“Hi, How Are You,” Daniel Johnston’s mural at Guadalupe and 21st was originally only one of two images by the artist/songwriter, the other being painted over mere months after completion. The frog was already an icon of cool after Kurt Cobain wore it on a t-shirt at the 1992 MTV Music Awards. (Clockwise: photo by Jana Birchum/photo courtesy of Sean McGowan/Image via MTV)
In April, the innocuous single-story building at 21st and Guadalupe was razed, save for one brick wall.
Once the home of the scene-anchoring Drag record store Sound Exchange, then a series of restaurants, then purchased in 2018 by Austin-based housing company American Campus Communities (ACC), that last wall standing is home to a mural by the late Austin singer-songwriter/artist Daniel Johnston. Known variously as “the Daniel Johnston mural,” “Jeremiah the Innocent,” and “that weird frog thing near campus,” the 30-year-old image has become an indelible of part of the Austin landscape: as emblematic of the city as the UT Tower, Barton Springs, and talking over bands.
Via a restrictive covenant agreement with local nonprofit Austin Creative Alliance (ACA), ACC has pledged to “preserve the mural in perpetuity” – which means that if the building’s owner doesn’t maintain or allow for the maintenance of the artwork, ACA can sue them. Which means the building went down, but the frog remains and will further remain. For now, it’s just a weird creature on a jagged wall, surrounded by rubble – and the site looks set to stay that way for a while. Chuck Carroll, vice president of development for American Campus Communities, told the Chronicle that “there are no redevelopment plans at this time other than ACC’s commitment to integrating the mural into a new building design in the future.”
According to ACA CEO John Riedie, ACC was “super into” preserving the mural, adding that “it was a proactive process on the part of both parties.”
Everybody with interest in the image wins: Austin holds on to a symbol of itself, and a developer avoids a PR nightmare (ACC is one supporter of the Hi, How Are You Project, a nonprofit focusing on mental health, especially that of students).
But why this particular image? How did it get to this point?
It’s not like this is Johnston’s only piece of public art; arguably, his work has never been more visible. The 2005 documentary The Devil and Daniel Johnston explored the complexities of his life, his struggles with mental illness, and his art. Books have been published; exhibitions have been mounted.
Sound Exchange commissioned Johnston to paint said bullfrog on the side of their store at 21st and Guadalupe. Over the next 30 years, it became a fixture of the landscape.
Indeed, there is a Johnston mural on the side of the former Nau’s Enfield Drug on West Lynn. Austin-based PR firm GSD&M sponsored Johnston in 2014 to paint the image – a boxer triumphant over a monster representing disease – as a fundraiser for Dell Children’s Blood and Cancer Center. The restaurant closed in March, and the Labay family, who ran the old-school diner, said the owner of the building declined to renew their lease and was planning on selling the property. No word yet on what will become of that mural, and there has not been a fraction of the public outcry about its fate. David Rockwood, GSD&M VP of community relations, told the Chronicle via email that “it’s important to us and we’d like to see it preserved so we are looking to see how we can help make that happen.”
Johnston’s mural on the old Nau’s Enfield Drug on West Lynn (photo by John Anderson)
So why all the effort to save Jeremiah? The answer, at least regarding the image itself, is more about both marketing and how people look at images in 2023 than anything else.
In 1983, Johnston released the cassette Hi, How Are You: The Unfinished Album, perhaps his signature release, with a young Jeremiah on the cardboard insert. As the American underground began to push its head out of the soil, Johnston’s work became more … well, “popular” isn’t quite the right word, but more well-known, especially after he appeared two years later in an episode of MTV’s The Cutting Edge about Austin music, alongside less-remembered local acts like Glass Eye and Dino Lee and the White Trash Revue.
September 9, 1992: Kurt Cobain, a product of that same American underground and singer/guitarist and primary songwriter for Nirvana, appeared at the MTV Music Awards wearing a shirt with the bullfrog cover art from Hi, How Are You on it. His band had released smash album Nevermind almost exactly a year earlier and Cobain was well on his way to being anointed the voice of a generation, a job nobody has ever seemed to want less.
