By Sanford Nowlin | San Antonio Current
After a nudge from a San Antonio musician and label owner, the Velvet Taco restaurant at the former Tacoland site will include memorials to the beloved music venue’s late owner, Ram Ayala, by artists who were regulars there.
Velvet Taco revamped design plans for the Pearl-area eatery after Jeff Smith, owner of S.A.’s SausTex Records, emailed in January and urged the Dallas-based chain to scrap a mural it planned for the site.
While the proposed artwork, designed by Velvet Taco’s architecture firm, was intended as an homage to Ayala, Smith argued in his correspondence that it felt generic—something “peeled straight off a large plastic tortilla chip serving bowl from H-E-B.”
What’s more, he raised concerns that a stylized image of Ayala used in the mural’s mockup borrowed heavily from art by tattoo artist Mig Kokinda, who produced similar-looking posters and postcards of the club owner.
Smith urged Velvet Taco to rethink the mural and compensate Kokinda. The outreach came after Smith received a mockup of the proposed artwork from former Sala Diaz director Anjali Gupta, another Tacoland habitué.
“To be honest, I wasn’t expecting to hear back from (them) after the first email,” Smith told the Current.
‘Good to their word’
Yet he did. And after a series of conversations, Smith convinced Velvet Taco marketing honcho Cassie Cooper to commission new work from Kokinda as well as muralist Robert Tatum, both club regulars. New Orleans tattoo artist Terry Brown, whose bands performed at Tacoland during his days in S.A., is also contributing artwork.
The pieces are likely to be installed by the time the restaurant opens for business March 22, according to Cooper. The eatery will be Velvet Taco’s second in the Alamo City.
Cooper said she appreciated Smith’s “candid feedback,” adding that she and others on her team were swayed to do more research on Tacoland and Ayala, who was murdered—along with doorman Doug “Gypsy Doug” Morgan—during a 2005 robbery attempt.
“The more we did our research, the more we learned,” Cooper said. “We wanted to be very mindful that we were paying respect not just to Tacoland but to Ram.”
Smith said Cooper was transparent during the process and showed an eagerness to respect the history of the site.
“She was very open and said, ‘Wow. I didn’t get all that. We’re going to make it right,'” said Smith, who sings for country-punk band the Hickoids and had a hand in booking the first punk show at Tacoland in the early ’80s. “So far, they’ve been good to their word.”
Art and history
Under the revamp, a mosaic-style portrait of Ayala will be installed on one of the building’s exterior walls. The five-foot-by-seven-foot piece will depict Ayala in his trademark aviator shades—just as he’s appeared on stenciled posters and postcards produced by Kokinda.
The restaurant will also install a Tatum-designed plaque in the style of a historical marker next to the sweeping oak tree on the building’s patio. The marker will include a stylized version of a portrait tattoo artist Brown painted of Ayala.
In addition, the plaque will feature a brief history of the club, its 300-year-old tree, Ayala and Morgan.
“Ram, Gypsy Doug and the building that housed the bar are all gone now, but the tree still stands strong and hopefully will remain so for generations to come as a reminder of what once was and the raw power and beauty of nature,” it reads, in part.
Smith said he’s unsure how much Velvet Taco is spending on the new artwork, but he estimated that it represented an investment of several thousand dollars in commissions and materials. Neither Smith nor Tatum accepted payment for their contributions.
For Smith, Velvet Taco’s willingness to rethink its homage to Ayala stands in sharp contrast to the site’s prior tenant, developer Chris Erck. Erck reopened the bar in 2014 under the moniker Viva Tacoland despite urging from Smith and others not to use the name.
Erck told the Current in 2018 that he wasn’t trying to profit off Ayala’s legacy. “The history of Taco Land was kind of erased,” he said. “Now, there’s at least a conversation about it.”
But that’s certainly how Smith and other Tacoland regulars read his motivations. For many, Erck’s establishment represented the ham-handed gentrification churning through near-downtown neighborhoods.
Ultimately, the argument became moot when Viva Tacoland closed in 2019 following a lengthy rent dispute with the property’s owners, developer David Adelman and “Desperate Housewives” actor Ricardo Chavira.
Smith acknowledged the new artwork may not satisfy everyone with memories of rough-hewn but beloved music venue. But he said it may erase some of the bitterness many feel about what became of the site after Ayala’s death.
“It just felt like we had a chance to kind of put things right this time around,” he said.
This article is republished with permission from the San Antonio Current.
The San Antonio Current, San Antonio’s award-winning alternative media company, has served as the city’s premiere multimedia source of alternative news, events and culture since 1986.