By Glen Luke Flanagan
On Roosevelt Street, a skeleton in an evening dress grins maniacally as she clutches a microphone and prepares to sing. Not too far away, on North First Street, a man without skin is brought to life by the breath of God. These are just two of the murals to be seen as one wanders downtown in Phoenix.
Much like the man in the second mural, street art has breathed a new life into the downtown area over the last few years.
“It’s evolved so much since I moved here in 2004, and the street art is part of that evolution,” said Carrie Marill, a local artist and muralist who helps run the Combine Studios residency program at Arizona State University for international artists.
While the area was considered dangerous just a few years ago, Marill explained, things have started looking up since artists began buying studio space and making the local buildings their canvases.
“A lot of the places were run-down and closed, and so artists have been buying up some of the property and turning it into small businesses, art galleries, restaurants,” she said. “Most of what’s downtown here is privately owned, and I think that’s important.”
Even though art has made an impact on the community, the journey hasn’t been entirely smooth. Street art has to fight an association with illegal graffiti and tagging.
“It’s a little bit more random, haphazard, because street art is still a little more bold, and typically it has been illegal,” explained Joey Grether, a born-and-raised Phoenix local who has been involved in the art and music scene for the last 15 years.
But legitimized street art could be a way to get young people involved and keep them away from criminal graffiti, according to Gennaro Garcia, an artist who has worked in Phoenix for the past 12 years.
“Instead of doing vandalism, they create art,” he said. “The next thing you know, they’re helping you with the mural. They get involved with the mural, and they protect the mural, because they’re part of it. They’re not going to tag the mural.”
Garcia donates murals to local schools in an effort to get children involved in the arts, with the cost of materials and food covered by a private sponsor.
Public Information Officer Tommy Thompson with the Phoenix Police Department also sees the art movement as a positive influence on the community.
“I think, at least as far as Phoenix goes, we have seen a change in the 30 years I’ve been a cop,” he said. “You’ll see more things that would be classified as art or something of that nature.”
The downtown scene is even elevating urban art to a place where it’s recognized as an elegant form of expression, equal to older, more traditional styles.
“A hundred years ago, if Van Gogh or Monet had spray paint, they would be doing this,” Garcia said. “It’s so amazing to paint with the spray, to paint outside.”
While he hopes to see the art scene spread from downtown to other areas of Phoenix, Garcia explained that dense paperwork and a lack of funding is hamstringing artists who might otherwise expand.
Marill, too, hopes to see the art scene expand and attract a wider audience.
“I think more people should come downtown, not just for First Fridays, but for other things, like Third Fridays, to come down and actually look at the art and what people are doing down here,” she said. “It’s growing and thriving, it’s just we’re doing it our own way. It’s not necessarily the way they’re doing it in other places.”