The next year, the late Sound Exchange commissioned Johnston to paint said bullfrog, as well as one of his signature flying eyeballs, on the side of their store at 21st and Guadalupe. Over the next 30 years, it became a fixture of the landscape: No such luck for the eyeball, which was painted over after a few months. Sound Exchange closed in 2003. That space became a Baja Fresh Mexican Grill. Then, for a spell, a Thai restaurant called Thai, How Are You?, an almost criminally egregious pun.
The frog remained.
Over time the Jeremiah mural was touched up and restored and repainted so many times that Johnson’s brushstrokes are no longer visible. What’s being preserved is less Johnston’s work than work over Johnston’s work – art restoration as the ship of Theseus.
Still, the frog remained.
It was merchandised on coffee cups and shirts and collectible statues. It went from underground art to pop art.
The frog remained, a sentinel of good cheer.
Then something interesting happened in 2007: Everyone started to get smartphones. Suddenly everyone was documenting every single thing they did all the time. Instagram launched in 2010. Après le ‘gram, le déluge de grenouilles. “It’s one of the most visited places in Austin and one of the most photographed places in Austin,” Riedie says. “It is all over social media.”
The frog remained, now virtually.
Just type #danieljohnston into Instagram: 57,866 hits. Of the top nine hits, five involved the frog. Of the 30 most recent, 10 involve the frog (though only two involve the wall itself). One is a photo of Cobain wearing the shirt. The wall is on all sorts of “most Instagrammable places in Austin” lists. The sheer amount of promotion that Austin gets out of this mural is a little startling to folks who remember Johnston at almost any stage of his career. Indeed, it seems downright foolish to get rid of it.
Daniel Johnston in front of the mural in 2004 (photo by Todd V. Wolfson)
One of the images, credited to Austin’s Street Art Muralist Organization (SAMO, itself a tribute to Jean-Michel Basquiat’s old tag) shows an artist kneeling in front of a re-creation of the image. “The significance of the ‘Hi, How Are You,’ Mural lies in the shared experiences and expression of mental health challenges through art and music,” the caption says. “Whether it is Daniel Johnston, Kurt Cobain or the @hihowareyouproject, artists and organizations can use their creativity and platforms to bring attention to mental health issues, fostering understanding, empathy, and dialogue.” Cobain, of course, committed suicide at the very height of his fame in April 1994. His music and image have stuck around ever since.
Which brings us to perhaps the biggest reason (besides free advertising for Austin) that the image persists: Kurt Cobain. “I have kids in their 20s that know Kurt more than they know about Daniel,” Riedie says. He got one of his younger kids a “Hi, How Are You?” shirt during lockdown. When the kid went back to school, he was surprised he wasn’t the only one who was wearing it. You know, as some of the other kids said, “that shirt Kurt Cobain wore.” It’s not necessarily because of Johnston’s music, or art, but because of the endorsement of his art by someone whose work persists on a mass scale, that the wall is sticking around.
In April, Cobain had been dead for 29 years; in September, the Hi, How Are You album turns 40. And in mid-May of 2023, the same week that Nirvana’s 2002 self-titled greatest hits album reentered the Billboard Top 200, U.S. News and World Report published its newest annual report of best cities in which to live. In 2019, it ranked Austin No. 1 for the third time. Today, it is ranked No. 40, noting that “home prices in Austin have risen sharply in recent months, however. Austin offers a lower value than similarly-sized metro areas when comparing housing costs with median household income.”
Flashback to that 1984 episode of The Cutting Edge. At one point the show contains the phrase, “They say that 90 people a day move to Austin. The signs of growth are everywhere. Changes are not always welcome, however.” This was 38 years ago. The times, they are not, in fact, a-changin’.
Yet the frog remains.