That is, until very recently. Because thanks to East Valley businesses, organizations dedicated to neighborhood improvements, and city government, murals are on the rise in the East Valley, particularly in Tempe and Mesa. And they just might be the Valley's next big mural art destinations.
The City of Tempe commissioned its first public art mural, Don’t Wake the Dreamer by Lauren Lee, in 2014. And it has commissioned Jake Early to paint its next public art mural on a nearly 400-foot-long wall north of Daley Park on the east side of College Avenue this spring. Early says he’ll be using stencils and painting freehand to create a history of the neighborhood focused in its relationship with water.
In December 2015, Kyllan Maney completed a mural at The Dhaba, a market and restaurant featuring Indian fare, as part of an Apache Boulevard Revitalization Project that's a joint effort by the City of Tempe, a redevelopment group called Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC) Phoenix, the Neighborhood Economic Development Corporation (NEDCO), and State Farm to, as the project's name suggests, improve the Apache corridor.
NEDCO is also working with artists Matt Dickson, Beth Tom, Frank Gonzales, and John Haddock on a collaborative piece they’ll be painting soon on an exterior wall for Liquor Express, another business located on Apache Boulevard.
Mesa is embracing murals, too, after forays into mural art for the opening of the new Valley Metro Light Rail extension last fall were met with praise. “We got such great feedback from businesses,” says Cori Garcia, the marketing and communications manager for the Downtown Mesa Association.
Both Lee and Maney were commissioned to paint pieces for the light rail opening celebration held on August 22. Lee painted a bold floral graphic in tropical colors paying homage to the city’s founding date. Maney painted a selfie station depicting a bird, heart, and Mesa map details. Both murals are located along Main Street, just west of Mesa Arts Center.
Although the murals have taken shape only recently, Mesa Arts Center and NEDCO have been talking with local creatives about using mural art to enhance the Main Street corridor for about two years, according to Garcia.
These murals were experiments meant to test how well murals would be received in Mesa, according to Jeff McVay, the City of Mesa's manager of downtown transformation. Each was created by tweaking the current process for approving mural art in Mesa, which is currently cumbersome and expensive for artists.
That's because, at present, murals fall into the category of signs in Mesa, which require an application fee of $1,800 and involve a lengthy design and review process. McVay was able to get the fees waived, and fast-track the process for these murals – and says he’s hoping the City Council will approve changes this year that simplify the mural approval process and nix the hefty application fee that artists simply can’t afford or understandably don't want to pay.
Recently, the City of Mesa, Downtown Mesa Association, and NEDCO commissioned artists Jesse Perry, Dski One, Mark Matlock, and Anthony Galto to paint a collaborative mural celebrating some of the city’s historic neon signs. It's located on the west-facing wall for Surf & Ski, a small business located at 137 West Main Street.
But smaller bits of mural-style art can be found along Main Street, too, where more than a dozen artists including Mando Rascon and Melody Smith created panel pieces mounted to columns. Augie Gastelum, executive director for NEDCO, credits Amy Del Castillo, co-owner for Lulubell Toy Bodega, with spearheading this project.
Gastelum is excited about other recent projects, including a TV screen-style mural painted by Dski One on the wall of the Sliver Lot, where locals gather for outdoor movie screenings, and portable murals that fold up into boxes for easy transport. Artists did live painting for these mural boxes during a recent music festival, and the pieces are now on view at the Sliver Lot.
Moving forward, Gastelum says, NEDCO will be working with Tempe and Mesa on joint revitalization projects. Noting that Apache Boulevard in Tempe becomes Main Street in Mesa, Gastelum says it makes sense to create a single, contiguous corridor activated by arts and culture.
Of course, the biggest mural news in the East Valley involves internationally-renowned street artist El Mac (Miles MacGregor), who was born in L.A. but grew up in Phoenix.
During early March, El Mac will be painting a mural commissioned by Mesa Arts Center on a tall column in an exterior courtyard for its Mesa Contemporary Arts Museum. The design for that mural, which he’s scheduled to begin on February 29, has yet to be finalized. In May, the museum will open an exhibition of his works titled "El Mac: Aerosol Exalted.”
"Our new mayor really came in wanting to transform downtown into a vibrant arts and culture center," Garcia says of John Giles. She says people have been talking about wanting to do some of these things for years, and now they're beginning to come to pass. "It's been really nice," Garcia says," to have some of our dreams come true."
Editor's note: This post has been updated from its original version, which misattributed quotes from Cori Garcia to Celina Tchida.