Facebook Instagram Twitter X YouTube LinkedIn RSS

Alex Arzú’s New CHAT Mural Sparks Connection in Houston

By Becky Brown

Middle school children sit on a lawn drawing in sketchbooks while watching a man paint a large colorful mural on an outdoor wall in the distance.

Art is the universal language. It bridges divides and provides a way for people to connect.

Visual artist Alex Arzú appreciates this power. He’s seen it firsthand with his murals around Houston. And it’s why he was excited to create a mural with Culture of Health-Advancing Together (CHAT), a program of the Mid-America Arts Alliance.

“CHAT helps immigrants, in particular refugees, assimilate to American society,” Alex says. “It really touched me in the sense that through art, I could always see that you don’t need language to connect with a person.”

Dr. Aisha Siddiqui, the director of CHAT, invited Alex, once again, to do a project that dealt with mental health. He led workshops at Sugar Grove Academy Middle School in Houston and then created a mural with the students.

“I went in without expectation,’ Alex says. “I really wanted my idea for this piece to come from the students or be inspired by their school, to understand the culture of Sugar Grove Academy.”

Almost all students at the school are minorities and economically disadvantaged. Art and emotional well-being may not be discussed much in their homes. But Alex talked about his own mental health experiences and the power of making art.

“I shared with the students the process of art and how it’s created and also how the mural process works,” he says. “We talked about creative experiences and how tangible that can be in the moment. Being able to access that happiness was my goal. I’m not a mental health expert . . . but I do have experience giving myself simple gratification by drawing.”


Art doesn’t require fancy supplies. Sometimes, all it takes is a pencil and a piece of paper.

Man stands smiling at the camera with blue gloves on in front of a mural as middle school children look at it behind him.

Artist Alex Arzú with students, who collaborated on the mural, Growth Through Connection, at Sugar Grove Academy Middle School in Houston. Photography by Ana Camila Storer-Chinea.

Alex harnessed the power of art from an early age. The child of immigrants, he is Garífuna. They are an Indigenous Black people from the Caribbean. And growing up, that’s all Alex knew about his heritage.

“The mystery of myself was the reason why I started being a creator,” he says. “I didn’t know where I came from, so I just wanted to create whatever it is that I wanted.”

It’s a freedom that he encourages students to embrace, no matter their medium of choice.

“If it’s something you create, it’s art,” Alex says. “That expression gives somebody something.”

After the workshops with students, Alex designed and created a mural at the school. Growth Through Connection features kids in a three-way high-five. He also included a blue heron, a bird native to the Houston area.

“With all the things we Houstonians have been through, I always notice the blue heron is always out there, doing it’s own thing, being so calm,” Alex says. “It’s a thing we should focus on in times of turmoil.”

Although the entire project spanned just two weeks, the mural didn’t pop up overnight. Students, teachers, and staff watched the progression. At one point, the entire playground cheered as Alex worked. He also interacted with staff members despite a language barrier.


But with art, there is no barrier. Just a beginning.

“I think that it’s a way to engage in any kind of topics—social topics, community topics—and surround it with something that can beautify but also just bring the conversation to the fore,” Alex says. “That’s what art does. Somebody comes to it, they look at it, they express an opinion whether it’s good or bad. Then it can start a conversation. I think that’s one of the most beautiful things about art. Using art, especially through murals, in areas where people don’t normally have access to it, you’re already sparking something.”

Even though he was drawn to art at a young age, it took a while for Alex to come to these realizations.

“I remember thinking, ‘Why does anyone need this? I might be good at it, but why does anybody need it?’” he says. “I used to be the type of artist where I would draw and I’d put it under my bed and nobody ever saw my work. Then one of my friends was like, ‘Man, you’ve got to show people this.’”

Alex continues to create murals, paintings, tattoos, and augmented reality experiences. He’s also starting a nonprofit focused on art and technology in schools. An architect by training, he uses that technology in his work and finds artificial intelligence, coding, art, and even gaming to all be connected. The tools are exciting and low cost, and students shouldn’t be intimidated.

“It’s a learning process always,” Alex says. “I feel like I’m always learning and I want to share that.” 


Mural artist on a large orange lift beginning to paint a mural.

Alex Arzú up on a lift starting the mural at Sugar Grove Academy Middle School. Photography by Ana Camila Storer-Chinea.

About the Gulfton Story Trail

The Gulfton Story Trail is a series of 18 large murals which feature the richness of the Gulfton neighborhood in southwest Houston. Created by some of Houston’s most talented street artists, the murals reflect the neighborhood’s many cultures and voices. Visitors may access a self-guided map here.

The first 12 murals were part of a pilot program, ‘Visit My Neighborhood,’ embarked under Mayor Sylvester Turner’s Complete Communities Initiative, which was launched in 2018.

Additional funding was received by the Houston Health Department; by a grant from LISC Houston, a local office of the Local Initiatives Support Corporation, the nation’s largest community development support organization; Houston in Action; and, Hogg Foundation through Asian American Attaining Awareness (AAAA). These murals were also funded in part by the City of Houston through Houston Arts Alliance.


You’re invited!
See Alex Arzú’s new mural at the CHAT ribbon-cutting event on Thursday, May 9, 2024, 9:00 a.m.

The event is free and open to the public.
Location: Sugar Grove Academy Middle School, 8405 Bonhomme Rd., Houston, Texas, 77074
RSVP here.


Learn more about Alex Arzú here.


Header photography: Alex Arzú working on his new mural for CHAT, Growth Through Connection. Photography by Ana Camila Storer-Chinea.