October 7, and a transcription of Martin Luther King Jr.’s "I Have A Dream" speech in Longview.
He has also documented his chalk drawings at one or more bus stops and an area where vandals left permanent swastikas, in the hopes of drawing attention to areas that badly need pressure washing.
"It does start without a plan, basically, but the different kinds of interactions I have at different places will sometimes send me to another place," he says. He also includes an aside that sometimes, the places where police suggest he relocate are equally unwelcoming. "Most of the time, [it's] just whatever seems to be calling to me. Now, it's looking for dirtier spots. Since they've made it clear they're going to get rid of my stuff no matter what, it's like, okay, well, I'll create it in the areas that you need to clean."
Beyond the simple effectiveness of his artistic choices, Hinson is gaining attention thanks to his charisma and refusal to mince words. For some, this force of speaking is disconcerting. In videos, he appears calm with anyone else who appears onscreen — usually security and sanitation workers — but firmly alleges that the city is operating on racist and classist biases.
Some commenters appear disgruntled that Hinson is voicing his complaints, responding that he should not create impermanent art if he is upset when it is erased, or that he should spend the time cleaning the areas himself rather than instigating someone else to do it. Of course, these comments do not address the reality that the art is creating a much larger conversation, and the community currency that comes with that.
It's not all talk on the community service front, either. The artist has started bringing sanitation supplies with him, and has been giving away naloxone since before this most recent bout of discourse. He also gets art help from various allies, including Oscar Servin of Servin Art Studio and their semi-anonymous collaborator at Know Tattoos.
The social and traditional media frenzy has seemingly been helpful in offering new perspectives to many onlookers, judging by the many positive commenters. It has been of mixed usefulness to Hinson.
"It's nice to be able to have a voice that gets heard whenever I speak about certain things," he says. "But as far as helping with money or anything, it doesn't. Most of the days I go out there I put in 20, 30, 40 hours without anybody even contributing a dollar. And luckily, I had the money from the wrongful arrest settlement, but that's running out."
"So I'm like, okay, what's gonna happen next with the chalk?" he continues. "Because even though a lot of people like it, and it seems to do good for media, it's hard to monetize, especially if you're doing it with political stuff in mind."
Hinson does accept donations of impermanent materials, and sells similar drawings on boards that people can hang in their homes. Most of his legal defense and activism has been self-researched, but he has received some pro-bono help.
"My goal right now, I think, is just to create as much as I can in the city," he says, "[and] hopefully inspire as many people as I can to experiment with their own voice."