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Tucson reputation as ‘world-class destination’ gets boost from new murals

Rocky Martinez painted the “Goddess of Agave” mural on the Benjamin Supply building at 440 N. 7th Ave. (Photo: David J. Del Grande ; Mural © 2016 Rocky Martinez/Tucson Arts Brigade)

Eight colorful new murals scattered around downtown will do more than beautify Tucson — they’ll provide an economic boost by helping to brand Tucson as an exotic, world class destination, and by reducing the money spent on graffiti abatement, says Michael B. Schwartz, director of the nonprofit Tucson Arts Brigade, which facilitates the City of Tucson Mural Program.

“We did some surveying,” he says, and found that dozens of people have been coming downtown daily just to look at the murals, often staying to dine or shop.

The city has spent hundreds of thousands in recent years to remove graffiti. But murals promote prosocial behavior and discourage tagging by graffiti artists, Schwartz says. “What we are saying is, get permission, get paid, right?” He also believes taggers will be deterred by respect for the art, which has all been created by local artists, but the murals do have a protective coating, just in case.

The murals, which were officially unveiled May 31, bring the Arts Brigade’s inventory of existing murals to 33, says Schwartz, who notes that the organization started its mural program 20 years ago, offering demonstration projects and community arts/education programming. Partnering with the city on smaller projects, including trash container murals, led to the recent project, which has brought art to the walls of Benjamin Supply, Wig-O-Rama, the Rialto Theatre and other businesses — an outdoor, museum-quality gallery, Schwartz says. A $50,000 grant from the Tohono O’odham Nation provided the bulk of the funding, with $2,000 from Visit Tucson and in-kind support from Graffiti Protective Coatings, Inc., and the Downtown Tucson Partnership.

Jessica Gonzales painted the mural at Wig-O-Rama, 98 E. Congress. © 2016 Jessica Gonzales/Tucson Arts Brigade
Jessica Gonzales painted the mural at Wig-O-Rama, 98 E. Congress. © 2016 Jessica Gonzales/Tucson Arts Brigade

The reaction to the murals has been wonderful, says Schwartz, with many other businesses inquiring how they can get one. “Most important for me is that the general public has enjoyed it and it’s triggered their imaginations,” says Schwartz, who does hope to expand the project. (For a map of the eight downtown mural locations, visit

Murals also promote community, he says. “As an organization, we believe one of the ways to achieve tikkun olam (repair of the world) is to teach people physically how do things in their neighborhoods, communities, businesses, to physically alter and make for a better world.”

The murals are “incredibly beautiful, they’ve been really well received,” agrees James Jefferies, marketing manager for the Downtown Tucson Partnership. “Every time I’ve posted a photo of one of those, either when they were in progress or now … being finished, it was this gargantuan ‘likes’ magnet on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.

“This area, which has a history of being so strong with local artists … it’s not just a point of beautification, I think [the mural project] really represents who we are as a community,” he says.

People are coming downtown for many reasons, with restaurants at the top of the list, from the re-opening of Miss Saigon — “that seems to be everybody’s kind of back-pocket favorite dining experience, or one of them,” says Jefferies — to the new Screamery ice cream shop. Maynard’s is partnering with local breweries for a “Sear and Beer” barbecue series on second Saturday nights throughout the summer.

The Fox Tucson Theatre is showing classic films like “Top Gun” and “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” and there’s also a steady stream of live music coming into the Rialto, the Fox and Club Congress this summer, he says.  Cinema La Placita has moved into new digs, he says, with outdoor shows every Thursday evening at the court house for $3, which includes popcorn.

But downtown doesn’t get to have all the fun.

Local First Arizona is once again celebrating “National Independents Week” June 25-July 4, with a Golden Coupon that provides a 20 percent off discount at hundreds of businesses all over the state (download the coupon at

In Tucson, a “Passport to Local Success” highlights 20 of the participating businesses throughout the Tucson area, says Erika Mitnik-White, LFA’s Southern Arizona director. This year’s 20 businesses range from Sweet Repeats Children’s Resale Boutique on Oracle and Magee Roads (across the street from the Jewish Federation’s Northwest office), to The Running Shop on Campbell Avenue, and back downtown to Riveted, interior designer (and former AJP contributor) Jenni Steinberg Pagano’s desert/vintage/modern/industrial home goods and design shop on West Broadway Boulevard.

Visit at least five of the 20, get your passport stamped, and turn your passport back in to Local First to be entered into a drawing with a grand prize of $1,000 in local gift cards and a second prize of a staycation at the Downtown Clifton Hotel Tucson or a $100 gift card.

Mitnik-White emphasizes that when people shop at local businesses rather than national chains, up to four times more money stays in the community. In a community like Tucson, “it really is the key to building a more stable and prosperous economy,” she says, explaining that “if folks shifted even 10 percent [more] of their spending to locally owned businesses, we would have around 1,600 new jobs just in one year.”

In the summer, when things are a little slow, “we want to kick it up a little,” she says. People can join Mayor Jonathan Rothschild in taking the Independents Week pledge to shop locally at a “Pledge and a Pint” party tonight, 4:30-7:30 p.m. at Borderlands Brewery, 119 E. Toole Ave., and receive $1 off a pint — or take the pledge online to be entered to win a Prescott staycation. Passports will be available at the party.

Shopping or dining locally sets off a positive chain reaction, says Mitnik-White.

“That local restaurant owner in turn will use local marketing companies, local web designers, local graphic artists to work up their menus and their advertising. Those folks in turn will use local insurance companies and local construction companies, local landscaping companies — and this is how we build up all those jobs.

“We all vote with our dollars,” she says. “We sometimes like to call it economic gardening: you water what you want to grow.”