Rob McElwain has a system.
He scours his neighborhood for materials, delivers them home, paints, and finally, he protests. On most weekdays, the tall, lanky 61-year-old — in jeans, his hair sun-bleached white and pulled back into a ponytail — stands on First Avenue in front of the Wells Fargo Building in the middle of downtown Phoenix. He is quiet, holding large cardboard signs, engaging the pedestrians who stop for a moment to read his messages or snap a photo for themselves.
His signs are always about Joe Arpaio, the six-term sheriff of Maricopa County. The self-pronounced “America’s Toughest Sheriff,” is a man who needs no introduction and certainly no more publicity, but here is McElwain standing out there with his signs almost every day for the last six years. Two years ago, Arpaio packed up and moved south, to new offices on a less-traveled street. McElwain stayed here; he calls it his free-speech corner.
If you stop and ask him about one of his signs, he’ll give you a comprehensive history lesson about Arpaio — everything from his background as a DEA agent to the details of the current federal court case against him — before he asks a curious passerby to have a photo taken with his or her favorite sign. Then McElwain asks that person to share their opinion of Arpaio on the protest artist’s modest Facebook page (the latest count shows 490 friends). A photo from April 11 shows one of McElwain’s recent signs: Arpaio in a sombrero, playing the guitar, singing, “I’m proud to be a dopie from Marikopee” (a tribute to the late Merle Haggard).
At the moment, McElwain is recovering from knee-replacement surgery — all these years of sign-making and protesting have taken their toll — but typically, after protesting, he simply goes back to making more signs. He roams alleys and industrial parks to search for his cardboard canvases. A shop called Bike Barn is his preferred source, as one bike box can serve for two large signs or one giant image of The Last Supper, starring Arpaio.
A retired geologist, McElwain is not rich, but whenever he has a little extra spending money, he swings by Home Depot to purchase small tins of paint. Sold at a deep discount, these are the shades that didn’t quite work for the customer before him, but for McElwain, the more garish the colors, the better. He also purchases paint brushes, which he uses “to the bitter end.”
Six years ago, the Arizona Legislature passed and then-Governor Jan Brewer signed SB1070, a law that encouraged racial profiling and put Arpaio center stage for his enthusiastic support and implementation of the measure. Rob McElwain joined the then-active protest movement of marchers, picketers, and sign painters. Over time, the number of protesters standing in front of Arpaio’s offices dwindled, some days to one. It’s been that way for years now.
“I didn’t even doodle,” McElwain says of his beginnings as a protest artist. “I have a thoughtful and creative mind. I’ve always had that, but as far as art, no. It’s surprised me as much as anybody. … It’s out of necessity, though. I have to do it now because I have to keep producing something.”
Laughing, he adds, “I guess I’m just not made for the normality of things, and I’ve found my little niche and this is it.”
For Rob McElwain — for all of Maricopa County, really — Joe Arpaio is the new normal, or rather, not so new, as the sheriff’s been in office since 1993.
Make no mistake: No one wants Arpaio out of office more than McElwain. He talks about it constantly, and has predicted the sheriff’s demise more than once. But one can’t help but wonder what he’ll do when Arpaio is no longer in office.
Some day, Joe Arpaio will be gone.
That much is certain. His exit from office could be kickstarted by Murray Snow, a federal judge who has ruled that Arpaio and his massive sheriff’s department engaged in racial profiling of Latino drivers. The judge ordered reforms and assigned a court monitor to the sheriff’s office, who reported more than once that Arpaio and his staff weren’t always following Snow’s orders. Court observers, including McElwain, are waiting to see whether Snow will slap Arpaio and some of his staffers with a contempt ruling. This could lead to Arpaio’s defeat in August’s Republican primary election, or in the general in November.
Another possibility is that he could retire. Or — and this part is a little awkward, and given his history may be the most-likely scenario — the 83-year-old sheriff could die in office.
When he goes, Arpaio will leave behind a legacy: a reputation as a man who fed his inmates green bologna and forced them to wear pink boxer shorts, who built a literal tent city on one of the hottest spots on the planet and showed it off to the world. And then, when the opportunity struck, he engaged in a level of racial profiling that was unlike anything Arizona had seen in recent times.
Depending on one’s politics, that’s either morally reprehensible or a qualification to hold office. For the Maricopa County voters who’ve pretty handily re-elected Arpaio (even his closest race wasn’t so close) every time, it’s most definitely the latter.
Either way, the results have been the subject of a lot of journalism, including a documentary film, Two Americans, by Valeria Fernandez and Daniel DeVivo. Fernandez says some of Arpaio’s actions have unintended consequences that will go on long after he’s gone.
“He also leaves a legacy of bringing people together,” she says. “He united the Latino community in an incredible way; he was the reason that a lot of people were getting registered to vote. I mean, he embodied a lot of things that are broken with the immigration system in the country. He’s just one sheriff in one state, and the reason why the people have to come here illegally and the reason why they can’t adjust their [immigration] status are much more complex, [but] what he did, he gave a face and allowed [people] to pinpoint a lot of the things that were broken about the immigration system.”
And he’s provided a face that’s ripe for lampooning. But Rob McElwain isn’t just a comedian. He’s become a self-appointed street psychologist of sorts.
