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Jim Franklin, artist behind Austin's iconic armadillo posters, celebrates his 80th birthday

Austin artist Jim Franklin, who made the armadillo a symbol of psychedelic music in Texas, exits his South Austin home. Franklin turns 80 today.
Nathan Bernier
/
KUT
Austin artist Jim Franklin, who made the armadillo a symbol of psychedelic music in Texas, exits his South Austin home. Franklin turns 80 today.

Jim Franklin, an acclaimed Austin artist known for making the armadillo an emblem of underground music, is celebrating his 80th birthday. As a prolific creator of posters for local rock shows, Franklin helped define the look of the city's countercultural movement in the 1960s and 1970s.

Franklin is perhaps best known for his work at Armadillo World Headquarters, a rock venue whose decade-long run ended in 1980 but left an indelible mark on the city's music history.

"There's no way you can overstate his importance, the influence he's had on other artists," said Leea Mechling, director of the Austin Museum of Popular Culture and a former Armadillo World Headquarters employee. "His body of work as a graphic artist for music posters, I believe, is still not surpassed."

A 1970s poster by Franklin advertising the grand opening of the Armadillo World Headquarters.
Jim Franklin
/
Concertposterauction.com
A 1970s poster by Franklin advertising the grand opening of the Armadillo World Headquarters.

Franklin's influence extends to many successful poster artists in Austin.

Mishak Westell, who's made posters for Patti Smith, Jack White and Neil Young, among others, said Franklin inspired her to be more adventurous.

"He really pushed the boat out with hand-drawn lettering and had a fantastic imagination," Westell said. "Hand drawing posters, though it takes a lot longer, always looks better and more infused with the personality of the artist."

Billy Perkins, a poster artist with credits including Metallica, Slayer, Foo Fighters and ZZ Top, also credited Franklin with having a profound impact.

"I looked at everything he did," Perkins said. "It was just a cool, funky vibe he created that probably influenced me in the biggest way by helping me want to move to Austin as soon as I could."

Paint brushes in Franklin's South Austin home
Nathan Bernier
/
KUT
Paint brushes in Franklin's South Austin home

Decades later, Franklin is still making art for clients, living in a cramped one-room apartment in South Austin. But as his 80th birthday approaches, he's struggling with financial and health issues.

"They all thought Franklin was taken care of. They all thought I had it covered. What? I'm broke," he said, sitting at his desk on a white plastic patio chair. "Every month, I'm f***ing broke."

The legendary artist suffers from balance issues and relies on a walker, a device he jokingly calls his "Jerry Jeff," a reference to outlaw country music icon Jerry Jeff Walker.

"I am still alive, I'm still active," he said. "I'm tired of being in this cramped living room and in back of a house."

Texas made

Franklin was born on Galveston Island on Dec. 28, 1943. He grew up in La Marque, a city 4 miles north of the island. His father and stepmother ran a store called Curtis Five and Dime. His older sister, Franklin said, was best friends with their classmate, future U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison.

No one in his family was an artist. But Franklin's love of art started early after it got him out of trouble in the first grade.

It was a Friday afternoon, he said, and as a young boy, he lost his notebook for writing exercises.

"I was terrified of what was going to happen, what I had to confess to losing it," he said. The thoughts swirled in his mind all weekend.

That Sunday, his parents took him on a pony ride. He was awestruck by the horse's massive muscles.

"I'm just totally electrified by this experience," Franklin remembered.

The next day, before he was to confess to losing his notebook, Franklin's teacher handed out paper and crayons and told students to draw whatever they wanted. Franklin drew the pony.

"It wasn't a kid's drawing of a horse. It was an observed anatomical, real art drawing," he said. The contour of the pony's muscles were so simple that "it was easy to draw and make it real."

The teacher was blown away. She told him to keep drawing and skip the notebook period.

"So I didn't have to confess it. Art saved my ass right there in my first attempt," Franklin said.

