On the morning of April 23, 2010, Arizona Governor Jan Brewer signed Senate Bill 1070 into law. Later that day, an artist named Nomas threw 10 posters and a few spray cans into his bag, grabbed a bucket of paste, and jumped on his bike.
A few hours later, images of Sheriff Joe Arpaio in a military uniform with a swastika on his forehead and stenciled Hitlers saluting "SB 1070" were pasted and painted on public walls, light poles, and the backs of street signs in downtown Phoenix.
New Times cover story
Check out a slideshow of works by the artists featured in this story here.
The artist doesn't go by his real name — most of his work is illegal by city standards, and it's usually scratched off or painted over within a couple of days.
"I had this weird feeling," Nomas says from behind dark glasses, sitting at Lux, a Central Phoenix coffee bar. "I had to voice my outrage. It wasn't a choice."
While thousands crowded the downtown streets to march against legislation designed to send undocumented Mexicans home, Nomas' images joined the growing sensory (and often censored) responses to border issues and immigration legislation across the United States.
It's been a year since state Senator Russell Pearce, a Republican from Mesa, put Arizona in the national spotlight with his bill. Much of the anti-immigration law is hung up in court, and it remains to be seen whether some main provisions will ever go into effect. But just a mention of the number "1070" still inspires great emotion — on both sides. Nomas returns sometimes to one of his original pastes on the west side of Central Avenue, just south of Culver Street on a wall next to the Phoenix Trolley Museum. The image is faded and peeled; it's barely recognizable.
"That's one of my favorites," Nomas says. "It's all scratched up, like someone tried to claw it away, which means someone saw it, was angry, and decided to do something about it . . . In a lot of ways, I guess we're doing the same thing."
In the past year, images of Arpaio and Brewer have been pasted on walls, stenciled onto posters, and shaped into piñatas and masks. Artist Jesus Barraza turned an image snapped at a rally by a Phoenix schoolteacher into an iconic poster. And street artist Lalo Cato declared "Invasion!" with his flying-saucer sombreros, spray-painted on a wall at The Hive, a gallery on 16th Street.
It's no secret that when SB 1070 was signed, Arizona's national reputation tanked, business suffered, and our Mexican community was subjected to unfair raids and accusations. But some artists have flourished.
The year welcomed a new wave of protest art in Phoenix. Masked performances by Zarco Guerrero and emotional plays by James E. Garcia took over schools and stages. On the street, Francisco Garcia painted Martin Luther King with "Power to the People" on Grand Avenue. Irma Sanchez hid simple magnets of woven Mexican and American flags and postcards of "La Vida en Arizona" around local coffee shops. Banners were dropped from cranes and rooftops. Shows were hung. A tight-knit group of artists even set out to change the face of an entire street with the colorful Calle 16 mural project.
Arizona reactionary art traveled. Tucson-based poet Logan Phillips brought spoken-word acts about border issues to tiny clubs in Colombia and to large billboards in San Francisco. Posters and illustrations by Arizona artists were featured during CNN broadcasts and in the New York Times.
Good luck counting the number of examples spread online through Tumblr, YouTube, and Facebook.
Local and national artists created pieces used in protests and exhibitions throughout Phoenix. Bragg's Pie Factory hosted a group show curated by Marco Albarran of the Arizona Latin@ Arts and Cultural Center and education group, as well as a solo show by Safwat Saleem. Luis Gutierrez filled the Icehouse with 30-foot banners of an SB 1070-inspired "Last Judgment" and caricatures of Sheriff Joe and Mexican superheroes. The Hive brought in a traveling poster show, and monOrchid is currently featuring the work by Arizona and California artists in a show titled "Save Our States" (S.O.S.). Albarran says he started collecting art as soon as he knew SB 1070 would pass, and even today, his efforts are far from ending.
A single image has not emerged as "the icon" of SB 1070 — but, honestly, it's too early. And though some artists are giving up, others are just getting started.
"This kind of reactionary work is an art form that sticks around," Albarran says. "Eventually, these images will give future generations something to really visualize instead of some book telling them what happened. Hopefully it will help them relate to the time and the peoples' struggle."
Good art has often been a part of bad times.
