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On the morning of April 23, 2010, Arizona Governor Jan Brewer signed Senate Bill 1070 into law. Later that day, an artist named Nomas threw 10 posters and a few spray cans into his bag, grabbed a bucket of paste, and jumped on his bike.
A few hours later, images of Sheriff Joe Arpaio in a military uniform with a swastika on his forehead and stenciled Hitlers saluting "SB 1070" were pasted and painted on public walls, light poles, and the backs of street signs in downtown Phoenix.
The artist doesn't go by his real name — most of his work is illegal by city standards, and it's usually scratched off or painted over within a couple of days.
"I had this weird feeling," Nomas says from behind dark glasses, sitting at Lux, a Central Phoenix coffee bar. "I had to voice my outrage. It wasn't a choice."
While thousands crowded the downtown streets to march against legislation designed to send undocumented Mexicans home, Nomas' images joined the growing sensory (and often censored) responses to border issues and immigration legislation across the United States.
It's been a year since state Senator Russell Pearce, a Republican from Mesa, put Arizona in the national spotlight with his bill. Much of the anti-immigration law is hung up in court, and it remains to be seen whether some main provisions will ever go into effect. But just a mention of the number "1070" still inspires great emotion — on both sides. Nomas returns sometimes to one of his original pastes on the west side of Central Avenue, just south of Culver Street on a wall next to the Phoenix Trolley Museum. The image is faded and peeled; it's barely recognizable.
"That's one of my favorites," Nomas says. "It's all scratched up, like someone tried to claw it away, which means someone saw it, was angry, and decided to do something about it . . . In a lot of ways, I guess we're doing the same thing."
In the past year, images of Arpaio and Brewer have been pasted on walls, stenciled onto posters, and shaped into piñatas and masks. Artist Jesus Barraza turned an image snapped at a rally by a Phoenix schoolteacher into an iconic poster. And street artist Lalo Cato declared "Invasion!" with his flying-saucer sombreros, spray-painted on a wall at The Hive, a gallery on 16th Street.
It's no secret that when SB 1070 was signed, Arizona's national reputation tanked, business suffered, and our Mexican community was subjected to unfair raids and accusations. But some artists have flourished.
The year welcomed a new wave of protest art in Phoenix. Masked performances by Zarco Guerrero and emotional plays by James E. Garcia took over schools and stages. On the street, Francisco Garcia painted Martin Luther King with "Power to the People" on Grand Avenue. Irma Sanchez hid simple magnets of woven Mexican and American flags and postcards of "La Vida en Arizona" around local coffee shops. Banners were dropped from cranes and rooftops. Shows were hung. A tight-knit group of artists even set out to change the face of an entire street with the colorful Calle 16 mural project.
Arizona reactionary art traveled. Tucson-based poet Logan Phillips brought spoken-word acts about border issues to tiny clubs in Colombia and to large billboards in San Francisco. Posters and illustrations by Arizona artists were featured during CNN broadcasts and in the New York Times.
Local and national artists created pieces used in protests and exhibitions throughout Phoenix. Bragg's Pie Factory hosted a group show curated by Marco Albarran of the Arizona Latin@ Arts and Cultural Center and education group, as well as a solo show by Safwat Saleem. Luis Gutierrez filled the Icehouse with 30-foot banners of an SB 1070-inspired "Last Judgment" and caricatures of Sheriff Joe and Mexican superheroes. The Hive brought in a traveling poster show, and monOrchid is currently featuring the work by Arizona and California artists in a show titled "Save Our States" (S.O.S.). Albarran says he started collecting art as soon as he knew SB 1070 would pass, and even today, his efforts are far from ending.
A single image has not emerged as "the icon" of SB 1070 — but, honestly, it's too early. And though some artists are giving up, others are just getting started.
"This kind of reactionary work is an art form that sticks around," Albarran says. "Eventually, these images will give future generations something to really visualize instead of some book telling them what happened. Hopefully it will help them relate to the time and the peoples' struggle."
Good art has often been a part of bad times.
"If you look at a lot of work about the border, you'll see it morphs into a certain idea of where we are now, and what it is to be American," says Sara Cochran, curator of contemporary art at Phoenix Art Museum. "And protest and reactionary art has always been that way. It juxtaposes different sides of the debate."
She says reactionary art goes back to the French Revolution, when painters became the voice of anyone who wasn't in power and were forced to raise awareness and communicate through paintings.