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An Uninhibited Exhibit of Inebriate Art

By Brewster Hudspeth
It seems to me that bar art is a subject frequently left out of chamber of commerce brochures. This is a mystery, considering that murals on taverns and beer joints often surpass the quality of sanctioned murals and they seldom take themselves as seriously as do “official” wall paintings.

For those who remember the Coca-Cola advertising campaign of the 1970s, America was told that [various wholesome activities] went better with Coke. Bowling goes better with Coke, Taxidermy goes better with Coke, etc. Taking that campaign as a model, it would be easy to argue that art “goes better” with alcohol. Do you think it’s a coincidence that wine is served at gallery openings? After enough beverage alcohol, most “art” can be understood (or at least tolerated).

Exterior signage on restaurants, bars, dancehalls and clubs

This feature showcases what academics would call primitive commercial urban art. As bars and taverns evolve into more sociably acceptable [sanitized for your protection] chain “restaurants” - signage likewise has evolved into lighted signs of an altitude that can distract commercial aviation.

But there was once a time when the pedestrian was king and neighborhood bars were so numerous they only had to compete with neighboring neighborhood bars. The purpose of the signs was direct - to lure or temp passers-by into shaving a few minutes (or hours or days) off their schedule to enter a slightly sour-smelling oasis of shade and liquid refreshment.

Sign painters in the past often exhibited a fondness for alcohol and it was sometimes said (by the painters themselves) that paint and thinner fumes kept them permanently in a semi-altered state. Frequently, bar owners paid for signs with drinks or painters paid off bar tabs with signs - at least that was the case in my neighborhood.

We seldom include contemporary topics – but since painted signs usually change with ownership – allow us to present this gallery while they’re here.

Mexico has a long tradition of painted signs. Propinquity and immigration has given Texas a vibrant ever-changing outdoor gallery showcasing the talents of immigrant sign painters.
East Texas saloon art, Port Arthur, Texas

An early 20th Century East Texas Painting reminicent of 19th Century Saloon Art
Photo Courtesy Museum of the Gulf Coast, Port Arthur, Texas

If one were to believe the cinematic West, what was then called “Saloon Art” consisted of a single large painting that was placed high behind the bar. Usually the subjects of these paintings consisted of reclining women cavorting with satyrs, holding mirrors (or asps) or simply staring into space, wallowing in ennui while posing as hard as they could.

A notable exception to the rule was the popular lithograph of Custer’s Last Stand which was given out by the Anheuser-Busch Company of St. Louis and displayed for decades in the seedier bars that couldn’t afford real oil paintings.
Custers last Stand painting detail

Detail of the familiar painting named "Custer's Last Fight."
Photo taken in an antique shop, 2000

There was little to interpret in these paintings. These simple odes to womanhood / pulchritude were placed as a sort of early public service announcement. They reminded the saloon patron of his wife or sweetheart patiently awaiting his arrival. Custer’s Last Fight was also a PSA; a reminder that biting off more than one could chew could sometimes have fatal results.

Saloon paintings, made with varying degrees of talent have never been fully addressed by critics. Don’t worry. There’s no lecture here – just a sampling with captions of what now passes for art in and around drinking establishments.

Today, Bar Art primary purpose has gone from entertaining patrons within, to luring would-be patrons inside. It would be nearly immposible to resist these enticing offers of camaraderie, sympathy, and / or air conditioning, if one were confronted with them in reality, but through this gallery, you can take your time without worrying about parking, vandalism or being seen by the pastor of your church.

So, with these risks and annoyances removed, come on in. There’s no cover charge. No chalk outline and no screaming-yellow police tape. You’re safe right where you are now sitting and you already know where the restroom is. Pour yourself a schooner of beer and let’s begin…

Austin Texas ice cream vendor
An ice-cream vendor ponders a resemblance on Austin's East Side in 2005.
Austin Texas bar art Amazon
An Amazon awaits a call across the highway from Austin's Airport
Austin Texas frog bar art

A pedicured waitress wants to see the color of a patron's money at El Sapo Verde
Austin's Eastside, 2002

Houston Texas Black cowboy Bar Art

Sherwin Williams on Concrete Block
Downtown Houston, 2002

Houston Texas dancers bar art

Two blue-tinted dancers appear to enjoy the air-conditioning on Houston's West Dallas St., 2000

Houston Texas Tacos and Beer Bar Art
The proper ratio of beer to food is demonstrated on this Quitman Street Sign Houston, 2004
Port Arthur Texas Port Saloon bar art

Detail of a painting over the door at the Museum of the Gulf Coast, Port Arthur, Texas
The multi-paneled painting was said to have been bartered for drinks. 2002

San Antonio bar art
A simple admission / declaration in San Antonio, 2006
Cowboy silhouette bar art
A short-waisted cowboy in Three Rivers, Texas, 2004
Female silhouette bar art

His improbable counterpart on the facing wall.
Three Rivers, Texas 2004

See Murals
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This page last modified: February 11, 2008