Jeremiah “The Innocent” deserves more recognition

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Photo Credit: Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Painted on the corner of 21st and Guadalupe, a frog mural decorates white brick wall, greeting all that pass by, “Hi, How Are You?” There’s nothing outstanding about technique, nor the muted black-and-white color scheme, that draws pedestrians’ gazes to this mural. But the simple smile — the wild eyes wide with something genuine and friendly — are enough to capture the attention of tourists and locals alike.  

Unlike many of Austin’s other photo-worthy locations, such as the Stevie Ray Vaughan statue or Mount Bonnell, no plaque accompanies this mural. Consequently, no one thinks of the work as more than just another piece of quirky Austin street art. Although we’re quick to take pictures and ask the frog “How are you,” most people don’t really stop to ask “What are you?”

A long history surrounds the street art, and the friendly face is just a fraction of it all. The frog was commissioned in 1993 by the Sound Exchange record store that once operated out of the building. This amicable amphibian’s name is Jeremiah the Innocent, and he is the album art on a record called ‘Hi, How Are You?’ by Texas-based artist and musician Daniel Johnston.

Johnston, similarly to his friend Jeremiah, is mostly unrecognized by name. But his influence on both Austin and national music cultures runs deep. His clunky yet endearing lo-fi recordings inspired artists from Kurt Cobain to the Flaming Lips in their deeply emotional and illustrative songwriting. Johnston is also widely regarded as one of the foremost artists of New Sincerity, an immensely impactful collective of Austin musicians.

Due to various turns of events and mental illnesses (Johnston lives with schizophrenia and manic-depressive disorder), Johnston’s art never saw the big-screen-and-flashing-lights recognition enjoyed by those he later influenced. Knowledge and appreciation for his artistry is now mostly confined to fringe groups and musical sub-cultures.

But everyday, Jeremiah the Innocent sits and waits and smiles at us, and everyday, people admire him and take pictures with him. And everyday, the ‘Hi How Are You?’ mural remains a globally recognized symbol of Austin, Texas.

Johnston deserves a plaque next to Jeremiah to summarize the story of the mural and his music. This iconic piece represents Austin’s unique musical landscape and its importance for artists around the world. If people admire Jeremiah enough to take pictures with him, our community is doing them a disservice by not sharing more about how he came to be.

Sitting on some of the most coveted real estate in Austin today, Jeremiah shoulders many burdens to continue living on Guadalupe Street and has earned the right to recognition. When the mural’s original owners could no longer afford rent and Baja Fresh moved in, it was only the innumerable calls urging management not to paint over Jeremiah that saved the day. In 2013, a woman who felt Jeremiah was insulting her spray-painted obscenities across his face, warranting restoration. These efforts to preserve the mural would be honored by a plaque.

Erecting some sort of informational marker might be legally tricky. The mural only still remains because the businesses that lease out the building respect its history and decide not to paint over it — Jeremiah is not protected by the city or state. Qualifying for certain historical landmark protections would be difficult if not impossible for this mural. But if ever a current business owner collaborated with local government or simply placed a plaque on the wall by themselves, I’m sure Jeremiah would feel more at home in Austin.

Larcher is a Plan II sophomore from Austin, TX.

Editor's note: This article was updated to reflect that the mural was vandalized in 2013, not 2016.