Phoenix has a lot of murals. Robrt Pela says not all of them deserve to last

By Robrt Pela
Published: Monday, March 7, 2022 - 12:53pm
Updated: Thursday, October 5, 2023 - 4:08pm

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Not so long ago, metro Phoenix felt like one big blank slate — all gray cinderblock and white concrete. That’s changed.

Today, the city is covered in murals. And that raises a question for The Show's culture critic Robrt Pela about the temporary nature of outdoor artwork: What should stay, and what can go?

Mural of birds on a wall
Brian Boner
A mural by Brian Boner on Roosevelt Street in downtown Phoenix.

I spent a lot of last Sunday driving around downtown Phoenix, looking at murals. There were so very many murals. It began to seem as if downtown was just one big mural.

Phoenix is clearly crazy for murals, but most of them don’t stay. I imagine that corporate money ensures a mural’s shelf life, so I expect Jane Goat’s Saguaro-scape on the side of the Hyatt to stay in place, while Hugo Medina and Darrin Armijo-Wardle’s “Malinda,” in a nearby alley will likely be painted over.

Murals are meant to slow us down, to admire our surroundings, and should, I think, be worthy of that admiration. Maybe we expect less of mural art, somehow, because its roots are in street art and we confuse it with graffiti art, which has little to do with portraiture or technique.

I worry that the number of crappy murals overtaking Phoenix walls and alleys are endangering the better-executed, historically valuable murals. The new owners of the building at 16th Street and Thomas that held a mural by the late artist Rose Johnson replaced it with giant ads, I guess because to them it was just some paint on the side of a building.

calvin goode mural
Todd Grossman
A mural painted in memory of Phoenix Councilmember Calvin Goode by Isaac Caruso and Jesse Yazzie at Second and Roosevelt streets in downtown Phoenix.

I understand that the Keith Haring mural — painted in 1986 at the corner of Adams and Central — was meant to be temporary. And that Haring, an internationally admired street artist who died in 1990, wanted it dismantled and hauled away after a year.

But so many other murals seem to come and go.

I’d say let’s keep those that illustrate the times in which they’re created, or that celebrate a moment in our past. I think whether an artist is talented or notable should be considered when we’re covering up a mural. And so I’m not sure about the value of some of the brightly colored, amateurish murals on Roosevelt Row. On one hand, this local arts district, now gentrified beyond recognition, maintains the spirit of the street artists who helped revitalize it with murals by many of those artists. In a way, then, these artists are still there. But their work is crowded out by a lot of clumsy stuff that developers, who don’t care about things like artist spirit, will likely paint over.

malinda mural
Todd Grossman
The mural "Malinda," painted by Hugo Medina and Darrin Armijo-Wardle at the Renaissance Hotel in downtown Phoenix.

If status and price shouldn’t guarantee a mural’s permanence, maybe quality and relevance could. Maggie Keane’s recent memorial to the Birmingham church bombing at Jefferson and 12th Street should be allowed to stay, even after it’s faded and tagged by graffiti artists. Likewise, Isaac Caruso and Jesse Yazzie’s excellent portrait of city councilman Calvin Goode at Second Street and Roosevelt, with its sparkling Phoenix skyline. Or a favorite of mine: those giant Mexican grizzlies, looming over Adams Street, painted by Dutch artists Nevercrew.

Those bears are extinct. Can we at least keep this beautiful, hand-painted reminder of them?

birmingham mural
Todd Grossman
A mural in memory of the 1963 Birmingham church bombing by Maggie Keane in downtown Phoenix.

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