Austin, Texas lives up to many of the iconic slogans that people have given it. We're known to some as "Bat City" and to others, "the place young people go to retire." But no phrase captures our city’s character quite like the 18-year-old slogan, "Keep Austin Weird."
Today this phrase lives on our mugs, t-shirts, and street art. But it is more than just an enjoyable statement of pride about our city’s uniqueness. Keep Austin Weird has been the rallying cry of not just one, but several important social movements in Austin’s recent history.
The phrase lives on through the ethos of peculiarity that attracts artists, creatives, innovators, and misfits from across the globe to call Austin their home.
Here’s how the famous Austin slogan got its start:
Austin: A Magnet for Creatives & Innovators
Between the 1970s - 1990s, Austin gained a reputation for being the new launching pad for struggling artists, as well as a hub for technological innovation.
Musicians like Willie Nelson and music festivals like Austin City Limits put Austin’s artistic side on the national map. It became an artist-centered place that wasn’t oversaturated by creatives, as had become the reputation of Nashville. By the early 90s, Austin’s per-capita live music venues had grown so high that the city earned its title as the Live Music Capital of the World.
During the same period, Austin’s tech scene proliferated. Businesses like IBM, Motorola, and Texas Instruments had by then established major offices in Austin and there was a growing pool of local talent beginning to further the research accomplishments and reputation of the University of Texas at Austin. Naturally, local tech businesses were born, including Dell Technologies.
Booming technology resulted in fast industrial growth. The major influx of people and businesses sparked a preservation movement to protect Austin's natural ecosystem from being overtaken by industrial developments. Activists fought hard to keep developers from disrupting places like Barton Springs.
From the perspective of many local creatives, expanding infrastructure was overshadowing some of the key features that made Austin so ideal for artists.
From the Radio
Red Wassenich, a librarian at Austin Community College since the mid-80s, witnessed some of Austin’s weirdest days. Like others, he was not a fan of some of the expansions happening around the city. It seemed a new culture of high-tech and luxury were seeping in to overshadow the characteristics that made Austin so… weird.
In 2000, Mr. Wassenich called to make a donation to a local weekly radio show, The Lounge. The station employee who received his call asked Mr. Wassenich why he’d made his donation.
“I don’t know. It helps keep Austin weird,” he answered.
Mr. Wassenich's own response caught his attention. With the help of his wife, Mr. Wassenich decided to do something with the phrase. The couple printed bumper stickers that they sold at an intentional loss. To make a profit from his idea, in Mr. Wassenich’s mind, would be an affront to the cause he was inspired to create. They would create a movement that couldn’t be mistaken for a money-making scheme.
The new saying caught on and started becoming a common phrase--and eventually a slogan--for Austin, Texas.
The contagiousness didn’t stop in Texas. Three years after Mr. Wassenich’s radio donation, the phrase was brought to Portland by Terry Currier, a Portland-local record store owner. Eventually, Keep Portland Weird also became an iconic saying pasted on the back of many Oregon cars.
Keep it Weird, Keep it Local
In 2003, the same year that Mr. Currier took Keep Portland Weird to Oregon, a controversial business move was imminent in Austin. National bookstore chain, Borders, planned to open a location in Central Austin, across the street from one of Austin’s most famous local bookstores, BookPeople.
The controversy concerned huge financial incentives the local government had offered Borders Group to move to the area. BookPeople and many other indie-businesses thought it was unfair that a national chain was being offered millions of dollars in government waivers, despite the fact that Borders would be a direct competitor to local--and even nearby--stores.
Many small businesses and Austin residents came together against the government's decision. During the mix, Keep Austin Weird evolved into a rallying cry that encouraged the local government to side with locally owned businesses.
The phrase stuck. Keep Austin Weird captured the familiar image that tourists and locals already associated with many Austin businesses: they're often artist-owned and craft-driven. They're weird, in the best possible sense.
In the end, Borders eventually announced that it would not move forward with opening its 6th and Lamar location.
Small businesses won.
A City Still Known For Its Art & Tech
Today, Austin is still known for its weirdness.
Through our music festivals, art exhibits, iconic street art and murals, and small local businesses with their unique quirks, Austin remains a magnet attracting those who see the world inherently differently.
From cartoonish cars to bright-colored homes with peculiar front yard decor; from people riding bicycles as tall as trucks to Jaws film viewings from rafts in the water, Austin lives up to the rumors. Keep Austin Weird lives on, encouraging people to be themselves, express their creativity, and stand up for what they believe in.