"If you look at a lot of work about the border, you'll see it morphs into a certain idea of where we are now, and what it is to be American," says Sara Cochran, curator of contemporary art at Phoenix Art Museum. "And protest and reactionary art has always been that way. It juxtaposes different sides of the debate."
She says reactionary art goes back to the French Revolution, when painters became the voice of anyone who wasn't in power and were forced to raise awareness and communicate through paintings.
In the United States, images of dusty fields, day laborers, and images of neglectful political leaders defined the Great Depression. The government's propaganda posters and slogans were often parodied during both world wars. Uncle Sam's "I Want You" was turned into a "Wanted" poster; even Rosie the Riveter wasn't safe from distortion.
Visualized civil unrest was perhaps at its loudest during the Chicano and civil rights movements and throughout the Vietnam War. Mexican Americans unified under street art popularized by Mexican murals, as well as the images and words of César Chávez and Che Guevera.
Groups of African Americans utilized peaceful protest, images of Martin Luther King, "Power to the People," and, later, a simple raised fist. They were followed by thousands who painted "Make Love Not War" and gathered to sing and dance to protest U.S. involvement in Vietnam.
Today, visuals often get lost in the crowd on the Internet, and some argue that art created today solely for protest isn't constructive at all.
"We have to remember that most of the art world is progressive, socially and politically," says Cochran. "So there is a sentiment, especially during protest with a built group of participators and audience members, that you're really just preaching to the choir."
Playwright and journalist James E. Garcia agrees, to some extent. Garcia's heavily involved in the Latino community in Phoenix. His award-winning plays include The Tears of Lives, The Crossing, and American Pastorela: Show Us Your Papers, to name a few. He's also the founding editor of Latino Perspectives Magazine and was the first Latino affairs correspondent for the local NPR affiliate, KJZZ.
"My goal is not to think that one of my plays or performances is going to change the world," he says. "But I have to believe that my work is doing its part to push back."
Garcia remembers sitting in his car in a parking lot one afternoon in 2008 listening to an episode of This American Life.
It was about an undocumented woman in Los Angeles who was attending college but didn't have enough money to rent an apartment. She slept in the library, kept her books in her gym locker, and even after four years of education, still wanted to somehow practice medicine.
She became the inspiration for Garcia's Dream Act, partially because her story was so compelling, but also because Garcia, who teaches at ASU, realized that he probably interacts with students in similar situations.
"I thought, I know these kids. I've taught them; some have probably been my actors," says Garcia. "My process of writing these plays is never a conscious decision, if it was conscious, it might come across as contrived, or inauthentic."
Garcia's big on authenticity. It shows in his plays and in his writing. He says it's what separates effective and ineffective reactionary art — what creates impact and what falls flat with an audience.
"I think the challenge for artists is to try to say, 'Here's my medium; what you're looking at has an authenticity and a clear political viewpoint,'" says Garcia. "And maybe it won't be a political treatise, but it will hopefully infuse the politics of the moment in that artist's voice."
The politics along 16th Street are clear. The predominantly Hispanic neighborhood that stretches from about Adams Street north to Thomas Road is your best bet for authentic Mexican crafts, fútbol equipment, and a strong margarita — if you can keep your eyes off the murals that seem to pop up on a weekly basis.
"Murals create community," says Silvana Salcido Esparza, who owns Barrio Café near Thomas Road on 16th Street and is in the middle of a large-scale Mexican mural project, in response to SB 1070, along 16th Street in downtown Phoenix. "And that's exactly what we need."
Esparza was enraged when SB 1070 passed — and it wasn't just the legislation.
"When TV crews came to Phoenix in the middle of all this protest, they were taking video of our streets and our neighborhoods, specifically our Mexican neighborhoods, and they looked terrible," she says. "I couldn't believe what I saw, because for such a beautiful community with legals, illegals, whatever, we should have more to show."
So she started taking names. She signed up local artists with neighborhood businesses. She covered the cost of paint, and the painters — many of whom are Mexican, but plenty of whom are not — donated their time.
