Three years ago, I started Phoenix Taco from the most humble beginnings. I wanted to discover a different side to where I live and showcase what I had found to its inhabitants. Having grown up in the suburbs, I felt incredibly detached from my surroundings, disgruntled and desperate to cling on to any sort of identity offered by the desert city.
Phoenix Taco has always been about creating a sense of community around something positive, but I realize now that it was also a personal journey. I needed to believe that Arizona is more than the desolate, cultural-wasteland of endless freeways and beige strip-malls that it looks to be at first glance.
I refused to believe that my hometown was the one portrayed by politicians, leaders, and the media—and I rejected their vision of endless golf courses surrounded by air-conditioned mansions.
Armed with nothing other than a point-and-shoot camera and a dangerous sense of curiosity, I set out to explore alleyways, sewage canals, abandoned buildings and neighborhoods in Phoenix and Arizona at large, taking me to nearly ever corner of this state.
What I sought after more than anything was graffiti, embarking on a tireless pursuit to expose a cultural underbelly of the Phoenix. What I ended up discovering, however, and what continued motivating me throughout the years was something much larger.
Everywhere I went, I encountered the people and stories that truly make this state what it is. From the high deserts of Navajo Nation, to the expansive canals of Tucson, to the inner city pulse of our capital—I believe that this is a place filled with stories waiting to be told.
Sadly, it is now time for Phoenix Taco to be laid to rest, but not without giving one final thank you to everyone who helped keep it going over the past three years. This has never been my project alone, and I’m glad to have shared it with so many people.
There is also a beginning to this end. I am working hard on developing Sprawlr, a new publication for Arizona and beyond that will go in-depth into a much wider range of topics. I hope you will follow me as I continue to capture the stories that make our home what it is. Until then . . .
It’s less than a week to go before Willo North Gallery opens its doors for its next show as Joseph “Sentrock” Perez and Martín Moreno sit side by side.
Their art rests on the ground, canvasses lining the walls, waiting to be hung for the month long exhibit. Luis Gutierrez, the third artist in the show, has work en route from California and gallery owner Kristin Shears can be heard securing its safe arrival over the phone.
Months of preparation will soon pay off as loose ends are tied together in the final days before the opening. The show, appropriately titled, “Generations: Inspirations of Bird City”, features the three artists whose ages and experiences span decades.
For Perez and Moreno, it’s part of a story that began over twenty years ago.
Moreno, who was born in Michigan in 1950, flourished in public art communities across the country before moving to Phoenix twenty-five years ago, bringing with him a vision and intent not yet cultivated in the Valley art scene. His murals commonly depict the struggles of Latino youth as he had seen growing up—images of drugs and violence permeating his work.
He developed as an artist in the late 60s/early 70s when federal funding for arts and humanitarian purposes was abundant, opening a school in Michigan using grants from these programs. Deriving inspiration from Riviera, Orozco, and Siqueiros— “Los Tres Grandes” of the Mexican mural movement, Moreno worked with others using public art as a tool for community outreach and educational programs.
“Eventually, the money dried up, the program went away, but the movement stayed and that whole philosophy of giving back to your community and creating art, creating art in communities and poor neighborhoods—that mentality stayed,” Moreno explains.
A whole generation of artists came of age during this time, moving across the country and bringing with them brands of this mentality. When Moreno arrived in Phoenix, it was a different city, but his message remained the same.
“I’ve always advocated public art, because that’s my life—that art should be available to all people regardless of where you’re from, whether you live in the barrios or in the neighborhood. Economic or social boundaries should have no part in your access to art,” he says.
This sentiment wasn’t exactly prevalent here at the time of Moreno’s arrival. Coming from Michigan, where he enjoyed a healthy reputation as a muralist, to Phoenix, where the muralismo movement was slow to arrive, was a difficult transition.
“At that time there were like a handful of artists that were doing [murals in Phoenix]. The investment in public art was not that great. We would use cheap paint and paint any way we could, anywhere we could, but still maintain the quality of the work, the integrity of the work,” Moreno says.
Today, murals depicting issues of social and racial justice in Phoenix are abundant and Moreno can be credited with laying the foundation for the new generation creating them. While the medium has changed from paintbrushes to aerosol cans as muralists heavily adopt stylistic elements of the graffiti movement, the messages are almost unchanged.
