Painted on the west-facing wall of the Flowers building at Roosevelt and Fifth streets in 2009, the collaborative work with Augustine Kofie features a woman's face in profile, surrounded by geometric shapes.
Now, it's covered in random lines of gold paint.
"Nothing lasts forever, certainly not public art, but it is still disappointing this happened," El Mac says in a written message to Phoenix New Times. The internationally renowned artist, who grew up in Phoenix, is currently in Texas painting a large-scale mural on the U.S.-Mexico border.
"I very much doubt this was done by any graffiti artists," he says. "I would hate for it to seem like this was just the work of ‘taggers’.. like, ‘oh it’s just street art! It’s impermanent and ephemeral!’"
Currently, a patio is being built around the mural for Aaron Chamberlin's restaurant Taco Chelo, which is slated to open in March. It's part of a new multiuse development called The Blocks of Roosevelt Row. The restaurant is a joint venture between Chamberlin, chef Suny Santana, and artist Gennaro Garcia.
Workers discovered the damage when they arrived around 7 a.m. on Wednesday, February 21. Chamberlin saw it later that morning. The day before he'd noticed a small bit of thin black writing on the piece, but he didn't foresee Wednesday's incident.
"This is so disheartening," Chamberlin says.
After seeing the mural damage, Chamberlin pulled up the security footage from cameras they had installed just two weeks ago. "The camera shows it happened at 6:02 a.m.," he says.
Chamberlin shared with New Times footage of the vandalism taking place. It shows a single person painting the wall, dressed in dark pants and a hoodie. The person's face is obscured by a hood and a dark-colored baseball cap worn underneath.
Chamberlin called the police to report the vandalism, and plans to post the security footage online.
Gentrification has been a big concern in the area since late 2014, when community members learned that Denver-based Baron Properties would be demolishing existing buildings and iconic murals to make way for multilevel apartment buildings at Roosevelt and Third streets.
Desert Viking officials announced plans for The Blocks of Roosevelt Row in October 2016. At the time, they released a mock-up design for the development that included a sign reading "Authentic Taco Shop." The design showed El Mac's mural obscured by patio tables with umbrellas.
In April 2017, El Mac suggested on social media that it might be better to see the mural painted over than have it blocked from public view.
Since then, his position hasn't shifted.
"When I discussed this issue on Facebook last year, I think I made it pretty clear how I felt about the whole issue and really nothing changed since then," El Mac says.
Still, he wishes things had gone a different way.
"I just wish they would’ve given the mural a proper buffing/burial instead of adding insult to injury with whatever this defacement was. I also wish I was around to take care of this, but I do have a few friends in town who’ve offered to paint over it properly soon."
For Chamberlin, past controversy surrounding the mural has been frustrating.
The chef says he's taken steps to assure the mural remains accessible to the public. "We raised the canopy height and built a short perimeter fence for the patio so people would still be able to see El Mac's mural."
Once the restaurant opens, there will be patio access off Fifth Street, so people won't have to go through Taco Chelo to see the piece up close.
"We've been trying so hard to protect this mural," Chamberlin says. "We did like five different revisions to be sure people would see the El Mac mural."
Now, his focus is trying to figure out who damaged the mural. "I don't have any idea who did this," he says.
So he's doing some of his own sleuthing, along with business partner and artist Gennaro Garcia. Together, they designed the interior for Taco Chelo, as well as the patio that's being built around the mural.
Like Chamberlin, Garcia was upset at learning the news. "I'm just speechless; it's so fucking upsetting," Garcia says. "It's the most stupid thing ever."
He's also focused on finding the culprit.
"Gennaro is out checking on whether another mural got tagged, and whether it's got the same kind of markings," Chamberlin told New Times early Wednesday afternoon.
Chamberlin filed a police report but says he's not planning to file charges if they figure out who did the damage. Other than that, he doesn't have much recourse.
Artists who've taken to social media doubt it was a tagger or young graffiti writer, because there's such enormous respect for El Mac in Phoenix. He's got several murals around the Valley, and they've always been off-limits to taggers. He's also an internationally renowned street artist, so people familiar with his work understand its significance.
Tyson Krank, an artist whose murals are prevalent in Roosevelt Row, posted an image of the defaced mural on his Instagram account Wednesday morning. Soon, other artists, including Lucinda Yrene, began weighing in.
"We are on a hunt to find this person or people who are tagging through historical murals in Phoenix!" she wrote on her Instagram. "One by one they are being destroyed! This is not a graff kid this is ignorance at it finest. You want fame? Ok you will get it watch...," she wrote in part on her Instagram feed.
Her post also put the tagging in context: "P.S ever since we got hit hard with gentrification suddenly our buildings are being burnt down and our murals are being destroyed..hmm just an observation," she also wrote.
Speculation about what will become of the mural has already started, Chamberlin says.
For now, he's planning to leave the wall as is.
"We're just gonna keep it, because you can still see the art, and no matter what we do there will be backlash."
Even so, it's possible that plan will change.
Turns out, Garcia discovered the gold paint is relatively easy to remove. But he's not planning to remove it just yet, because he's hoping to talk with El Mac about how he'd like them to proceed with the wall.
"Ultimately, it will be up to El Mac on what we do with the mural," Chamberlin says.