Artists Gennaro Garcia and DOSE painted the project's first wall, on the side of Deportes America, on 16th Street. It's hard to miss; a large face of the Virgen de Guadalupe is chiseled in plaster and surrounded by bright, colorful flowers. The two artists hope it welcomes more visitors to the street; they call it Bienvenidos a Arizona.
Esparza's hoping to cover every wall she can on 16th Street, or Calle 16, along with better maintenance of neighborhood corners, stronger enforcement of the speed limit — even mariachi nights, which she's currently pursuing with ASU's Herberger School of the Arts.
Esparza's also a big fan of Nomas' art. It's up in her kitchen, and the two often have long talks about street art and SB 1070 before Nomas has to go home to make dinner for his wife and kids.
It wasn't a surprise to see his work pop up along 16th Street. While Nomas' stencils are more political than Gennaro Garcia's soft Madonnas, angels, and salsa dancers, his style fits right in with the ephemeral and colorful artwork that's decorating neighborhoods and calles throughout Arizona.
A few of Nomas' latest pieces have been spotted around the neighborhood and along Roosevelt Row. It's a simple yet intricate hand-cut stencil of the Virgen. You may not recognize her as a piece by Nomas; he left her unsigned and anonymous.
"My work is about more than my name," he says. "Though I'm sure anyone who knows my stencil would know that it was me . . . it's about the community and letting people everywhere know that what is going on is wrong."
Nomas isn't Mexican, but his wife is. He says he'd rather not talk about how SB 1070 has directly affected him but remembers being told to "go back to Mexico" at gunpoint from a passing car. He says all he could think to do was throw his can of spray paint into the guy's back windshield as he drove away.
Esparza says she's looking to get artists like Nomas to do larger-scale work on walls. She recognizes that the murals created so far don't have bold, written statements, faces of Brewer or Arpaio (or Hitler, for that matter). They can't be moved to a protest or carried like signs on wooden sticks. But they can make a street feel more like a community and perhaps take "extreme" out of the equation.
"If the media ever comes back," Esparza says, "we'll have something to show them."
Before a face becomes one of Zarco Guerrero's papier-mâché masks, he has to sculpt it from clay.
"For me, my mask-making is a way of exorcising the negative vibes and demons off my chest," he says. "I've always been preoccupied with applying my work to the community conversation."
For "Footprints SB 1070," the protest art show curated by Albarran at Bragg's Pie Factory in August, Guerrero covered his clay-formed faces of Jan Brewer and Joe Arpaio in the wet, starchy paper. He let them dry and gave them a few additional features before painting and displaying them near the entrance.
The unforgiving caricatures leapt from the wall; each had a big, ugly nose, beady eyes, and a real creepiness that only Guerrero seems to capture in his wide-ranging collection of masks and profiles.
Guerrero says he wasn't too worried about the accuracy (even if they were dead-on). They were meant to lend a sense of comic relief, he says. "It's what people need now."
He brings his masks to the protests, where he and a group of performers act out scenes with Brewer and Arpaio.
Guerrero plays the devil.
SB 1070 hit Guerrero personally, as well as financially. The performance artist is paid for appearances at conventions and at school assemblies (though not necessarily with the Arpaio/Brewer masks). He says his performances focus on the lessons of César Chávez; lessons of tolerance, diversity, and leadership.
But as soon as the bill was signed, fewer national conferences were booked in Arizona and, to make matters worse, schools were slashing the arts budgets that paid for him to visit.
"I'm not worried about my wallet," Guerrero says. "I'm worried about the younger generations that are missing out on the positive messages . . . I wish I could tell the artists who are aren't coming that our state doesn't need the boycotts, but that it needs the support of other artists that keep the issues at the forefront, to rally and bring community together. We need moral support."
In the meantime, Guerrero tries to keep busy by traveling with his show, which you can catch at the yearly Dia de Los Muertos Festival in Chandler or during the Spanish Market at the Heard Museum. He doesn't have any shows scheduled in Phoenix during the next few months, but you might be able to catch him at a protest.
"I have to do what I do best. Marches will continue, which means I have to continue taking to streets and the schools. It's the only way we're going to make change."
Safwat Saleem isn't one to attend someone else's rally, but the graphic designer threw his own protest of sorts in the form of his one-man show, "A Bunch of Crock," at Bragg's Pie Factory in December.
