Tag, You're Art: Local Street Artists Are Tagging Over Murals and Calling It Art
Monsters of Folk was coming to the Orpheum Theatre last fall, but Charlie Levy didn't have the cash to buy a billboard. So the Tucson-based music promoter hired a friend to paint a mural.
They made it a happening. On the First Friday in October, an artist named Joe Pagac balanced on a small, makeshift scaffold outside the west wall of eye lounge, a gallery near Fifth and Roosevelt streets. Small crowds gathered all night to take pictures and ask questions as the 29-year old painter from Tucson hastily followed his design.
It took Pagac three hours to paint 15-foot high portraits of each of the four members of Monsters of Folk, along with their names in white below each face.
Aesthetically, the response to the piece was mixed. It was called out for its elementary style, four basic colors and poor lettering. But Charlie Levy says his phone kept buzzing with positive messages — "How cool is it to see a mural going up on Roosevelt?"
The idea of a mural painted for a live audience stuck. And every First Friday since then (with a few breaks over the summer), Pagac's packed the trunk of his car with a few buckets of paint and rollers, made the two-hour drive up to Phoenix, and painted over his own work.
After Monsters of Folk, Pagac tossed up a detailed portrait of Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova of the Swell Season (November) and of members of Sonic Youth (December). In March, he painted a dark, creepy Nosferatu building a sandcastle for the RJD2 show and a landscape with the floating band members of Album Leaf in April. His latest — painted the First Friday in July — was a scene of three snowmen tossing a pink snow-suited boy in the air to promote The National's October show at the Marquee Theatre. Pagac is paid $300 per mural, which just about covers the amount of paint it takes to cover the wall and gas it takes to get to Phoenix, the artist says.
More than anything, the murals are conversation starters and trendsetters. Right now, in downtown Phoenix, murals are damn trendy. And like any good fad, they've spawned a backlash.
On July 12, a Phoenix artist named Bobby Castañeda posted a photo on Facebook.
The sky was almost too dark for taking clear pictures, but Castañeda managed to get a dark shot: "SB1070" was scrawled in red spray paint across the stomachs of two large snowmen.
Castañeda — whose reputation as both artist and troublemaker was well established before this — is passionate about a lot of things. His tag (or assumed street art name) is RESIST, often followed by his current cause. This year it happens to be Arizona Senate Bill 1070.
It also happened to wreck Pagac's mural.And it let Phoenix visualize a question that's been challenging other cities for a while now: Is it cool to make art on top of someone else's art and call that art?
This isn't personal, not in the way you might think. Joe Pagac and Bobby Castañeda say they've never met. They've only exchanged comments on Facebook. (Castañeda says he didn't even know Pagac was the mural's artist until after he "friended" him and read his comments.)
And this is not just a question about the west-facing wall of eye lounge. In the year or so since Pagac and Levy started their campaign, the mural scene here has exploded. It's hard to find a wall in the Roosevelt neighborhood that doesn't have some kind of mural. Most of them literally appear overnight and some are up for only a few weeks before they're "buffed out" (street-art code for "cleaned up," by the walls' owners or the city, if the murals are done on city property) or replaced. Many, like Pagac's, are done for hire.
These murals are proving irresistible to taggers like Bobby Castañeda — artists who had already claimed the streets as their canvases, long before murals got trendy. In their world, there's no hesitation to spray, mark, paste, or drill — the higher the stakes and visibility, the greater the payoff.
And it's where those who call themselves fine artists, mural artists, graffiti artists, taggers, writers, and burners (and whatever other names so many seem to disagree upon) bump into each other that the lines of culture, aesthetic, history, and legality blur.
Pagac's mural isn't the only place RESIST has popped up lately. The capital letters have been scrawled on light poles, business walls, and the backs of street signs down Roosevelt and throughout Phoenix. Castañeda has become the local poster child for the big "art over art" question that's echoing in major American mural cities like Los Angeles, Philadelphia, New York, and, finally, Phoenix, where murals are as hot as the walls they're going up on.
For now, anyway, there aren't any easy answers.
"Look, I'm all for people voicing their opinions," Joe Pagac says. "I'm not really sure why it had to be done on my mural or why the person couldn't at least have been a little more creative with it. It sucks to hear that something you made has been damaged . . . I've come to just accept it."
Much like other cities, Phoenix has a rich history of murals — just on a younger, smaller scale.
