With each spray from the nozzle of aerosol paint cans, cinder block walls were transformed into communal public art pieces as more than 200 Borderland Jam street artists took over a South El Paso warehouse this weekend.

For more than 30 years, those walls of the building at Cotton and Third streets had been tagged by street artists without any kind of planning or coordination.

Nine years ago, a group of local graffiti artists created Borderland Jam, a collaborative public three-day graffiti art show and festival to showcase their work. Each year, more and more artists from around the world join the collaborative.

During this year’s festival Feb. 17-19, the walls that span four city blocks were repainted and new art was born.

“It just starts with talking to the people at first, like the owners of the building,” said Cyk, one of the festival organizers, who only gave his artist name. “These walls were getting painted way back when so that was already established a long time ago. We have a lot of homies who know a lot of homies, so we put it out there.”

The history of the Borderland Jam dates back to 1995 when the Border Youth Mural Collective, an all-volunteer organization to help keep the city clean, was founded by artist Dave ‘Graves’ Herrera. The Pershing Theatre in the area known as Five Points in Central El Paso was the building first used by the group before the project was moved to Segundo Barrio.

Local artist Chicago had been spray painting those same walls long before Borderland Jam became an organized project in 2014.

“Way back when, here at Segundo Barrio, the gangs used to mark the walls a lot,” he said in an interview in English, Spanish – and Spanglish. “They gave us a chance to make art here that was beautiful. Every year it grew more. I have friends here from San Francisco, from New York, and there’s even two guys from London.”

Street artist Chicago prepares a can of paint on Friday to work on a mural he created during the 2023 Borderland Jam. (Christian Betancourt / El Paso Matters)

The new murals done each year by recognized street artists are usually left alone and respected by those who otherwise would tag the walls to mark their territory.

“Some kids would come and tag,” Chicago said. “We will come back and fix it. If we see them, the kids from this hood, we talk to them and ask them to respect the art and tell them they can have their art here someday.”

At first, about 50 local artists joined forces to paint the walls of what is now the Longhorn Warehouse.

This year, more than 200 artists from around the globe joined the project. There are no major sponsors for the event. Instead, each participant donates their time, talent and materials. Tables and boxes with more than 30 spray paint cans are seen beside each artist.

“It’s 100% out of our pocket,” Cyk said. “It’s crazy that people are willing to go so far, but it just goes to show you know what we’re willing to do for what we love.”

All artists need to be invited and are assigned a part of the wall to paint. Chicago, who painted a mural of a woman’s face that covered an entire wall, said he invested about $2,000 of his own money to participate in this year’s Jam.

“I have to close down my tattoo shop for the weekend, where I would make about $1,500,” he said. “Then I spend about $500 on paint.”

Chicago, who started painting as a child, hopes others who see the paintings on the walls draw inspiration and follow their aspirations to create as well.

“When I was a kid, the first time that I saw a mural, that I saw a name on a passing train, I remember it gave me animo (encouragement),” he said. “I hope that kids see our art and that it hits them the same way it did us. Graffiti helped me out a lot in my career as a tattoo artist. I came up with gangs and crime and this gave my life color. It gave me something good, a better reputation as an artist.”

Chicago was inspired to start painting when he was 12 by Kex, another Borderland Jam participant. Kex got involved in street art in the ‘90s when he would see it on the walls on his way home from school.

“I would see it on the trains when I would walk home on the train tracks, I would always see the painted train carts,” Kex said. “It caught my eye. I still think to this day that graffiti is for the children. Those who see it and want to do it, too.”

Kex’s project for the event is a recreation of a train cart transposed into a wall.

Another staple of the Borderland Jam is Myker, an artist who started painting in 1995. He and his partner Gibbs have been painting the walls of the warehouse since the late ‘90s.

“People have been painting these walls since before then,” he said. “(The Borderland Jam) started with one of the owners letting us paint a wall. The Segundo Barrio neighborhood has been involved in street art since the ‘70s. This area has a long history in general. We just passed the torch.”

Street artists Myker, at left, and Gibbs work on a piece during the 2023 Borderland Jam on Friday. (Christian Betancourt / El Paso Matters)

City government did not always support graffiti art. Myker remembers when anti-graffiti enforcers would remove the art on the walls.

“For a while, the (artworks)  were completely erased,” he said. “The city was trying to clean up. Eventually, we talked to the owners, and they let us paint again and it just started growing again. At the time, we were going back and forth with the graffiti eradicators. We would leave messages and tape up our permission slips. There was just a big anti-graffiti movement at the time. Once it became an actual event run by the artists, (it) became very consistent.”

Ernesto Trevizo began running the Longhorn Warehouse, a food import and distribution center, five years ago. He inherited the structure’s art and continued to allow the artists to paint. The exterior walls of the main building were used as a canvas during this year’s Borderland Jam.

“I think it’s a tradition that they do every year,” he said. “It’s a mutual understanding that they’re going to paint and a tradition of Segundo Barrio. We don’t have any issue with it as a business. We’ve never had any problem with them. They’ve made some beautiful murals.”

This story was co-published with Next City as part of our joint Equitable Cities Reporting Fellowship For Borderland Narratives.

Christian Betancourt is an urban affairs reporter at El Paso Matters and Equitable Cities Reporting Fellow for Borderland Narratives with Next City. Betancourt has been a local news reporter since 2012,...