Best Use of an Empty Dirt Lot 2011 | Valley of the Sunflowers | People & Places | Phoenix
One thing downtown Phoenix has in abundance is empty dirt lots. Not for long, if one energetic group of civic-minded garderners has anything to do with it. We love simple ideas — those knock-yourself-on-the-side-of-the-head and say, "Why didn't I think of that?!" ideas that make a big splash. In this case, a big splash of color. A highfalutin-sounding partnership of the Roosevelt Row Community Development Corporation and Phoenix Union Bioscience High School (translation: a bunch of artists and some high school kids) have leased empty lots with plans to plant two acres of sunflowers in the Evans Churchill neighborhood between Fifth and Sixth streets and Garfield and McKinley streets. Eventually the sunflowers will be pressed for oil and used for biodiesel fuel, and seeds/flowers will be sold at the Phoenix Public Market, but to be honest, the part we're most excited is about the a big field of yellow flowers that will take over an empty dirt lot early next year. Consider it a bouquet to the city. And a really great — if simple — idea.
In 1974, paleoanthropologist Donald Johanson unearthed a revolutionary fossil in the Awash Valley of Ethiopia: the 3.18-million-year-old remains of a female hominid known today as Lucy. Johanson and graduate student Tom Gray were about to return to their camp after long hours of searching for fossilized remains when, on a whim, Johanson insisted on checking a nearby gully one more time. As luck (or instinct?) would have it, they noticed human bone fossils and returned later that day to uncover the remains of a skeleton of Australopithecus afarensis, at that time the oldest upright walking humanoid known to man. At the celebration held by the expedition that night, a recording of The Beatles' "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" was played over and over again, inspiring the skeleton's name. In 1981, Johanson established the Institute of Human Origin in Berkeley, California, which was moved to Arizona State University in 1997 — and that is how the Valley came to be home to the man who discovered one of the world's most famous women.
What makes the buried treasure story of Sierra Estrella (southwest of Phoenix) so cool is that there's not one, but several buried treasure legends tied to the area. One is the "Montezuma Head" treasure, which was supposedly left in a cave at Montezuma Point by a guy named either Campoy or Ortega, depending on which version of the story you hear.

The legend says that Campoy/Ortega found 3,000 pounds of gold in the Estrellas, and because the local natives were after him, he hid the gold in a peak just below Montezuma Head and died before he could retrieve it. Another legend talks about the lost mine of Don Joaquim, who reportedly dug a gold mine in the Estrellas in 1847 and made off with tons of gold packed onto the backs of 15 mules. Joaquim is said to have ridden south over the Estrella Mountains to a hidden cave, where he tucked away his haul, and, of course, died before getting back to it.

A third buried treasure legend talks about a small wagon train being ambushed just past Montezuma Head during the gold rush of 1847-1849. The looters supposedly made off with $50,000 and buried the money piecemeal over several nights. Of course, none of these treasures have ever been found, but you can't kill a legend — especially one that involves looking for a ton of riches.

Best Buried Indian Treasures Best Secret

Heard Museum

At the bottom of an elevator shaft at the end of a clean hallway in downtown Phoenix's Heard Museum is a basement full of boxes, tubes, and bags.

Take a few (very) wrong turns and press a couple of wrong buttons, and you might end up down there — but don't expect to see anything good without a curator.

The basement's main hallway is piled high with books for the annual book sale and years' worth of display cases, forgotten mannequins, and shipping crates full of rare, and often ancient, artwork.

And behind a series of highly secured doors is what Heard Museum staff call the underbelly of the world-class museum of Native American art.

The museum built the underground facility in 1967, after Senator Barry Goldwater gave the museum his collection of kachina dolls. Decades later, the space is home to moving shelves full of historic baskets, textiles, paintings, and ceramics (all catalogued in the archive's yellowing, basement computer) from various discoveries and private donations of larger collections, including those of entrepreneur Fred Harvey and local real estate big hitter Russ Lyon.

Curators and staff are careful to note the museum's history of repatriating items to their communities, though a few items waiting to be transferred require special care and honoring of the original artist's customs and traditions. They also insist that there are no shrunken human heads in the archives (though a few locals remember seeing them on Boy Scout trips and museum visits decades ago, and others in a position to know claim the skulls are, or were, actually those of chimps).

A number of pieces at the Heard will never be showcased and even more are in the process of being packed up and sent home. Other than an upcoming exhibition of gold jewelry, we may never know what else lies behind the vaulted door in the curator zone, and if security and museum traditions get their way, we never will.

To see more photos of the Heard Museum's basement, visit

You can call David Quan the guy behind many of the large-scale murals on the sides of buildings along Grand Avenue — but he prefers to stick to the moniker Luster Kaboom. The local artist and comic started his Grand Ave. mural habit on The Trunk Space with the huge green face of a slobbering monster (sporting very sophisticated glasses). Since then, he's painted the insides of the avenue's galleries and on the front of Citywide studios. Our favorite so far (along with the one he painted on our own building, in honor of Best of Phoenix) is his blue "goo-scape" on the side of the Chocolate Factory. Quan jokes that the bright aquamarine was the cheapest color for his airbrush machine. If that's true, thank the hardware store, because the dripping, oozing, mural that wraps around the building just gave us yet another reason to park the car along the avenue for a closer look.
Ike doesn't consider himself a street artist like Banksy of Exit Through the Gift Shop fame. That film presents street artists as talented, cerebral, invested, politically clever, sometimes disturbed guerillas, and it's brought street art into the public consciousness. Some might argue that these artists do us all a public service. They make us laugh and think. Others, and the law, label them criminals, which is why they fiercely protect their identities and practice their art under cover of night.

