If you’ve lived in San Antonio for any length of time, there’s a good chance you’ve attempted to explain the overarching concept of Fiesta to an out-of-towner. It’s no easy task. From the bizarre flower-pelting ceremony of 1891 that evolved into the Battle of Flowers Parade to the outrageous lampoonery of Cornyation, from the cascarones to the bedazzled chanclas, from the Coronation of the Queen of the Order of the Alamo to chicken on a stick, it’s an odd nut to crack without a certain level of Fiesta expertise. Oftentimes, especially for those who don’t want to dive too deeply into a discussion, Fiesta gets likened to a much older New Orleans tradition — Mardi Gras. Although the two celebrations are wildly different, there are parallels to be found in the peacocking, pageantry, partying and parades. And while they’ve got their Mardi Gras beads, we’ve got our Fiesta medals.
Formed as a social group in 1926 and now operating as a charitable organization that supports local youth and honors the so-called “Alamo heroes,” the Texas Cavaliers are credited with developing the template for collectible Fiesta medals back in 1946, when their elected King Antonio XXIV Perry Shankle distributed commemorative coins at parades and other events. Although medals were created for Fiesta royalty and officials to wear over the years, they didn’t become publicly available accessories until 1971, when King Antonio XLIX Charles G. Orsinger took his coins to the next level by punching holes in them and threading them with colorful ribbons. In the following decades, an increasing number of organizations began riffing on the King Antonio medal and the trend officially blew up in the 1990s.
Now inseparable from Fiesta as we know it, medals get traded, gifted and sold throughout the season, representing a vast assortment of organizations, businesses, individuals and events. Some generate deserved buzz and sell like hotcakes until they’re all gone — such as attorney Rosie Gonzalez’s lotería-inspired medal depicting President Donald Trump as “El Pendejo.” While many benefit area charities, some are promotional in nature and others are nothing more than conversation pieces in the vein of costume jewelry. As they’re often worn in great quantities on jackets, shirts and sashes, the very sound of Fiesta medals clanging together is embedded in the social fabric of San Antonio.
An Austin native who relocated to San Antonio after an extended stint in New Orleans and runs the graphic design company King William Design, artist Will Templin has developed a keen understanding of the Fiesta medal biz over the last few years. In 2015, while working as a graphic designer for Cornyation, he was tasked by ringleader Ray Chavez to create a Fiesta medal commemorating the raunchy spectacle’s 50th anniversary. Rather than drawing creative inspiration from the comedic or vulgar aspects of the Fiesta fan favorite, Templin went in a sophisticated, almost regal direction. “I looked at all these nautical pieces and that’s what I used as a template. I also thought of the Northern Star,” Templin told the Current. Nodding to Cornyation’s theatricality and perseverance with a banner reading “The Show Must Go On,” the design hearkens to the militaristic look of early Fiesta medals but also references the golden anniversary with the Roman numeral “L” inside of a red heart and containing the word “love.” A reverent design for a decidedly irreverent event that benefits local AIDS charities, that initial medal exemplifies Templin’s fashionable aesthetic as well as his ability to put unexpected spins on traditional concepts and ideas.
Building on that initial commission, Templin launched his upstart Alamo Medals that same year. Entering a niche playing field dominated by Monarch Trophy Studio (which is billed as “the largest awards store in Texas and one of the largest in the U.S.”) and other similar but smaller operations that offer a broad range of services, Alamo Medals echoes its name as a one-stop shop with a laser-sharp focus. “We do not engrave dog bowls,” Templin said with a playful jab at the competition. Aiming to stand out as “San Antonio’s premiere manufacturer of luxury Fiesta medals,” his homegrown outfit has amassed more than 6,000 Facebook followers and emerged as a go-to for folks who want personalized service and a finished product that goes beyond the expected. The fact that he charges a bit more than other outlets in town hasn’t kept him from building a solid, fairly artsy client list that includes FL!GHT Gallery, the Classic Theatre of San Antonio, NIOSA, Luminaria, Trinity University Press and a diverse array of individuals.
Among those individuals is local realtor, fitness instructor and King William fixture John Barrera. “For many years, I went to Monarch,” Barrera told the Current over the phone. “Then Will stepped into the picture. I had heard about him through friends. He sold himself — and I was impressed.” Although the medals Barrera typically commissions are designed to promote his real estate business, he opted to venture in a more personal direction this year. “I used to have four dogs and now I’m down to one,” Barrera said. “So I thought about putting my dog on the medal with a crown. But I’ve also been on a hiatus from dating. I’ve been single for 10 years and I’ve been thinking about personal goals and am opening myself up to dating again. So 2019 is going to be my ‘Year of Love.’”