Across the street and a few blocks west of eye lounge, Ted DeGrazia (the self-proclaimed "world's most reproduced artist," whose sad little Native American children are about as iconic as Charles Schulz's Snoopy) once paid a bar tab with a mural on the inside wall of the old 307 Lounge, according to local lore.
To the east, Rose Johnson (a beloved local artist who died last year) left her peace-themed mural mark on the side of the old Mercer Mortuary building on 16th Street.
To the south, Mexican murals welcome locals and visitors to the neighborhoods of South Phoenix with political, religious, and cultural messages.
And the city's claim to mural fame: the corner of Central Avenue and Adams Street that was once graced by a large-scale work done by Keith Haring. (Haring's mural disappeared in the early '90s after a heated debate among the city, the Phoenix Art Museum, and South Mountain High School. There are still questions as to just what happened.)
It took the mural thing a few years to catch on big around Roosevelt, where wall space is now suddenly limited and store/wall owners are scrambling to sign cool artists like DOSE and David Quan to cover them. Lalo Cota and Pablo Luna are up on Carly's Bistro; Roy Sproule projected Billie Holiday on the side of Revolver Records; one of El Mac's iconic faces is on Pravus gallery and Joerael Elliott's work just popped up on five15.
There's also a movement over on 16th Street, where Silvana Esparza of Barrio Cafe is snatching up a bunch of the same artists to create her own street-long protest to S.B. 1070, which she hopes will create a stronger community.
Esparza admits she's concerned about her murals getting tagged, though for now, she says, it's usually just kids walking home from North High School, not the likes of Bobby Castañeda. One of her big ideas is covering the murals in a protective finish (much like the coat used on automobiles) that would make it easier to clean off spray paint and marker.
The government has rules and regulations concerning tagging and graffiti (there's no legal distinction, but from an artist's perspective, graffiti is a specific aesthetic and not necessarily an action). Getting caught can result in anything from a class 2 misdemeanor to a class 4 felony, depending on how hard it is to clean — but in the arts community, where graffiti-style is becoming more popular, the distinction and subsequent justice are harder to determine.
"I love that these artists are being recognized despite their background or style," says Noe Baez, whose tag name SUCH was well known in his street art prime, about 10 years ago.
"Back then, street artists like myself didn't really have anyone local to look up to . . . and now you have big names on big walls. For some, the roots are still in what they learned when they were defacing property, or writing their names on walls . . . There are some artistic qualities to all of it — not that the owner of the wall or the mural would always appreciate it, and in the end, I guess they have that right."
Murals have been around since the beginnings of art, which many trace back to the caves of southern France, some 32,000 years ago. Over time, the Medici family, the Catholic Church, and the German patronage commissioned murals; the forefathers had them in the White House since the earliest days of the Republic.
But their form in modern American culture — functioning as more than pure decoration — is often attributed to influences of the Mexican muralistas of the 20th century. Their modern existence was delivered to Phoenix by none other than the U.S. Postal Service during the 1930s.
Above a large doorway in the Spanish Colonial-style U.S. Post Office on Central Avenue and Fillmore Street, a group of Spaniards stares across an 8-by-4-foot canvas at a group of Pueblo Indians.
It's the work of Oscar Berninghaus, a Taos artist who was paid by the Fine Arts Selection of the U.S. Treasury Department in 1938 to submit his work for public display. Arizona State University art history professor Betsy Fahlman, who specializes in New Deal art, says she stands beneath the doorway and marvels at Berninghaus' mural.
"The New Deal art initiatives, like the [Works Progress Administration], transformed American art in interesting ways," Fahlman says. "The federal government was able to obtain so much art for so little money and then was able to distribute that art nationwide. For the first time, it put American artists on the national level and into the public sector."
The mural in the Phoenix post office isn't like the murals we're used to seeing today. During the time that these large, typically realistic, and fairly benign canvas installation-type murals were going into post offices and other government buildings, there was a bit of noise coming from the border.
That noise was the aftermath of the Mexican Revolution. The era marked a time of great unrest within the country and along the shared border with the United States, but it was also a time of great art. "There was so much emotion then," says Fahlman. "Fists were in the air and the people used murals and public art to voice their opinions and express what their country and culture was going through . . . They were able to get murals in public places much sooner than we did."
Mexicans were busy covering walls with messages and icons, and Americans started to notice. Yes, murals can mean something; they can speak for the people and they can breathe life into old, decaying parts of town. And so the works and influences of the great Mexican muralistas — Diego Rivera, David Siqueiros, and José Orozco — trickled into American pop culture.