Ike — a college student who studies art and marketing — is part of a local graffiti crew that actually accepts commissions and participates in competitions, which means he lives with one foot above ground and the other deep underground.

Ike's been busted. The first time, he was 13. He tagged a bathroom and the school pressed charges. Then, when he was 16, he was arrested for painting downtown — a felony carrying serious consequences that bleed into his adult life. Ike is undeterred. "I'm gonna get my message out there whether you like it or not," he says, and describes some anti-SB 1070 writing a lot of crews have been putting out there. But there isn't a trace of aggression or threat in his voice.

In fact, Ike might be considered a pacifist. He says, "Trying to bang on each other through graffiti — that needs to stop." Along with competition among top crews, there are rules in this world. When one writer goes over someone else's graffiti, it can escalate to violence. "Some crews hook up with the gangs for protection," admits Ike, who's seen and been in the throes of serious violence, even gunplay. But, he's careful to emphasize, graffiti and gangs are not mutually exclusive.

There's legal painting — businesses like carwashes and pawnshops, skate parks, fundraisers — that brings graffiti into the mainstream, but not without a cost to the artist. "People call you a sell-out, bitch, pussy, artsy-fartsy when you try to go legit," he acknowledges.

Staying underground is harder work, more purposeful, and dangerous. "The craziest thing is painting the freeway signs," he says, then describes running across five lanes of traffic, shimmying up a sign pole, hanging over it and onto it for dear life while painting one-handed and upside down as traffic thunders by below. Painting train cars is safer footing but requires ninja-like skills in getting over fences and past security.

"We are like ninjas," says Ike. "We're really smart. That's how we gotta be."

As a kid, Ike got into graffiti through skateboarding and hip-hop. Now it's all about letters and depth. He likes text, and that affinity is literally expensive. He uses mostly spray paint, favoring Montana, a high-end German product designed by and for graffiti artists, and he budgeted about $1,500 last year for paint. A local hardware store cuts him a deal.

"Writers are doing graffiti for a reason. You have to have some emotional problems. Other people smoke pot or read the Bible. It's my way to stabilize myself," Ike says before pausing and becoming thoughtful for a minute. "Probably in an unstable way."To see more photos of Ike's graffiti, visit

Like any good (and smart) graffiti artist, KENO keeps a low profile — until he decides to put up a piece in one of his signature spots or a huge roller (i.e., a thick tag, literally done with a bucket of paint and standard paint roller). His work is recognizable by clean letters and wild styles, and it's traditional by graffiti standards: He sticks to writing his name and the name of his crew, BAMC, on walls, boxes, bridges, and trains throughout Phoenix. But unlike any of the dozens of other crew members or big names within the graffiti scene, KENO's developed a knack for documenting the work of others in addition to his own. He started KENO TV ( a year ago and has since shot, edited, and published 14 short films that feature local graffiti and graffiti artists. Now that's style.
Sure, there are plenty of sidewalk spots and electrical boxes in Phoenix that are decorated by a few secretive street artists in town.

But when we want to see something fresh and impressive, we head to the northeast corner of Fourth and Garfield streets. Just behind reBAR, around the corner from the fading Soldierleisure mural, theres an abandoned, red-brick building whose boarded-up windows serve as frames for some of our favorite stencils. Artists Nomas and SIKE have been here HMPH and CITIZEN, too.

Theyve sprayed Madonnas, monikers, gorillas, and political messages onto the buildings plywood and paper-pasted front door, and theyve given us a sure-fire spot to catch some seriously cool artwork.

By day, you'd hardly know it was there. Take a stroll down Farmer Avenue in Tempe after dark, though, and you'll undoubtedly come across a glowing purple bicycle permanently fixed atop a tree. The bicycle, the tree, and the purple string of lights all belong to local Tempe artist Eric Iwersen.

Why stick a bike in a tree? Why wrap it in purple lights? We're not certain. The answers lie with Iwersen. We are grateful, however, for his eccentricities, as the purple beacon has often pointed us in the right direction — toward home — after a drunken night at Taste of Tops.

Even if you don't actually ride the city's light rail, we bet you've stopped to admire the public art at light-rail stops from the comfort of your car. One of our favorites is visible not only from the road, but also from the ground and even the sky, as it sits above Tempe Town Lake — right below Sky Harbor Airport's flight path. Artist Buster Simpson's display of LED lights puts an ever-changing rainbow above the lake, reflecting colors in the water. Stop and stare at the bridge long enough, and we know it sounds corny, but you might just feel like that bridge is speaking to you. Try it.

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