The History Behind "Keep Austin Weird"

How the iconic phrase became the slogan of Texas' capital city.

Austin TX Mural
Photo: Magalie L'AbbT/Getty Images

Today, "Keep Austin Weird" is as synonymous Texas capital as Willie Nelson and breakfast tacos. But as recently as 20 years ago, that phrase didn't exist. According to CultureMap Austin, it was a phone call from an Austin Community College librarian to a local radio station that launched a thousand souvenirs.

In 2000, Red Wassenich called KOOP's The Lounge Show to make a donation. When they asked him why he was donating, the Austin native reportedly replied: "because it keeps Austin weird." It was then that something in his mind "clicked." Afterwards Wassenich told his wife about it, and they decided to make bumper stickers.

It soon became a slogan for Austin's off-kilter elements, and businesses began using it to encourage people to shop local. But it wasn't until 2003, when the presidents of BookPeople and Waterloo Records used it to fight against a big box store opening in their neighborhood, that the phrase really took off. They created their own "Keep Austin Weird" bumper stickers but with an additional tagline: "Support Local Businesses." To date, they've distributed roughly 400,000.

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Nearly two decades later, "Keep Austin Weird" lives on, but some worry that the quirky Texas city has lost some of its weirdness due to commercialization and high-rise condos.

"I think it's slipping a bit, but I think it can be revitalized," Waterloo Records President John Kunz told KVUE.

BookPeople CEO Elizabeth Jordan thinks Austin's diminishing weirdness is the result of affordability. "It's not easy to live here for people who help make it weird," she told KVUE. "I really do think that keeping Austin weird is about making sure that the small and local independent businesses thrive because that's where Austin's character comes from."

As for Wassenich, he told CultureMap that he's not worried about his beloved city. "A lot of the populace has an open attitude toward life and is friendly—that's still true I think," he said. "It ain't as funky as it used to be, but neither am I."

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