In murals' premature American beginnings, they were painted for a number of reasons, one being their distraction capability. "Sure, painting murals in the slums didn't solve any problems," says Fahlman, "but they sure made the streets look pretty."
And they made building interiors pretty, too. Diego Rivera was even hired to paint a mural in Rockefeller Center, only to have it painted over when someone noticed that one of Rivera's characters was Lenin. This was not the first and certainly was not to be the last time a mural was to be buffed out or painted over. But Fahlman says that's part of the existence of a public work.
"When their works entered the public sector, artists could no longer be prima donnas. But the keepers of those murals also had to keep the artists' intentions in mind," she says. "Sometimes a mural's message became outdated or the neighborhood changed or the work just couldn't be restored."
Roosevelt's mural row is literally in Greg Esser's backyard. He and his wife, Cindy Dach, live a couple blocks away from RoRow and they own eye lounge, along with some other properties in the neighborhood. Esser's got a unique perspective. Not long ago, he took a day job as director of the Los Angeles County Arts Commission — and he's working with murals there, too.
"All I can do is hope that it's not tagged," Esser says of the commission's latest project in L.A. a community mural envisioned and painted by inner-city kids with the help of program coordinators. A huge wall just east of Los Angeles International Airport now features a vision of the city skyline surrounded by bright green rolling hills and blue skies in a whimsical, coloring-book style.
Add it to the list of Esser's tagging worries. More often than not, he says, the graffiti crews and lone taggers who go after murals are after respect and instant fame.
Ironically, a tag often has a chance of lasting longer than the original mural.
"Taggers have realized that their tags stayed up longer on murals because the building owners and the commissioners of those murals can't afford to bring back the original artist to repair the mural," Esser says. "So tagging on a mural has become code for longevity."
And a Los Angeles legal battle has resulted in victory for one muralist.
In 2008, artist Kent Twitchell sued the U.S. government and 11 other defendants, claiming that a mural he created in Los Angeles was painted over without his knowledge and consent. (Esser was not involved; he didn't work for the county at the time.) Twitchell's six-story 1987 painting of Ed Ruscha — widely regarded as an American forefather of Pop Art — was falling apart and had been covered in graffiti.
The court ruled in Twitchell's favor under the federal Visual Artists Rights Act and the California Art Preservation Act. Both require that the artist be given a 90-day heads up before any alteration or removal, even if a mural is in disrepair.
Twitchell scored $1.1 million — the largest amount ever awarded to an artist under state or federal law.
But the mural, sadly, was gone for good.
Today, a similar fate faces L.A.'s mural-covered highway walls. They were commissioned to usher in the 1984 Olympics and because they've since been obliterated by layers of taggers' spray paint, they, too, face removal — as soon as the city can notify the artists and pay for the safety barricades ($3,000 a pop). The city's looking for volunteers and donations.
Esser says the problem is only getting worse as graffiti artists' work — often layered on another's — gets noticed and the artist is approached to do commissions or show in a gallery.
"[Graffiti] has become a career path," says Esser. "Ultimately, every artist wants to and should be paid for what he or she creates . . . and obviously there's a difference between the artistic element and vandalism, but we need to figure out how to promote and curate aerosol art without destroying a legacy."
"It's a respect thing," says Joerael Elliott, a popular Phoenix artist whose intricate and complicated style can be seen in murals on the sides of five15 on Roosevelt, Way Cool Hair Salon on McDowell, and on the Caravan dive bar on Camelback. His work has also graced some of the downtown community's hippest homes, including Daniel Wayne's, of Lola Coffee.
"Graffiti, street art, urban art — it's all a social symptom and a reaction to arts programs and funding being cut. When someone writes on another person's work, it's a sign of disrespect," Elliott says. "You can read a city by its calligraphy."
Esser says he's had discussions with those who have tagged eye lounge in the past. "There's an issue with the concept of 'selling out' in the street art community," he says, "and there's a romanticized view of the 'starving artist.' [Being] paid isn't selling out — it's part of being successful and making a living doing what you love."
Not surprisingly, Joe Pagac agrees. He even defends the most controversial mural campaign in town — much more of a lightning rod than his own work on the side of eye lounge — Pabst Blue Ribbon's national, multi-mural campaign that has put murals and mural-like billboards up around town.
