One of the most iconic murals in downtown Phoenix is at the center of a new controversy.
That's because the artist who painted it was debating whether it should be painted over, rather than preserved.
El Mac, an internationally renowned artist who grew up in Phoenix, painted the mural on a west-facing wall of the Flowers building at Roosevelt and Fifth streets back in 2009 with Augustine Kofie. It features the profile of a woman's face, surrounded by geometric shapes.
Last year, Chandler-based developer Desert Viking bought the building, which most recently was home to Flowers Beer & Wine, Five15 Arts, Lotus Contemporary Art, and Galleria Celtica. Desert Viking will use the building, along with a few surrounding structures and lots, to create a mixed-use development called The Blocks of Roosevelt Row.
Early renderings for The Blocks stirred controversy, in part because they showed an outdoor patio for restaurant customers, with seating and table umbrellas that partly obscured El Mac's artwork.
It probably didn't help that the rendering also showed a white Volvo parked nearby, and building signage reading "Authentic Taco Shop." Basically, it screamed gentrification.
That's been a hot topic in Roosevelt Row in recent years.
Baron Properties demolished two properties before building two multilevel apartment complexes at Third and Roosevelt streets. One building they leveled in early 2015, located at 222 East Roosevelt, was the site of Phoenix's first gay bar, and served most recently as an art gallery and boutique space called GreenHaus. Murals by Lauren Lee and Ted DeGrazia were destroyed during demolition.
Later that year, Local First Arizona founder Kimber Lanning relocated something called the Wurth House so it wouldn't face a similar fate. Several businesses once located in Roosevelt Row bungalows purchased by Desert Viking, including Roosevelt Growhouse, have been forced to relocated. And artist J.B. Snyder, whose murals grace several buildings in the area, lost his studio space earlier this year when the owner decided the time was ripe for putting that house on the market.
On Saturday, April 8, El Mac wrote a long post about the mural on his El Mac Art Facebook page.
It said, in part: "As much as I'd hate to see it go, I'm thinking the mural should probably be painted over." He asked others to weigh in on whether they thought the artwork should stay.
Here's the content of that post in its entirety:
"Without even getting into the bigger issue of gentrification, and the displacement of working class + creative folks and small businesses that help add culture and vitality to cities... this appears to be an attempt by developers to capitalize on and semi-privatize a public mural I painted near my old hood in 2009 with Augustine Kofie. A giant shot of this mural is also the main image on their website: http://www.theblocksroosevelt.com. The mural is chipping off and fading, aging prematurely due to the materials used. I was originally planning on fixing it on my own dime when it was on the side of my friend's shop Flowers Craft Beer Wine Deli, but feel differently now that Flowers is gone, rents are going up, and these new developers seem to be planning on gating off the mural and obstructing it with umbrellas and customer seating. I feel like it would be much more acceptable for them to use the artwork if the mural was to remain public, or if they actually helped fund a restoration of it. As much as I'd hate to see it go, I'm thinking the mural should probably be painted over, which is ironic since I've always hated how much Phoenix likes to tear down or paint over anything old. There are obviously bigger issues out there right now than this, but I am still curious to hear people's thoughts."
After learning that El Mac was debating whether the mural should be removed, Desert Viking principal Dan Noma Jr. shared a statement with New Times on Tuesday, April 11.
“We are disappointed to learn that El Mac is considering the removal of the beloved Downtown Phoenix mural located on the west facing side of the Flowers building," Noma's statement reads. "We approached Mr. MacGregor back in September 2016 to see if he would be interested in working with us to either restore or preserve it in its current state — to which he responded that he was not interested given its current condition.
While we respect his decision not to move forward with conserving the mural, our company’s reputation is built around the restoration of time honored neighborhood structures while also preserving the characteristics that make each neighborhood unique and sought-after. Therefore, it is still our goal to protect this piece that has been a mainstay in this community since 2009.”
Locals who follow El Mac's work know this mural is one of many pieces he has painted here in the Valley alongside various collaborators. His other murals include a David Choe collaboration at Cobra Arcade Bar and a piece painted with Pablo Luna and Mando Rascón at The Heavy Pedal. In March 2016, he painted a mural with Rascón on the exterior of a towering elevator shaft at Mesa Arts Center.
At this point, the fate of the Flowers mural is unclear.
But, there have been a couple of new developments.
Desert Viking has removed the image of El Mac's mural on The Blocks of Roosevelt Row website, and replaced it with an image of generic street art. And they removed their Facebook post featuring his mural, which meant El Mac's earlier message reposting the photo, and all the comments it generated, is no longer available on Facebook.
"I did not take the post down," El Mac explained in a message to New Times, "they removed their image, which I had reposted, so the discussion was lost."
He added, "Not sure I really want to turn this into a 'thing.'"
Still, he hasn't entirely let the matter go.
Around midday on Wednesday, he shared a new post about the Flowers building mural.
"I was wondering what happened to the discussion I started about property developers exploiting and privatizing public art, and specifically The Blocks of Roosevelt Row pimping my 2009 mural with Augustine Kofie, and just realized they deleted their 'Authentic Taco Shop' post from last year," he posted. "I'm not sure killing that discussion was a good look, (I thought there was no such thing as bad publicity?) but thankfully they also took down our mural as the main image on the front page of their website..."
He included a screenshot of how the website had looked previously and concluded the post with a flurry of hashtags including #exploitation, #commercialization, #gentrification, #AuthenticTacoShop, and #shadowwalkers.
A couple of hours later Desert Viking posted a seven-paragraph response. The message explained, in part, that when Desert Viking's PR team deleted images of Mac's mural the conversation the artist posted was accidentally deleted. "Unexpectedly by deleting the photos you commented on it deleted the thread," the statement reads." This was not done with the intent to delete the conversation at all. In fact we we looking forward to the dialogue and thought someone else deleted the thread on their end."
Several paragraphs addressed the wider context of the Desert Viking development and clarify that the renderings of the completed building "are not indicative of the final project whatsoever." But for the most part, the post addressed the mural.
"We are doing everything we can to preserve the buildings and give back to the artists who have made Roosevelt Row what it is today," the statement continues. "In phase II of our project we are creating affordable studio space at our cost to showcase the rich artist community. ...The goal of our project is to enhance the buildings, and to give back to the art community by showcasing them in an affordable and sustainable project filled with great foot traffic to showcase their work."
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The statement goes on to encourage further communication between El Mac and Desert Viking and notes the "vandalism and destruction" the developer encounters on a daily basis at the building. "That vandalism and destruction is only making the preservation process more difficult for everyone and taking away from our city. We have some great local tenants who have decided to make our project their next home, let's work together to welcome them to the city and the project."
Of course, several others have also weighed in by offering their comments. But what's to become of the mural is anybody's guess.
For now, it seems that fans of the mural will simply have to watch and wait.
Correction: This article originally stated that Desert Viking bought the bungalow where Jobot was previously located. Desert Viking has never owned that property.