A mural project and new gallery on 16th Street add flavor to First Friday art walks.
It starts with a vaguely familiar face, painted in black-and-gray on the side of a building at the corner of 16th and Windsor streets. The portrait of a young Mexican man with a dark mustache and sunglasses makes passersby stop and say, “I swear I know that guy!” before seeing that the image segues into sugar skulls and jagged abstract patterns of silver and green.
The mural is intended to inspire a walking tour – luring people toward the dozens of other colorful murals in this motley but steadily-improving pocket of Central Phoenix. It’s also the domain of Por Vida, a new art gallery collaboratively owned by three graffiti artists – Lalo Cota, Pablo Luna and Thomas “Breeze” Marcus. “This is an anonymous person,” Luna says of the portrait, which was created by world-renowned Valley spray-artist Miles “El Mac” MacGregor. “It’s just some guy, but he symbolizes at least 80 of the fools in this neighborhood. I’ve seen this guy walk by 20 times already.”
If Luna and his partners are successful, Valley art enthusiasts will echo the sentiment. Located just a few doors down from mega-popular Mexican eatery Barrio Cafe, the gallery is the latest addition to the burgeoning Calle 16 arts district. Conceived by Barrio Cafe owners Silvana Salcido Esparza and Wendy Gruber, Calle 16 – which extends south on 16th street from Thomas Road and includes The Hive gallery off Cypress Street – is a broad, community-driven project intended to enhance the area’s culture and cuisine, beautify its streets and develop artistic talent. The project’s mandate includes a series of curbside murals – an “art gallery you can drive through,” in the words of Cota.
It was an irresistible motif for Cota, Luna and Marcus, all mid-’90s pioneers of the Valley’s graffiti scene who helped street art make the jump to local galleries. Before landing their new spot, the trio – who did group shows at the now-defunct 5 & 6 Gallery in Old Town Scottsdale – considered popular art walk arteries Roosevelt and Grand for their new space but were drawn here by Barrio Cafe and the Calle 16 community. Together, they hope to open up a new vein on Downtown’s First Friday art walk and stimulate business on 16th Street. “When people are working on murals, there are tons of people from the neighborhood involved,” says Cota, who is planning a unified wraparound mural for the Por Vida/Barrio Cafe building. “And that’s one of the motivations to open this place.”
The gallery, which will include a merchandise area where collectors can shop for things like stickers, buttons and glass jewelry emblazoned with graffiti-style art, opens February 3 with a large exhibition by Pablo Luna. Shows are booked through December, including graffiti artist Mondo in March, and a group show dubbed The Nitty Gritty in July. The mural on the outside wall will be repainted for every new show. Eventually, Por Vida’s proprietors would like to host street-art mural classes for kids and teens.
“I think it’s important that we build this sort of – not just artist community, but muralist community, because Phoenix is not known for that,” Marcus says. “I’ve heard people say it’s one of the ugliest cities, because it’s so blank. Beige walls. Here, we’re making an effort to bring life to the city.”
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