"I think the idea behind the Pabst murals is great," Pagac wrote in May in an e-mail conversation about the advertisement. "Whether it is a church selling religion through frescoes, a brewery selling beer via murals or a spear maker toting his latest spear in the caves of Lascaux, artists have had patrons who have sponsored them pretty much since the beginning of time. Done right, the patron gets the word out, the artist stays employed and the public gets something beautiful at no cost to them. More companies should do it."
Bobby Castañeda gets paid for his art, but not enough to make a living. He's got a day job behind a bulletproof window at the register of a Phoenix motel, which he says is a few streets away from where he grew up. He paints on his days off and at night, in his house or out on the streets.
Long before the current controversy — which spread beyond Castañeda's circle of friends and pinned many in the arts community on either side of the argument — Castaneda, 35, had a reputation for being passionate. The self-described "greatest painter alive" showed his brightly colored, street-style artwork in a few galleries and had a few infamously rowdy nights at the Bikini Lounge on Grand Avenue.
In 2009, Castañeda swore off Phoenix and moved to New York to work with the Fortoul brothers, Isaac and Gabriel. The Fortouls are from New Jersey but spent a few years in Phoenix; they even set up a late-night gallery (featuring much of Castañeda's early aerosol work) and hosted a few wild parties before moving to New York and establishing themselves in the Big Apple's hip-hop and underground art scenes. A couple of years, a waning bank account, and an ounce of homesickness later, Castañeda, like many, came back to Phoenix.
He signed up for a few mural opportunities and collaborative projects, and hung his canvases — mostly spray-painted skeletons with crowns, overlapping solid shapes, and scribbled phrases in permanent marker — in a couple of coffee shops, including Cartel Coffee Lab's new downtown location. (Baristas there say they've been trying to contact Castañeda to pick up his work, weeks after his show was scheduled to end.)
Castañeda leans back into the captain's seat of a boat in a parking lot on Seventh Avenue and Roosevelt Street. It's where he goes to take a break from painting. He says he's officially left his wild-child reputation in the past and that he wants to focus on "giving back to the community." What he doesn't mention is that he forgot to bury RESIST along with his past.
Aside from political reasons, Castañeda argues that his tag belonged on Pagac's mural because of economics. Castañeda draws the line at commercial work — be it for a band coming to town or a national beer brand trying to gain hipster cred. Pagac was paid and Pagac painted a commercial piece; therefore, Pagac painted an ad, not a piece of art.
Pagac says he entered art career backward; he learned large-scale painting while studying in Italy during college and took art jobs and commissions out of school to pay his own expenses.
"I didn't come from a street art background," says Pagac. "So I've never really understood the inside politics or pecking order that goes on in that community . . . But it's hard to look around, see a ton of empty walls and then look back at my own that gets tagged because someone accuses me of selling out or being in the wrong neighborhood or not doing art for a specific political cause.
"If you want to paint a mural or do artwork or speak out, there's plenty of room for that — in a creative way and on a space that's not on top of someone else's work."
In the comments under his Facebook photo, Castañeda writes, "I'm targeting the arts district and the artists who live there . . . stand up, say something . . . motivate peers (thus the tags on this photo). P.S.: murals for profit are fake art anyhow."
The lengthy Facebook discussion (68 comments spanning 10 days) that followed was a mix of support and criticism.
"[Pagac's mural] is a beautiful piece of art on a wall," wrote Riana Riggs, a former Phoenix songwriter and longtime waitress in popular downtown joints including Carly's Bistro and The Lost Leaf. "Andy Warhol's art was almost all advertisements. You, being an artist should be a little more sensitive. Pick a blank wall or a billboard. I still love you, Bobby, but this made me a little sad."
"[The mural] is beautiful and valid commercial work," wrote Damon Briedenbach, a Phoenix arts activist and coordinator of Second Saturday Social Club, a hip artist get-together that usually takes place at Briedenbach's house. "The tag painted at the bottom of it is also beautiful and valid and is a prime example of people's art. It's a bust and it's a culture jam and it belongs anywhere that people might already people looking."
Then Esser surfaced and identified himself as one of the owners of eye lounge. He explained the business deal behind the eye lounge mural (Stateside promotions paid Pagac for his paint and time and gave the eye lounge a few tickets to concerts in exchange for the wall space) and discussed the current situation on the highway walls in Los Angeles.
"Where are we when one artist disrespects the work of another artist?" he asked.
