AUSTIN (KXAN) — You’ve seen it on bumper car stickers and t-shirts, and maybe even mentioned out loud. But how did the slogan “Keep Austin Weird” come to be?
The phrase dates back to Red Wassenich, an Austin Community College librarian who mentioned the phrase back in 2000 while calling in a donation to KOOP Radio, per Austin History Center archives. The weekly “The Lounge Show” would play “offbeat music,” the inspiration behind Wassenich’s contributions, according to a 2002 New York Times interview.
“Whoever answered the phone said, ‘Why did you support the show?'” Wassenich said during his NYT interview. “I said, ‘I don’t know. It helps keep Austin weird.'”
What emerged since was a cultural adoption of the phrase by fellow Austin residents and businesses. Wassenich began printing the slogan onto bumper stickers, while BookPeople and Waterloo Records “used the phrase to successfully fight the construction of a big book bookstore” nearby, per historic documents.
“Wassenich never intended the phrase to be used for marketing, rather he meant to spread the ‘serious’ and ‘unmaterialistic’ sentiment that distinguished Austin from other cities for so long,” Austin History Center documents read in part.
BookPeople owner Steve Bercu and Waterloo Records owner John Kunz printed 5,000 bumper stickers to help encourage residents to stick with their businesses, per a 2016 Slate article. As a result of community rallying, a Borders bookstore never came to fruition in downtown Austin.
“WEIRD resonated really well here,” Bercu told Slate in 2016. “The point was to support local businesses. Everyone got it immediately.”
Bercu added his business sold hundreds of thousands of bumper stickers in the years since.
And the “weirdness” Austin locals adopted had since spread to other communities nationwide. At least three other cities — Portland in 2003, Louisville in 2005 and Indianapolis in 2013 — have adopted their own iterations of the “Keep XX Weird” phrase.
The status of Austin’s weirdness has been debated in years since, as the city’s population has soared and beloved, locally owned businesses have since closed.
Regardless of where you stand on Austin’s weirdness level, institutions like the Cathedral of Junk, HOPE Outdoor gallery, the city’s live music and artist scenes as well as Austin icons like Leslie Cochran helped established its stance as an eclectic city through the early 2000s.