Artist Irma Sanchez left her Phoenix studio space early Wednesday afternoon on a mission. She was headed to a spot near Central Avenue and Buckeye Road, close to the neighborhood where she grew up, to install a set of three white tiles painted with black symbols and letters referencing a mythical Phoenix bird rising from the ashes.
“This is the right spot for this piece,” she remembers thinking when she first picked the location for her latest bit of guerrilla art. Like much of the city, it’s a changing place that's filled with history.
For about a year now, Sanchez has been placing small tile works around Phoenix. She hasn't kept an exact count, but thinks she's done about a dozen so far. They’re never signed, and she hoped at first to remain anonymous. But people familiar with Sanchez's work, including Beatrice Moore, an artist and historical preservation activist in the Grand Avenue arts district, had suspected that Sanchez was the creative force behind the works.
Moore noticed the similarity between some of the artworks she had spotted, including an installation of white tiles with red works reading “Live for Love” attached to a concrete parking bumper in the Bragg’s Pie Factory parking lot, and tile work Sanchez posted on her Facebook page, but never made note publicly that she suspected Sanchez was the mystery artist.
But on Tuesday, December 29, Moore posted a message on her Facebook page thanking the artist she simply called the “Tile Tagger." For Moore, the works recall a “Points of Pride” campaign undertaken several years ago by the city in which signs were placed at sites considered significant by what Moore calls the “establishment.” There’s one gracing a north-facing exterior wall at Bragg’s Pie Factory. “This is a populist, freewheeling version of that,” Moore noted in her Facebook post, which tagged Sanchez and thereby hinted at her possible involvement.
So Sanchez wasn’t surprised when New Times reached out to ask whether she’d created and installed these works.
“It’s a big city,” she says. “But the arts community tends to know what other artists are doing.” Still, she had hoped to remain anonymous. “I was kind of hoping I could just do this stuff,” she says. “It was my sad attempt to be a real artist, but it didn’t work.” She’s hoping the work won’t lose its power now that people know the artist behind it.
The artist started creating these guerrilla art installations after doing a solo show in January of 2015 at The Hive, where you’ll find her tile work in four places inside a bathroom off the central courtyard (including the interior doors for two toilet stalls). “I did a whole bunch of ceramic slabs for the show, and I didn’t want to stop the process,” Sanchez says. “But I wanted it to evolve.” Earlier this week, she installed three tiles just off the walkway that leads from The Hive courtyard to the garden. Their message: Love is greater than guns.
For the most part, her installations are free of political messages. She’s debating whether to install a piece that shows apes evolving into gun-toting humans, saying that she’d rather keep her focus on positivity. Several of her installations comprise circular tiles crafted into various types of smiley faces. Three that have yet to find a home sit atop one of the work spaces in her studio, where she’s also busy making emoji-theme pins, a large-scale piñata-inspired paper-on-panel piece, and assorted masks.
Making and installing these works takes a significant amount of time, but Sanchez isn’t certain about the number of hours she’s invested to date. “There’s a whole process involved,” she says. “The place has to call to me, and I make several trips to measure.” She works from several templates, creating specific layouts on her computer before transferring them to tile so the can paint them, then add three layers of glaze, and fire them in a kiln.
At first, she worried about being seen, but nowadays she doesn’t give it much thought. People who see her installing tiles typically pause with brief interest, she says, and then move on. Sanchez says she’ll only install work if she feels the neighborhood will be receptive. So far she has tile-tagged the Garfield and Coronado neighborhoods, as well as several that are farther from downtown Phoenix. She’s eyeing a space in Roosevelt Row where she’s already done the measurements, but hasn’t yet decided whether or not to move forward with the project. She’s not sure how her work would be received there.
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A piece she previously installed in Roosevelt Row is no longer visible because someone painted over it. It’s all part of the process of making street art, she says. “Once it’s in the public realm, you have to kind of walk away from it.” An installation featuring Our Lady of Guadalupe graces the empty shell of a former telephone station near Pierce and 11th Street, and several others she’s created have remained. She installed two pieces at the Bikini Lounge on Grand Avenue before they fenced in the patio area, and both are still there just as she left them.
For Moore, these works are part of a larger movement taking place along Grand Avenue, where nontraditional art installations are springing up in public spaces. Moore helped to pioneer such projects with installations like the hanging gardens outside the front of Bragg’s Pie Factory, but she’s pleased that others are getting involved by creating crocheted wraps for tree trunks and other works of outdoor art. It’s part of what gives the Grand Avenue arts district its distinct charm, which Moore hopes it will retain even in the face of future development.
But there’s another reason she appreciates these works. Moore says both the Grand Avenue and Roosevelt Row arts districts have been hit by taggers of a different sort, those who spray paint metal doors and etch windows. “It’s intended to be disrespectful,” she says. “It’s a really hateful gesture.” By contrast, she says, these random installations of tiles with positive messages show respect for both the arts community and neighborhood businesses.
Nancy Hill, co-owner of Hazel & Violet, who also operates Chartreuse gallery inside the historic Bragg’s Pie Factory building, shares Moore’s enthusiasm for the random bits of positivity. “They’re just little spots of joy,” Hill says.