Across the street and down a ways from the eye lounge mural, the east-facing brick wall of 307 East Roosevelt Street is stained red. The mural beneath the topcoat of paint raised a lot more hell in the arts community than the eye lounge mural; the outlines of two angels on either side of a can of Pabst Blue Ribbon are barely visible.
The angels were designed by a Mesa tattoo artist named Keegan Moran and were, part of a mural marketing campaign PBR launched nationwide in 2006. Moran died in March 2009; he never saw the PBR-edited version of his winning design or the final product after it was painted by the PBR team. Moran also never saw the graffiti that went up on it this past May:
It was called a social commentary in the arts community; the tagger obviously thought that while the mural had the sex appeal and alcohol categories fulfilled, it was lacking in the third, art aspect.
Later, "RESIST SB1070" — clearly a tag of Castañeda's, though no one witnessed him do it — was scribbled on the left angel's wing, surrounded by a heart.
Castañeda posted a picture of that tagged mural on his Facebook page, too, followed by his comment, "If I was you and if I had a drawing utensil I would add to this . . . don't get caught and you didn't hear this from me all in hypotheticals . . . "
A comment farther down read, "Haha. I like your addition to it too (yeah, I know you added the checklist, Bobby. I can recognize your handwriting anywhere)."
"Whoever did it was saying something — graffiti has always been about saying something," says Castañeda, still unwilling to formally take responsibility for the tag. "Maybe next time, instead of a beer ad, they'll actually get the community involved."
The mural was painted over in early August, as the marketing campaign ended. The red wall, opposite of DeGrazia's, will remain. That is, until Steven Yazzie gets back in the mural scene.
Yazzie's one of the most celebrated painters in town. He remembers when the 307 was a gay bar and prostitution ran rampant in the area. He also remembers when it was empty in 2000, as he was installing four large panels on the outside of a gallery next door. The gallery was (and still is) monOrchid, and the four panels featured the four faces of the gallery's crew.
"Whenever you paint faces, you're just asking for someone to tag them," says Yazzie, whose murals were eventually painted over after they were seriously defaced. "I don't ask too many questions about who did it, or why they did it. People thought I had done it . . . but when I put something out there in the public like that, I have to let it go."
It's a lesson he's trying to teach his students at Phoenix College who, if all goes as planned, will be painting a mural on the red wall on Second Street. The project will be done in conjunction with Roosevelt Row and its infant mural organization program, Mural Match.
"I hope [my students] do something with an interesting narrative that reflects the community," says Yazzie. "I want to have a large meeting with the students and community members to brainstorm ideas outside of the cliché. I think that if a public work is done with enough respect, and with attention to the history of the area, it will be the mural that doesn't cause problems and isn't targeted."
A small glass marble in a 12-ounce can mixes different amounts of pigments, solvents, and propellants. It rolls around the bottom of the spray paint can and then jumps as Bobby Castañeda flicks his wrist before signing his name on the bottom, right hand corner of his latest work, which is, you guessed it, Roosevelt's latest commissioned mural.
"I can't wait for it to be finished," he says, looking across the lot at the piece he's been painting on the north-facing wall of Auto Culture for the past few weeks. He climbs up his ladder.
He's at least 12 feet in the air — two lights, a jug of water, and at least four spray cans balance on the rungs below him. Castañeda's been given the supplies and has struck a compensation deal he and Auto Culture declined to specify when asked. But Castañeda argues that his work shouldn't be compared to the murals on Roosevelt and shouldn't be considered commercial or advertising, despite its location and association.
"I've done my own customization to the design," he says of mural's process (the owner had an idea, Castañeda sketched it, the owner made a few changes, Castañeda made a few alterations). "And to me, it has a clear message."
Castañeda's laughing skeleton is riding in a huge white hot rod under a glowing Phoenix sun. There are no campaign banners, political symbols, or signs of Castañeda's tag or cause. That's all in the title, the artist says.
"It's called Stop SB 1070," he says from the top of his ladder. "Watch this." He sprays an orange-gold layer on the Phoenix and then grabs the lighter out of his pocket, pushes his thumb on the butane button, and lights it on fire.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Phoenix New Times' biggest stories.
- Arizona Governor Doug Ducey Permits Geocaching Game on State Land
Wed., Feb. 10, 7:30pm
Thu., Feb. 11, 8:00am
Fri., Feb. 12, 7:00pm
Mon., Feb. 15, 7:00pm
- How 20 Metro Phoenix Cities Got Their Names
- Arizona Pro-Marijuana Forces Steamrolling Pot Prohibitionists in Fundraising