“Hundreds of people walk by every day, head down, straight ahead, not looking left or right to see these signs,” he says. “A lot of the people who are hurt and affected by him are the ones that pay attention; they come up and say something to me, and then we have a talk. We might talk for 10 to 15 minutes. I get to know them; they come back.
“I can’t always remember what their story is, but they’re very frank once they begin to let me know what they experienced with Joe Arpaio. The pain, the injustices, the legal system: It’s a never-ending source of new things to understand and look at.”
New Times has reported that the sheriff’s actions have cost Maricopa County taxpayers more than $250 million in settlements, court judgments and other costly misdeeds over the last 23 years. They’ve also resulted in a pretty amazing body of artistic work, in the form of everything from doodles on letters sent from bored inmates to dozens of illustrated New Times covers to an entire exhibit, dubbed “The Joe Show,” curated by long-time New Times contributor Robrt Pela.
Not all protest art associated with immigration has focused only on the sheriff, though.
There’s Calle 16, a whole neighborhood full of murals that line 16th Street between Thomas and McDowell roads, loosely organized by Silvana Salcido Esparza, a chef and activist who encouraged Latino artists to pick up spray cans in the wake of SB1070.
In October 2015, performance artist Ana Teresa Fernandez — born in Mexico, she now lives in California — came to Arizona through a program called Performance in the Borderlands to paint the Nogales, Sonora, portion of the U.S.-Mexico border wall sky blue as seen from Mexico. In essence, she erased the fence.
Further east on the border at nearly the same time, the art collective Postcommodity created an installation piece called Repellent Fence or Valla Repelente in between Agua Prieta, Sonora, and Douglas, Arizona. The temporary art installation included two lines of 26 tethered yellow balloons floating 50 feet in the air and spanning two miles. At the center of each sphere was an eye shape composed of red, blue, black, and white circles, reminiscent of the scare-eye balloons used to deter birds.
And then there’s the Arpaio protest art.
One weekday in April 2015, outside the federal courthouse, a slim man in blue jeans sat atop a toilet, wearing on his head an oversized paper-mache likeness of Arpaio’s head. At a passerby’s request, “Arpaio,” played by protester Jorge Mendez, would stand and drop his pants, then resume his position of The Thinker on the toilet.
More sophisticated, Puente Ink is an all-volunteer co-operative that focuses on printmaking, also called serigraphy. Orlando Arenas and others invite community members affected by SB1070 and other contentious acts to make posters expressing their frustration while utilizing Arpaio’s image in their materials as a representation of larger issues like racial profiling; they include images of members of the Puente community to show the human side of those affected by the state’s and Arpaio’s policies.
“Art has always been a part of a social movement,” says Arenas. “We started with paint.”
Local activist Salvador Reza has offered Rob McElwain a spot in his backyard for years; the artist has made hundreds of signs there. Reza observes that prisoner abuse and immigration rights have long been issues, but Arpaio has provided a much-needed focal point for protesters.
“Arpaio was a way to bring attention to the racist laws in Arizona,” Reza says. “Arpaio is a piñata, so that people can come to the party. Without Arpaio, it is very hard to focus attention on the racism, discrimination, and police brutality and all of that in our state.”
On a typical day of sign painting, McElwain is on the ground, reclining on his cardboard canvas. He keeps the paintbrush in his right hand and uses his left arm to support himself. He carefully fills in the penciled outlines he’s traced out, large bubble letters communicating his message. Below him is an eight-foot-long representation of The Last Supper, with Joe Arpaio at the head and former deputy Ramon “Charlie” Amendariz at his side.
“As I was out there alone, I started needing new material to try and draw a crowd and get people’s attention, so I started making a little bit more thoughtful, creative signs,” he says. Another recent sign stars Donald Trump and Arpaio as Jim Carrey and Jeff Daniels in Dumb and Dumber.
McElwain pulls sign after sign out of storage, the first of which shows a floating likeness of Arpaio’s face on a series of squiggly colorful lines: a strain of Ebola during the 2014 outbreak. There’s Arpaio as Porky Pig, saying, “That’s All, Folks.” Here he is as a Wild West sheriff, dressed in pink boots and underwear, with the message “High Noon for Arpaio.” There’s even a painting of a Facebook status update: “Arpaio Still a Jerk.”
McElwain says he tries to be funny because the situation is so serious.
“From the racism to the inhumanity, you can’t conceive of the pain that people have been put through as a result of Joe Arpaio and the policies that go along with him. I can’t match that; I can’t put dark drama in there, but I can take the sadness of the situation and make fun of it, and Joe Arpaio needs to be lampooned.”
As he organizes his signs from oldest to newest, there’s a progressive shift from a reliance on text to popular-culture references, and a development of a refined brush stroke and use of contrasting colors.
McElwain does occasionally turn his protesting sights on other issues, like immigration rights in general or concerns over Metro Light Rail, but really, Joe Arpaio has become his full-time job.
“When people come up and want to say something nasty to me they say, ‘What are you going to do when Joe Arpaio is gone?’ and I say, that’s a good question.”
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
He doesn’t answer the question himself.
Sal Reza doesn’t think McElwain will be finished when Arpaio is gone.
“I think he’ll keep on taking on the different issues that are coming out. I don’t think he’ll stop,” he says, referring to the protests at the Wells Fargo Building “like a visceral newspaper in the downtown area.
“Arpaio is only a symbol of a system, but the system will still be there, and the system will continue, and so will he.”