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How Tucson artist Rock Martinez evolved from tagger to muralist

How Tucson artist Rock Martinez evolved from tagger to muralist

Rock Martinez’s office is a late ’90s Mazda, a dark, faded green beater. He opened the trunk and waved his arm over several boxes of rainbow colored aerosol paint cans.

“I have about 300 cans in here,” he said with a mix of pride and sheepishness.

But don’t expect to find black or white paint in the back of his rolling office. The yin and yang of the palette make for lousy art, he said.

Martinez is all about colors. Big, bold, bright colors that grab the eyes and keep them.

We’re standing a few yards from a large mural painted on a private residence in the Mercado San Agustín barrio on Tucson’s west side, at the foot of Sentinel Peak. The images of Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, the iconic wife and husband Mexican artists, are set against a backdrop of gussied-up female and male calaveras and La Catrina, the finely dressed female skeleton.

The mural, which was commissioned by Paolo DeLorenzo, the home owner and one of the Mercado’s two builders, is a riot of colors, full of vibrancy. It is Martinez’s most recent mural in Tucson, which he completed last November for the annual All Souls Procession.

Martinez’s murals can also be found in Minneapolis; he divides his time between there and Tucson.

“I’m having the best of both worlds,” Martinez said Thursday morning, a day before he flew back to Minnesota for the weekend before returning to Tucson to continue painting.

“I do what I do. It’s all I know,” he said.

The 37-year-old Tucson native, who grew up on the south side and has become one of the city’s best known muralists, is on a roll. He has pending work here and more in Minneapolis, where he spends much of his time since his first commission there three years ago.

He’s not giving up on Tucson, however. He has family here, including a son. But in Minneapolis there are more walls to paint murals on and more money for his art. Moreover, he said, “I’ve reached my peak of what I can do now in Tucson.”

Still, with seven commissions in Tucson, Martinez, who attended Cholla and Pueblo magnet high schools, will continue making his mark here.

His biggest mural to date is “Goddess of agave (Cactus people)”, which he created with Cristina Perez, on the Tucson Warehouse Supply Building, which houses Benjamin Plumbing Supply at 440 N. Seventh Ave. The majestic 50-by-54-foot mural just north of downtown, part of the Arts Brigade Mural program, became an instant icon in Tucson. It was one of eight murals created in downtown last year.

“The addition of Rocky’s exquisite mural has not only inspired and awed people, but served as a landmark and destination. People have been thrilled to see the downtown come to life, and be welcomed by such beautiful imagery,” said Michael Schwartz, president of the nonprofit Tucson Arts Brigade, which sponsors the citywide mural program. The program has sponsored 34 murals, many of them in neighborhoods.

Martinez is an artist and muralist. He also calls himself a graffiti writer. In his inner core he is a graffiti artist. He is proud of his graffiti past. While many people still stew over tagged walls and consider it vandalism, Martinez defends it as art work.

“Graffiti is the spotlight art right now,” he said.

Martinez got his artistic start when he tagged a fence near home. He went on from there, spray painting garbage cans, walls, sides of train cars. It was illegal and he was busted. While he was tagging, he came to realize that his work, if done in the right context, could be productive. He could make money painting murals on walls, with the building owners’ permission.

His first mural, he remembered, was on a pizza joint on South Sixth Avenue near West Ajo Way. It’s gone now, as are others of his early murals. And he’s fine with the fact that some art works will either be painted over or the wall will be demolished.

“Nothing is forever,” he said.

Ironically, his tagging led him to where he is now: a muralist with a growing national reputation. His work has also taken him abroad. Last year he visited Mexico with other artists. And it was in Mexico City that he sought out the art of muralist Rivera, whose many works include “Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in Alameda Central Park,” a sprawling mural with dozens of characters strolling through the city’s largest park while reflecting on centuries of Mexico’s history.

Martinez knew it was something he wanted to bring home. On the Mercado home, he painted “Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in Menlo Park.”

Ernesto Portillo Jr. is editor of La Estrella de Tucsón. He can be reached at 573-4187 or On Twitter: @netopjr

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