A series of big posters stood out against the gallery's huge white walls. On one, two men leaned casually against a classic convertible Buick. "Racial Profiling?" The caption, in bold, capital letters: "We don't do that here. Now let's go get that brown fucker."
Saleem gave gallery visitors postcards (miniatures of the big posters), bumper stickers ("Honk If You're Racist"), and parodies of campaign pins.
He set out a large wooden "Box of Bullshit" with several headphones extending from one small hole. The box played loops of ridiculous, funny, and totally depressing political ads from the 2010 midterm election.
Saleem handed out wrist bands — half of the people got green, the other half pink — and played public service announcements over a loud speaker:
Attention, people with green wristbands: Please have your papers ready and be prepared for inspection. An officer will come by shortly to profile you, racially. Thank you.
People laughed, he says. Some even walked out.
Safwat Saleem is not an optimist. The graphic designer moved to Phoenix from Pakistan (via Mississippi) in the early 2000s. He felt racial and cultural tension after 9/11, but says that today's clash is much different — and in some cases, stronger.
For almost 10 years, Saleem jotted down racially biased statements that politicians would make on the campaign trail or immigration statistics often skewed and utilized by SB 1070 advocates.
He paired his interpretations of the statements with vintage advertisements on posters, stickers, and in short videos that he hoped would make people laugh — and think:
• Wearing this flag pin allows me to question your patriotism.
• TV provides me with biased information and I am too fucking stupid to do my own research.
• A vigilant populace is a safe populace.
• Be on the lookout for those bearded fuckers.
To Saleem, SB 1070 added to the language of hatred that's used by politicians to appeal to the lowest common denominator — basically, anyone who will listen and absorb.
Saleem's hope is that people see his work and remember it — that something will click — when they hear similar messages spoken by politicians on TV or radio.
The show had a great turnout. And though his posters and materials are for sale through his website, abunchofcrock.com, he says 40 bucks for a poster that says, "I hate colored people because I am old. What's your excuse?" is a hard sell. You can't really put that up in the office, he says. He also hasn't been contacted since to take the show elsewhere.
Saleem holds fast to his belief that his work isn't making a difference.
"It's a gag reflex . . . or what I sometimes call an exercise in futility," he says. "You can have the best-designed posters in the world and put them up for everyone to see, but there's no guarantee you're going to change the people's minds who actually make and pass legislation." He pauses. "I think I'm giving up."
Diane Ovalle uses examples from the past year's exhibitions while teaching visual arts to teenagers at a public school in South Phoenix (she'd rather not name the school) but also when helping protesters make signs and banners during immigration and SB 1070 rallies.
Ovalle's energy, messy hair, and chipped nail polish give her away as a 20-something who stays up late writing plans for her next lesson and her next meeting with Puente, an Arizona-based grassroots organization that aims to educate people about border issues and draw attention to its cause through protest and civil action.
She doesn't lower her voice on a quiet morning in a downtown coffee shop when she's talking about walking up to the Sheriff's Office with a group of undocumented Arizonans carrying signs that read, "Arrest Me." She doesn't hesitate to show her photos of nearly every protest, sit-in, walkout, and rally before, during, and after SB 1070 was signed, either.
She says her camera's not much. It's a basic Canon SLR — nothing compared to what photographers from major news outlets carried with them to protests and rallies.
But she was always disturbed by what they captured.
"I looked at what was being covered in the media and was confused," she says. "I saw crazy people on camera that were fighting . . . I didn't see who I knew was at the protest: the women on the front lines, the kids who are passionate about their own futures and rights to education . . . I needed to tell their story."
On April 20, Ovalle snapped a photo of a woman who had chained herself, along with seven others, to the state Capitol during an SB 1070 protest. She was wearing a T-shirt, large sunglasses, and was raising one arm with a clenched fist.
After the woman was arrested, Ovalle shared the photo through Puente's website, where it caught the eye of San Francisco-area activist and artist Jesus Barraza.
Barraza is a friend of Ovalle's and big into making visual statements about immigration issues in the United States.
But Ovalle's photo was different.
