David Tineo's murals have been taken down and discarded while the paint was still wet. They've been left in the sun to fade, painted over, bulldozed and even blown up.

"Murals are ephemeral things," said folklorist Jim Griffith, "and that's the way they're supposed to be."

Tineo knows this, embraces it even.

He says often that the process of painting a mural is more important than the finished product, but most of his work is meant to endure for a time.

The one that was blown up — that was intentional. Tineo was part of a crew of mural artists hired to create an art-decorated Peruvian village south of Tucson that would be destroyed during the finale of the movie "Iron Eagle III."

One of his tasks was painting a 45-foot-tall Incan deity on a curved surface. Tineo went right to the wall and started painting, said Tucson artist and UA art professor Alfred Quiroz, giving the movie's art director fits. He wanted a plan.

Tineo picked up a piece of cardboard, drew some graph lines on it and quickly sketched the proposed mural.

It's the Tineo style. He paints quickly, guided by the images in his mind.

Lisa Cuestas was an aide to former Tucson City Councilman Fred Ronstadt when Tineo was asked to create a mini-mural for 18 mariachis to present to the mayor of Almaty, Ka- zakhstan, one of Tucson's Sister Cities.

He met with the committee, collected information and "laid it out within two days."

Cuestas, who grew closer to Tineo through several city projects, said he rightly resists calls to "slow down and put more detail" in his work.

"It goes against who he is as a painter. We should just value it for what it is, not try to change him and mold him into a 'fine' artist," Cuestas said.

Tineo will sketch out his ideas when required. The Tucson Museum of Art retains a plan he and muralist Antonio Pazos provided for a wall mural painted there on 30 8-by-12-foot plywood panels in 1992.

The finely detailed pencil sketch resembles the finished work, but Tineo didn't refer to it as he painted his half of the 1,920-square-foot mural in three weeks. "People ask how long it took. I tell them three weeks and 45 years."

He's even quicker with help, and the bulk of Tineo's work was done with helpers, school- children who learned about their community and culture in designing the murals and discovered the joy of creating a work of art while helping to paint them.

Art is for the people, he says. It should be accessible in everyday life. You have to put it out there — to be enjoyed, to be liked or disliked, even to be abused and discarded.

Tineo filled that role for Tucson, said Griffith. "He's terrific and he's terribly important in the history of the mural movement and the visual history of this town."

It's a disappearing history.

At a local Mitsubishi dealership, where Tineo painted the history of the Jeep for Steve Christy, the images he painted on two walls were walled over when Christy moved his Chrysler/Jeep dealership. Christy, who still owns the building, said he required his tenant to preserve the murals, but doesn't know what their eventual fate will be.

Murals Tineo painted for El Charro Cafe at Tucson International Airport will be demolished soon as the airport remodels for a new tenant.

A mural he painted on the UA campus for the 30th anniversary of the University of Arizona Press faces south. It's cracking and fading, and parts are hidden behind the canopy of a huge mesquite tree the university planted soon after he finished it in 1990.

The Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum recently took down a desert mural that Tineo's class at Pima Community College painted. That one, built to be portable, was taken to Pima's Desert Vista Campus, where it will soon hang among the other murals done by Tineo's classes over the years.

Tineo continues to add art to Tucson, despite the loss of his central vision to macular degeneration.

Over the past few months, Tineo has added to his decorative artwork at El Parador restaurant, proposed an indoor mural for Hotel Congress and agreed to supervise the painting of a community mural in his neighborhood, Menlo Park.

Tineo says community art should represent our hope for the future.

Our earliest art, those cave drawings of a successful hunt, can be interpreted as documentary, but he prefers to believe that the art came first, that it contributed to the survival of the clan by envisioning success.

It is that sense that Griffith finds inspiring — "His murals are always pretty darned optimistic."

Also provocative. "The artist puts things on the table when many of us are too timid to do so," said Stephen Vollmer, curator of Art of the Americas at Tucson Museum of Art.

Tineo's museum mural still has that impact, Vollmer said. "It gives me goose bumps."

The mural was commissioned by the museum for a traveling exhibition titled Chicano Art: Resistance and Affirmation." Meant to hang for four months, it's there 14 years later.

It is a classic Chicano mural, with historical and mythological images from the Aztec period, through the Spanish conquest and the creation of a Mexican and Chicano culture.

Tineo has never labored in anonymity. Photographs of children painting brightly colored murals are irresistible to photographers, and Tineo's projects showed up regularly in local newspapers and on television.

But he made little money on those projects and made little on the canvases he sold over the years just to keep going.

On Tuesday, he received his biggest honor so far — the Governor's Arts Award presented to him by Gov. Janet Napolitano.

Tineo recognizes that his current fame rests partly on his struggle with macular degeneration. "I get angry because I don't see as much as I want to. At the same time, would anybody be paying attention? Would you be writing a story? It's a blessing, too."

Vollmer said Tineo's legacy is longer than the life of his public art. It lives in a Chicano art movement that "is stronger than ever." The museum this year is spotlighting the work of six Latino artists under the banner "Vistas of the Frontera."

"All of these young artists coming up have had these mentors, and David has had that role in Tucson," Vollmer said.

Tucson Chicana artist Tanya Alvarez met Tineo while she was studying art at the UA. "Growing up, I had always seen his murals and said, 'Whoever this person is, I love his work.' "

She sought him out, wanting to join him on a mural project.

Alvarez was a single mom with three children, being pulled and pushed into doing something more practical.

"He said, 'You can do this. Look at me. Not everyone likes me, likes my painting. I'm not the richest person, but I have to do this. I've always been a painter.' "

It took Alvarez 10 years to graduate, working and raising her family. She would drop out and go back, but kept at it.

Today she teaches art and does art therapy — and, in a room off her kitchen, paints canvases of strong women and images of her heritage.

She said Tineo is an Aztec eagle warrior.

In legend, aging eagles fly to their aeries to decide whether they have the strength of spirit to go on. "If they make a decision to live, they grow new feathers, their eyesight improves and they fly down."

"That's how I see him. I really do. He's fighting to keep his spirit alive, not just his eyesight."

● Contact reporter Tom Beal at 573-4158 or tbeal@azstarnet.com.