Moving to Austin

After finishing high school, studying art in San Fransisco and then moving to New York City for a year, Franklin found himself back in Galveston. Studio space was cheaper.

"This [studio] in Brooklyn was $150 a month, and the ones in Galveston were like $40 a month," he said.

One weekend, Franklin was hanging out at a favorite coffee shop when five guys from Austin showed up. One of them, Travis Rivers — a friend of Janis Joplin — got up on stage and improvised a poem. Franklin loved poetry.

"I went, 'Goddamn, these are my guys!'" he said.

They quickly became friends. Franklin had been planning to go back to New York City. His new friends convinced him to go to Austin to look for rides to New York on bulletin boards, which served as a sort of Craigslist or Facebook Marketplace before the internet.

Franklin went with them back to Austin. He slept on Rivers' couch for a month. He liked the city and decided to stay.

Jim Franklin in 1971 wearing a shirt featuring artwork he designed.
Austin Museum of Popular Culture
Jim Franklin in 1971 wearing a shirt featuring artwork he designed.

In Austin, Franklin immersed himself in the burgeoning music and art scene. He became friends with musicians who played shows but didn't have the posters to promote them.

Franklin had promised himself never to do commercial art. His Galveston friend, "the best painter ever," had a job doing layouts at an insurance company magazine and eventually stopped painting. "It's almost like he died in front of me," Franklin said.

But Franklin bent his rule to help musicians he'd met.

"I rationalized these music posters because it's my art for the art of music. That's not commercial art. That kind of kept it clean," he said with a chuckle.

His initial work eventually led to a job at Vulcan Gas Company, an early psychedelic rock venue that opened on Congress Avenue in 1967. Vulcan art director Gilbert Shelton, creator of the Furry Freak Brothers comics, left for San Fransisco. Franklin took over as art director.

Armadillo origins

Satirical illustrations of the armadillo had already begun appearing in the UT student magazine the Texas Ranger in the early 1960s. But more than any other artist, Franklin made the underground mammal a symbol of psychedelic music in Texas.

"While he did not invent it or start it, he certainly took it to another level and made it be associated with music," Mechling said.

Franklin's first illustration of an armadillo was in 1968. The poster for a concert at Wooldridge Park showed the critter smoking a joint with some rolling papers and a matchbox of pot on the ground.

 Jim Franklin says this 1968 show poster was his first illustration depicting an armadillo.
Jim Franklin
/
Austin Museum of Popular Culture
Jim Franklin says this 1968 show poster was his first illustration depicting an armadillo.

"That, overnight, became a mascot for the Texas hipsters. It was amazing, the response I got from that," he said.

Two years later, Armadillo World Headquarters would open, the name inspired by Franklin's art.

He hated the name.

"The first question I ever got about armadillos was, 'How old are they? Are they prehistoric?' I got that frequently and I wanted to name the place so the acronym would be AGE. Armadillo Groove Emporium, ah! natural," he said.

"They named it Armadillo World Headquarters, AWHQ. How do you pronounce that?!" he asked rhetorically before making an attempt that sounded like he was trying to clear his throat.

"It was always kind of a catch in my craw," he said.

Birthday bash

This 1969 piece entitled "Cross Breeding" depicts an armadillo copulating with the dome of the Texas State Capitol.
Jim Franklin
/
Austin Museum of Popular Culture
This 1969 piece entitled "Cross Breeding" depicts an armadillo copulating with the dome of the Texas State Capitol.

An 80th birthday party is planned for Franklin on Saturday at Sagebrush on Congress Avenue. The event runs from 1 to 6 p.m. and will have musical performances. Entry is by donation and proceeds will benefit the South Austin Museum of Popular Culture.

The psychedelic rock band Neon Lemon is headlining. Franklin will join them on stage as a singer.

The Austin artist's challenges are a reminder of the often precarious nature of a life dedicated to art. But he still sees his best years ahead.

"I just feel like my time for art is still yet to be," he said.

Copyright 2023 KUT News. To see more, visit KUT News.

Nathan Bernier