Imagine you’re walking down that same street you do everyday, nothing out of the ordinary, following your normal routine. You turn a corner and all of the sudden, you’re face-to-face with a 4-story tall woman with an agave plant growing from the top of her head…
“Mayahuel” Cactus People by Rock Martinez assisted by Cristina Perez
The real beauty of street art is that it pulls us out of the mundane, eyes first, kicking and screaming. That run-down building that no one gives a second glance is now transformed into a stunning work of art that forces passersby to break their day-to-day cycle by shouting “Look at me!”.
Let me take you on a stroll through Downtown Tucson, the city I love, and feast your eyes on these masterpieces of epic proportions.
We start our journey at the north-most mural, located at Speedway and Stone, where the city calls itself by name in this artist collaboration mural, “TUCSON”. Five Artists come together to bring each letter in our city to life, enticing viewers to see what other works of art await along the way.
As we head south, 4-story agave-haired “Mayahuel” greets us at the Tucson Warehouse & Transfer Co. Building, surrounded by cactus and her orange glow, welcoming us into the center of Downtown. As one of the largest murals Downtown, you can’t help but feel her majesty and emanating spirit of the desert. The cacti that surrounds her almost bursts out into the street, thorns on point. She guides us across the train tracks through the Stone Avenue underpass to explore further.
It’s best to simply wander in any and all directions once downtown, as it seems a grand mural awaits to greet you around almost every corner. Just up the road following the train tracks bordering downtown, artist Joe Pagac‘s Borderlands Brewing mural lays out a vast desert scene, providing an almost candid view of overly-personified desert plants and animals, frolicking about the landscape.
Joe Pagac‘s Borderlands Brewing Desert Scene Mural
While our promenade persists off to more structure scenery, ponder this quote from one of my favorite street graffiti artists, Banksy:
Imagine a city where graffiti wasn’t illegal, a city where everybody could draw whatever they liked. Where every street was awash with a million colours and little phrases. Where standing at a bus stop was never boring. A city that felt like a party where everyone was invited, not just the estate agents and barons of big business. Imagine a city like that and stop leaning against the wall – it’s wet.
― Banksy, Wall and Piece
On the subject of great street art being illegal, let’s take one last brief moment before we advance on our website-seeing tour to give thanks to The Tucson Mural Arts Program in partnership with The Tucson Arts Brigade Mural Arts Program as without them, the streets of the Old Pueblo would be but bleak, lifeless, brick and mortar boulevards. Both organizations welcome contributions.
We press on.
A freight train rushes by, horn blaring. The sound stretches across the entire city, rippling through the desert. We come to our next destination. Instantly, we are transported from Sonoran Desert to deep ocean, peeking into the world of the creatures who dwell here, their Clown fish in hand, protected from the sinister shadows of looming sharks. Hold your Breath.
Underwater Mermaids and Clown Fish Mural by Joe Pagac
We resurface as the train operator sounds the last horn and fades into the beyond. The sun’s heat dries us as we move further into the center of downtown. The buildings grow taller and huddle closer together here. Locals cross this street and that, headed to work or grabbing a local bite to eat and a drink with friends. The train with it’s horn heard ’round the city has been replaced by a modern street car with an electronic bell that chimes as it starts and stops. We come upon our next mural. As we walk under it’s overhang overhead, the mural runs up the wall and over our heads as we pass under.
Luis Mena‘s Mural Celebrates the Latino Culture
We go east from here. Just around the way we’re already at the next stop of our tour. Nestled in the alleyway between by a parking lot and a parking garage is our next mural. The irony of a No Parking sign is easily overlooked amidst juicy, good-enough-to-eat oranges. Peeking through the flavorful fruit sits a bright blue quail. Phoenix Artist Isaac Nicholas Caruso wanted to include elements local to Tucson and succeeded with flying colors.
Oranges with a Quail Mural by Isaac Nicholas Caruso
With another electric "Ding-Ding" from the street car, we’re off to the next hidden wonder. White lit crosswalk people signal the flow of the pedestrians and red lit hands count us down ’til we’ve arrived. We stand in an alley between R Bar and the Rialto Theatre. Before us, an angel of music sits upon his Motorcycle, fog rolling in behind him. You can almost hear the engine idling and feel the purple rain on your face. Joe Pagac perfectly immortalizes Prince in this loving tribute mural. “We wish you heaven” in script below.
Prince by Artist Joe Pagac
We walk up historic Congress Street passing two bars, a nightclub, and a pizza place. Cornering the Wig-O-Rama, we are greeted by a 27-feet tall by 32-feet wide three-headed monster! Actually, it’s a creative triple self-portrait piece inspired by the likeness of the artist, Jessica Gonzalez, in her public artwork debut. Each head is fixated on it’s own view and each shows an subtle change in emotion.
I felt it was important to honor the Downtown community. I live here, I work here, I went to Tucson High School. It’s about the connectedness of creative locals and the support system we have.
― Jessica Gonzalez
"Let the Light In" by Artist Jessica Gonzalez
The sun flares down as you squint to the sky through shielded eyes. A towering crane lowers scaffolding onto a half-built hotel as workers below signal and shout directions like aircraft marshals on a runway. You can hear the steel cables twist and strain under the weight. We’ve arrived at our next location.
Two stories up sits former basketball announcer, Bill Walton, riding an over-sized version of the mythical Jackalope. The taxidermy titan seems to leap straight off it’s brick canvas, Bill riding bare-back with a grin.
“Jack & Bill” by Artist Ignacio Garcia
A stone’s throw away we meet the second-to-last mural on our spirit-guided tour. If you weren’t looking for it, you’d miss it in a moment. Cars rush by, more concerned with the traffic in front of them than the beauty that sit’s in wait. She stands with her hands held to her masked face, as curious of us as we are of her. As we leave for our last mural she pleads, “Forget me not”.
“Vergiss” by Artist Fin D.A.C
Heading south now. Buildings begin to shrink behind us as we enter a neighborhood from the 1880s. The Downtown Cliffton Hotel marks our last stop. Before we pick up the keys to our room we say hello to a skeleton cowboy and his lady friend waiting outside. Blanketed in an iconic Arizona mountain sunset, our new friends tip their hats and wish us well.
Skeleton Cowboy and Cowgirl by Artist Danny Martin
I’m proud of where I live and am privileged to support local and global artists at ArtFire.com, which is locally owned and operated in Downtown Tucson. Join me for a future edition of Street Art where we head to historic Fourth Avenue, twisting and winding through it’s back alleyways to discover more hidden gems.
Here is our route, along with several detours around my favorite downtown spots. Click the map to chart your own route.