After the pair tinkered with both of these concepts, Templin zeroed in on the “Year of Love,” representing Barrera with a crown-topped head peeking out above a cape opening up into a heart shape inlaid with intricate patterns. The Templin twist in this case is a kitschy, zebra-printed ribbon. “[When I saw it], I said ‘Oh my gosh. This couldn’t be more perfect.’ The zebra ribbon, everything was all him,” Barrera said. “I even teared up a little bit and told him, ‘You hit the nail on the head.’ I never would’ve thought of putting a zebra ribbon on a medal. But it really goes well together.”
Whether or not he’s working with that level of creative freedom, Templin works closely with clients on all the variables — from the shape and paint colors to rhinestones and glitter. Evidenced by Barrera’s zebra-striped surprise, the ribbon itself opens up another world of possibilities, as they can be silk-screened, computer printed or woven in traditional striped patterns (silver and gold metallic striping recently became a reality). Despite the seemingly endless possibilities, Templin admits that there are limitations, due in part to the relatively small size of the medals. “Organic things are hard,” he said. “Like portraits — those are difficult.” Once a design is approved and finalized, he sends a digital prototype to an overseas fabricator. Acknowledging the conundrum that the overwhelming majority of these hyperlocal keepsakes are produced in Asia and shipped back to eagerly awaiting customers in San Antonio, Templin lamented, “I wish we could say we have this really nice warehouse on the West Side.”
From start to finish, the entire production process typically takes about five weeks, but Templin encourages clients to err on the side of caution. “If people really need Fiesta medals they need to order them in the fall,” he said. “The general price is about $800 for 250 medals, and that’s a good-sized medal, and that includes design. The price drops down at 500. It’s like anything — business cards, stickers, anything that’s mass-produced.”
Templin estimates he designed 130 Fiesta medals this year, but not all were for clients. In fact, some of his most elaborate and unique designs are essentially Alamo Medals promos — including a rhinestone-encrusted “Y’all” that dangles from a metallic gold-striped ribbon, a popular “La Luna” that borrows from the visual vocabulary of lotería and a bejeweled creation that reads “San Antonio Forever.” Curiously, his promotional designs are devoid of branding save for an Alamo Medals stamp on the back. When asked about his favorites and greatest hits, Templin cites some bigwigs: “The NIOSA medals are really nice. They have a locket which opens up and has a heart inside of it … The [San Antonio] Missions medal is the one that has the most resonance with people. They sell out in about three days. This is the third year [I’ve designed their Fiesta medal].”
Distinguished by a slightly mischievous sense of humor, Templin’s equally proud of some of the edgier designs in his portfolio. Designed by local artist Chris Sauter, one of Alamo Medals’ most provocative offerings depicts a large, red-eyed fly perched atop a glittery brown puddle, uttering the word “shit” via voice bubble. Upon closer inspection, the design reveals the word “lies” scrawled along the edge. “It’s both subtle and not subtle,” Sauter said. Referencing the constant “stream of shit” that squirts out of our president’s mouth, the medal was created as a companion piece to a 2018 Cornyation skit Sauter designed involving a pig-faced Trump (presented as the “Lord of the Lies”), flying turds and a big, stinking pile of poo that enveloped the stage. “If I hadn’t thrown all the costumes and props away, I’d be doing it again this year,” Sauter said with a chuckle. Slightly less political, Templin’s own design of a lotería-style mermaid — complete with a swinging tail and fish scales printed on the ribbon — also ranks high on his list, partly because her bare breasts are apparently realistic enough to trigger Facebook’s censors. “Facebook won’t allow me to share them,” he said with an animated sense of pride.
When it comes to how and why Fiesta medals get distributed, Templin says that while many of the companies he works with sell them and donate proceeds to charities, it’s rarely a lucrative endeavor.
“If they sell them to people and they only make like $5 [per medal], that doesn’t really cover much. It’s like an artist covering their oil paints and canvas … My experience with it is: If you sell them, you’re basically breaking even.” Although he does sell online and at events (such as the Alamo Fiesta Medals Market on April 10), Templin frequently gives medals away and likens the exchange to gifting someone “a little piece of art.”
“It’s become a huge marketing piece for companies,” he said. “I look at it as a much bigger thing than that. It’s a way that people give to other people, in spirit. It’s a great gesture. I always equate it to buying somebody a beer, giving them a Fiesta medal.”
The Alamo Medals Fiesta Market
Free, 5-10pm Wed, Apr. 10, Brick at Blue Star, (210) 262-8653, alamomedals.com
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