The ‘Real’ Phoenix: Oak Street Alley
As director of the Phoenix Mural Project, I’m always interested in what’s happening in the city's urban outdoor galleries. New canvasses appear all the time — especially with the construction of countless residential high-rises that are adding density to the areas around Arizona State University’s downtown campus and the Roosevelt Arts District. Corporate developers see big dollar signs, and it’s trendy to commission giant, multi-story murals for their cookie-cutter complexes. They’ve mostly contracted with local artists, which is good for Phoenix artists and the creative economy. And while the art that gets approved for these massive developments is usually nice to look at, it often lacks any context or meaning.
If you want a more authentic experience of Phoenix’s street art culture, you have to visit the grass-roots mural project in Oak Street Alley. Between 14th–16th Streets in the Coronado Historic District, you’ll find an alley lined with the city’s ubiquitous cinder block walls. The area’s caretaker — a zany guy who goes by the pseudonym Phil Freedom — zooms around the neighborhood in his golf cart rallying the community. He says Oak Street Alley provides a restriction-free opportunity for artists to share ideas with their peers and present their work to wider audiences.
About once a year, Freedom organizes a giant weekend paint party in the alley. Artists, musicians, and food trucks celebrate the city’s motley creative spirit and visitors crowd in to enjoy the spectacle. The aroma of street tacos and spray paint waft through the air. Sadly, this year’s festival was cancelled because of the COVID-19 pandemic. But that doesn’t mean you can’t be socially-distant and go check out all the new artwork that keeps popping up in Phoenix’s streets and alleys.
The most recent mural at Oak Street Alley honors George Floyd, a black man killed by police in Minneapolis on May 25, 2020. The artist, Bacpac, wants to spark community dialog about the systemic racism that permeates American culture. A caption in carefully painted letters above the image reads “the price of black lives,” a reference to Mr. Floyd’s violent encounter with police that began with a conflict over a $20 bill. Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin was fired and charged with second-degree murder for kneeling on Mr. Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes.
Oak Street Alley features other justice-oriented murals as well. Local street artist, Angel Diaz, created an emotionally-charged, multi-panel piece that features a timeline of social injustice throughout U.S. history. The first panel depicts a ship off the coast of Mexico: the arrival of European colonists. Other panels portray slaves, soldiers, and crowds of KKK antagonists. Diaz ends his narrative with an image for our current times — combining a MAGA hat, ICE raids, and scenes of protesters fighting for justice. This mural was completed in 2016. In hindsight, it was an uncanny prediction of things to come.
Upwards of 30 murals can be seen along this quarter-mile pathway. To see Oak Street Alley in person is to experience the diverse cacophony of creative voices from all across the city. In addition to civically-minded pieces, there are numerous images inspired by nature, comics, spirituality, and pop culture. Recent grads should come for the tribute mural that celebrates the Class of 2020. And, while you’re there, be sure to look for Maggie Keane’s retro 1980s synth-pop band, Gori Bautista’s gorilla soldier, Ashley Macias’ psychedelic human figures, and Isaac Caruso’s homage to the Hindu deity Ganesha.
Whether Phoenix is home or you’re visiting for the first time, get off the beaten path to Oak Street Alley. You won’t regret it.
©2020 Danielle Foushée / No part of this essay or accompanying photos may be reproduced without written consent from the author.