Barraza took the image and gave it a more graphic look — boosting the contrast and using bright colors to set the girl apart from the building and her surroundings. It had a similar feel to the collaborative works of Ernesto Yerena and Shepard Fairey (also friends of Ovalle's), who created the poster of the young Mexican Girl in a bucket hat that reads "We Are Human," inspired by the iconic civil rights slogan "I Am Man").
Barraza added the caption: "We Will Not Comply.
Ovalle says the poster spread like wildfire.
"It was quick and effective, there was the symbolism of the girl's fist, the symmetry of the colors . . . it gave people who live far away an idea of what's going on here and who's at the middle of the struggle — that's what protest art should be about."
Ovalle teaches these lessons to her teenage art students and those who participate in MEChA, a nationwide campus cultural organization. She says many of her students worry about Arpaio's raids and their family's safety instead of what's on TV or what they're going to wear to school the next day.
"I know what it's like growing up in a rough situation where you have to prove who you are and where you fit in," she says. "I remember listening to Rage Against the Machine in eighth grade and having it click — you can express all of that in art by using your brains and fighting in a constructive way."
Galleries and arts groups are taking advantage of the one-year anniversary of SB 1070 this month to host reactionary shows, some of which are en route to other states considering similar legislation.
At monOrchid on Roosevelt Row, artists from California and Arizona opened a group exhibition, Save Our States (S.O.S.), curated by Ed and Lily Gomez.
The 20-artist show explores the relationship between the neighboring states post-SB 1070 in Arizona and Prop 187 in California — both targeting the rights and services of illegal immigrants. (California's proposition was deemed unconstitutional by then-Governor Gray Davis.)
On the far back wall of the gallery — past the large plastic fence installation, beyond the fake surveillance camera, and just next to the spot where an artist was live-tattooed during the show's opening — there's a piece of twine wrapped and nailed to the wall. Beside it, a three-photo collage and the story of Caroline Maxwell. Maxwell's boyfriend Tony was undocumented; he worked in construction and was a talented carpenter.
Maxwell writes that as they grew closer, their relationship was strained by Tony's growing fear of law enforcement, of background checks, or of getting caught and deported while driving home. Tony started having problems sleeping, was paranoid and guilty for involving his girlfriend in the chaos, and committed suicide.
The twine, Maxwell writes, was from a collaborative art piece she did with Tony two years before he died. They were measuring the acoustics of the desert, holding ends of the skinny rope and talking to each other until their voices faded away.
Gallery visitors linger at this spot, often staring for minutes into the photographs. The authenticity is tangible.
Down 16th Street at The Hive, Julia and Steven Helffrich opened "New World Border," a traveling protest poster show, curated by Los Angeles artist Francisco Dominguez, with work from Calixto Robles, The Roots Factory, and current Black Panther Minister of Culture Emory Douglas.
The group of posters hangs in a small gallery room in plastic sleeves, as directed. Some are mass-printed, others hand-screened. The subjects vary from images of tall borders cutting through relationships and families to bold, raised brown fists. "The law is like a fence," one reads. "Elephants step over, rats pass under, and everyone else gets caught."
Julia says she and Steven both sighed when opening the box and realizing they couldn't hang the work traditionally.
But the show's meant to travel this way — in plastic bags and a box — which means it can be seen by more people, and start more conversations.
Julia says she's okay with that.
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
This summer, Logan Phillips and his organization, "Arizona Between Nosotros" (or "Arizona Between Us"), are raising money to bring Mexican artists across the border.
They're planning a traveling festival in Phoenix, Tucson, and Nogales, Sonora, that will showcase the Mexican artists' work; and they'll host roundtable discussions. Phillips says he hopes the artists can lend their voices and perspectives — often ignored during the SB 1070 conversation — to the "already crowded debate."
The poet and video performance artist was born 14 miles north of the border, in Tombstone. Depending on his performance schedule each year, Phillips spends six months north and six months south of the border, where his casual statement "soy de Arizona" (Spanish for "I'm from Arizona") has taken on a whole new meaning.
"SB 1070 has demonized my community and tarnished the name of the state's people," says Phillips. "The silver lining is that at least we're talking about these things now — the elephant has a name and a face. I just hope it's an opportunity to come together and talk about what it means to live, and live here."