Friday, May 05, 2023

Tucson graffiti art, 1994

In October, 2022, Rock the Spot covered the walls of the Pueblo Parking Systems lot with murals. (We'll have two posts next week with lots of photos.) The story started around thirty years ago, though. Let's look back to the 1990s — mostly 1994 — for some of the early graffiti art in Tucson.

I started by talking with Monty “Ses” Esposito, who was one of the main people behind Rock the Spot. He's been in Tucson since at least the 1990s. After talking with Ses, I searched online and found much more.

(Thanks to Graffiti Empire Graffiti Generator for that writing. I made the three words separately, then joined them into one image.)

Albert Soto and ...

As the tribute page explains, Rock the Spot was dedicated to Albert Soto, who helped urban art develop in Tucson and supported the artists. Ses told me the story on May 2nd.

Ses’ story starts back in the 1990s. He was painting without permission in a wash. Eventually he got permits to do that. Lots of guys painted there. Because he's called Ses, they called it the Ses-pool.

Now graffiti art is often called "street art" and graffiti writers are called "street artists". Back in the 1990s, there was no such word. When artists painted, people would be scared and run away. Now, decades later, they roll down their car windows and wave!

(By the way, Rock “CYFI” Martinez — who's now famous around Tucson and has painted around the world — used to teach a murals school in Tucson. He organized an annual graffiti art painting weekend called WintaFresh; artists came from around the US. One example on this blog is from 2016, when WintaFresh was ending: So long, WintaFresh.)

Next, about Albert Soto. He worked at TPAC (the Tucson-Pima Arts Council, a former incarnation of today's Arts Foundation for Tucson and Southern Arizona). Back then, in the 1990s, people didn't understand how the two words in the term “grafiti art” could go together. It was before the Internet, so people couldn't see examples easily. Albert was one of the few Tucsonans who believed in this art form; he did a lot for local graffiti writers, treated them like artists, and was also a mentor.

Albert spearheaded the Spraycan Art Symposium at Pima Community College and brought some top artists to Tucson. He also helped to create the Spraycan Art show at the Sixth Congress Gallery. There's more on both of those next.

Spraycan Art Show

Around the same time as the Spraycan Art Symposium, the Sixth Congress Gallery held a Spraycan Art show. A May 18, 1994 article in Phoenix New Times titled American GraffitiAerosol Artists Answer Scrawl of the Wild gives an overview of the show and graffiti in Tucson, then covers graffiti in New York City. It's full of fascinating stuff. For instance, the Tucson Police Department actively worked against the Gallery and writers/taggers, even those who did graffiti legally. The show was so controversial that funding for Sixth Congress Gallery dried up and it had to close. And so on. It's a long story but, I think, worth your time if you're interested in this scene!

Three artists — Ses, Sketch, and Demo — were part of a big crowd of artists at 6th & Congress — along with artists who came from New York. The show was the biggest event in Arizona. For instance, Martha Cooper — a photographer who traveled worldwide taking photos of graffiti and murals — was there. She and Henry Chalfant made graffiti famous. Henry also attended the Tucson show. Search online for something like Martha Cooper graffiti or Henry Chalfant subway art — or a mixture of those — to see lots of examples.

Thanks much to a Facebook user named Herm (HermDJ), there's a 15-minute video on Facebook of the Spraycan Art Show at the Sixth Congress Gallery. (Note that there's profanity and other things that might offend some people.) Here's the link; there are details below it:

(At 11:30 — that is, 11 minutes and 30 seconds into the video — you can see the start of the mural that was painted above the Sixth Congress Gallery. At 12:16, 13:19, 14:06, 14:34, and 15:07, it's closer and closer to being finished.)

Next, three screen grabs from near the end of the video Herm posted on Facebook. They show two stages of the mural, and one close-up, painted above the long-gone Sixth Congress Gallery:

In case that video has been removed by the time you read this (for example, Facebook has marked some photos of mine as “not meeting community standards,” even though they were of an inoffensive mural), here's what Herm wrote:
May 1994
Spraycan Art show
Sixth Congress Gallery
Tucson AZ

Way back in 1994, Andy Bernard & David Wright, owners of Sixth Congress Gallery on the corner of 6th Ave & Congress (the building that eventually became Hydra), in conjunction with Pima Community College, put together an art show consisting of works from NY graffiti legends as well as local graffiti stars. Prior to the art show, the legends held court at the Pima [Community College] West auditorium, discussing their history and stories from their fabled careers. It was called Spraycan Symposium and almost every graffiti writer from Tucson, Phoenix and other parts of AZ were in attendance. (In some way or another, almost all of us graffiti writers were in tune with — if not active participants of — each of the "four elements of Hip Hop" back then. Graffiti, B-Boying, rapping & DJing were heavily present at almost every party, jam or get-together.)

As part of the Symposium, the NY graffiti icons painted a mural above Sixth Congress Gallery. Five local graffiti artists were handpicked to work with the NY artists, chosen and paired up according to their individual style & personality. Madcap painted with Lee, Lexx painted with Futura, Such (Phx) painted with Lady Pink, Fyce (Phx) painted with Stash… Chico was the other NY artist but I can't remember who he was paired with.

This relatively short (and admittedly low quality) video I took captures opening night of the Spraycan Art show at the gallery, and some daytime footage of the mural being painted. (I had a video camera and thought it was important to document certain moments back then.) I'll try to tag as many people in this video that I can down in the comments, both here and on Facebook. If you see anybody you recognize, feel free to tag 'em! I've lost touch with some over the years.

What's next?

Next week we'll have photos of the Rock the Spot parking lot before and after the painting, as well as images from BG Boyd Photography showing the work in progress.

Another Rock the Spot is planned for this year (2023). The date should be announced in September.

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