One experience in particular stands out to Moreno and took place during those early years when he spent time working with the students at Esperanza Elementary School in West Phoenix. His lessons on art history and methods culminated at the end of the twenty-day program into a mural painting on the school’s exterior, involving the students and incorporating them into mural’s subject matter.
It was evident that one of the students was particularly talented and engaged in his lessons, although also quiet and reserved, hardly speaking throughout the entire program despite Moreno’s efforts. On the last day of painting, Moreno recalls feeling a tug at his pant leg and turning around to see this student staring up at him.
“He looks up and he says, ‘Thanks’ . . . and that’s all I heard from him”, he recounts.
It was a small accomplishment, but one Moreno took with him, as this student became an intricate part of his lecture given all over the country.
The student was Joseph Perez, an Arizona native belonging to the new generation of artists Moreno helped to inspire. At the time, there was no way of knowing how large of an impact he would have on the first grader growing up in West Phoenix, which presented little opportunity for exposure to the arts.
“I was the kid that never talked and him telling my principal that [I was] gifted . . . before that I never felt like I was gifted,” Perez says. “I’m getting choked up . . . it means that much to me.”
Perez has certainly come a long way from those days. He relocated to Chicago in the past year to pursue a Bachelors of Art and Design from Columbia College and has since been making a name for himself in the new city—winning Bucket Feet’s latest contest, where his submission was chosen from hundreds to be the design for their next shoe. This is amidst the gallery openings, commissions, and murals he’s also been busy with.
“I might never have been an artist if it wasn’t for [Martín] coming, just because of my environment and the atmosphere. Nobody in my family was into art, nobody in my neighborhood was into art,” Perez says, “Growing up, pretty much every family member was into gangs, and that environment was intense . . . I felt like I was pretty voiceless.”
Sitting inside Willo North Gallery, Moreno nods his head as Perez tells this story.
“That is the power of art, right? Ultimately, that is what it’s supposed to do—give you a voice,” Moreno adds.
Now, more than twenty years after that initial encounter, Perez is displaying his art alongside the man who inspired him to speak up as a young boy. It’s a story that shows the tremendous effects Moreno and others like him have on the communities they work in.
Perez is well aware of this too, recognizing his responsibility to helping future generations, just as Moreno helped him, because while the style of art, locations, and people may differ, the messages of giving back to your community and creating art remain intact.
Photos from “Relax It’s Just Life” by Randal Wilson, which showed at Modified Arts during the months of June and July.
Presented in 2010, “A Bunch of Crock” was an exhibit from graphic designer and Phoenix-based artist Safwat Saleem that focused on “the absurdities of political campaigns and the unfortunate role of minorities”. I only came across photos and works from the exhibit recently through Saleem’s website and was immediately struck by how relevant they are to the current political and social climate, especially here in Arizona. For that reason, I’m compelled to share them here. Featured above are prints from the series, which you can purchase at Saleem’s online store.
To learn more, visit the project website here.]]>
“Growing up in the damp and subtropical Deep South in the late 60’s early 70’s I was faced with the problem of deciphering the messages behind the schizophrenia-inducing images thrown at me via all media, especially TV. How was I to reconcile these images and messages with what my life actually was?
I was affected deeply by the “Keep America Beautiful” advertising campaign that starred Iron Eyes Cody (born Espera DeCorti). Specifically, when a bag of garbage came flying out of a passing car and landed, exploding at his feet.
My people had done this. My brother had been that unidentified person in that car. The garbage had been ours. The road was on the way home from our weekends with our grandparents at our river house. The occurrences were many. The guilt and shame were uncomfortable. That guilt and shame were added to the other layers of guilt and shame that came with being a Southerner at that time in history. A time when the educated adults often told me, thankfully, “Do as I say and not as I do.”
My guilt and shame have been simmering inside me for so long they have become a part of me; they are a catalyst for my actions. By collecting these items of suburban litter on my frequent neighborhood walks I am genuflecting as penance for the sins of my people. I am attempting to make reparations for the wrongs done by my ancestors.
By sorting, cleaning, and packaging these items I am making tidy a shameful past.”
Mimi Jardine’s “Don’t Cry For Me Espera DeCorti”
Eye Lounge Gallery June 21st – July 14th.
Photos from “Chola Kitty”, Such Style‘s show at the Arizona Latino Arts & Cultural Center (ALAC) during the month of June.]]>
A commissioned mural in Cave Creek, AZ by Alyssa Burke]]>