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First Studio Mural in Downtown Phoenix Gets Tacky Makeover Thanks to American Express

A mural once imbued with authentic local love has been transformed into an American Express ad.

For several years now, people cruising down Central Avenue near Civic Space Park in downtown Phoenix have been greeted by a blast from the past —- a mural depicting a trio of local legends from bygone television days. First created in wheatpaste by artists Nomas, Casebeer, and Jenny Ignaszewski, it’s an homeage to The Wallace and Ladmo Show, one of America’s longest running TV shows for children.

The mural is located on the north side of First Studio, which was once home to KPHO TV-5 where the show was shot and broadcast from. It captures iconic characters from the show, including sidekicks Ladmo and Wall-boy, and local legend Pat McMahon in Gerald drag. In 2012, New Times named it the best Wallace and Ladmo mural. And let's face it. It's not like there was any competition. 

But recent changes, undertaken this month by local artist Hugo Medina and San Francisco muralist Shawn Bullen, transformed the piece into a garish eyesore. With permission from First Studio’s owners, they’ve added a trio of new faces to the wall. Instead of enhancing the mural, they’ve rendered it completely devoid of charm.

The change was undertaken as part of an American Express initiative called Shop Small, designed to encourage consumers to buy from local businesses. Their annual Small Business Saturday takes place this year on November 28. Hit the American Express website and you'll be able to search for local businesses that have at least one thing in common: They accept the American Express credit card.

In years past, they’ve commissioned artists in other states to create murals that encourage shopping locally. In 2014, the art publication Juxtapoz ran an interview with Seattle artist Mary Iverson about her Shop Small mural for a neighborhood near her studio. Bullen's first mural for Shop Small went up last year in San Francisco. 

On October 22, Bullen posted on his Facebook page, “I am working with Shop Small to do a mural in Phoenix next month. I need to find a publicly visible wall. If you have any suggestions for who I can contact please let me know. Thank you so much.” He ended up calling one of the First Studio owners, Theresa Murray, who put him in touch with Medina.

Murray and her husband Randy had already been thinking about updating the mural to include references to additional iconic figures on the Arizona art scene, and say they got to work with the artists on coming up with the design. They donated the wall, and weren't paid for participating in the project. But both artists were paid by Shop Small for their work, according to Bullen.

Medina describes the wall's central figure, which he painted, as a young Steven Spielberg. It’s a reference, says Murray, to the fact that a snippet of one of Spielberg's short films shot during student days was broadcast on a 1962 episode of The Wallace and Ladmo Show. But people passing by will be hard-pressed to decipher who is depicted, and why. 

To Spielberg’s left, there’s a young woman sporting oversize sunglasses and a Navajo man whose image was culled from a photograph taken by Barry Goldwater, the conservative Republican who served five terms as Arizona senator and lost his 1964 presidential bid. Photograpy was one of Goldwater's hobbies.

Medina describes them as references to Arizona’s future and past, noting that both figures were painted by Bullen. Bullen had planned to finish the mural early last week, but was still making some small adjustments to the piece atop a scissor lift over the weekend. Sadly, touch-ups can't change the awkward differences in scale between figures painted now and before, or make the new neon colors mesh with the primary colors used for a portion of the original mural.

Medina recalls painting the Wallace and Ladmo mural at First Studio a couple of years ago after the original wheatpaste image began wearing away, and describes it as the first mural piece he painted in Phoenix on his own. Medina says he's painted about 40 murals since. 

Near the center of the mural is a film strip with images taken from local life in downtown Phoenix – El Mac’s mural on Flowers Beer & Wine, Jobot Coffee, and more. But there’s also the circular Shop Small logo. Final finessing in recent days included darkening the lines in the film strip portion of the mural, and adding more detail to the scene depicting local small businesses. 

Using murals as a means of branding isn’t new, of course. The west-racing exterior wall of Modified Arts is routinely repainted with fresh murals publicizing local festivals, theater productions, and concerts. Before opening day for the Mesa extension of the Valley Metro Light Rail, muralist Lauren Lee was commissioned to create a Mesa mural on a courtyard wall along Main Street.

But neither impacted pre-existing murals, as does the Bullen and Medina collaboration at First Studio — which is an ugly reminder of all the ways mixing art and commerce can go horribly wrong.