Rock Martinez spent his teen years honing his art on Tucson’s streets, whether it was welcome or not.
It was often a gun-and-run effort, as Martinez spray-painted his alias in large, stylized letters across a previously pristine wall or decorated the side of a weathered train car with colorful geometric shapes.
As he entered adulthood, an arrest for vandalism and the birth of his son set him on the path to legitimacy.
“I was doing a lot of graffiti around town, got in a lot of trouble, had to deal with probation. . . . Now I get paid for everything I do,” he said.
If you’re not familiar with Martinez’s aerosol art, you soon will be. You’ll see it every time you drive through downtown.
Martinez, 27, is the owner of Art Terrain, a graffiti art supply store on Congress Street. He recently received a small grant to organize a multi-artist collaboration and create an aerosol art mural on the outer west wall of the historic Rialto Theatre at 318 W. Congress.
Fanciful images that look like they came out of a kid’s sketchbooks – and they did – are spreading across the wall that stretches for half a city block at Congress and Fifth Avenue.
The main artists are Martinez, Chris Rush, Eurice Gomez and Alex Fass. The mural also will feature the work of about a dozen youth artists, Martinez said. They show Martinez their sketches. If he approves, they get a spot on the wall.
So far, the wall is decorated with a ladybug, skulls, an oversized baby, a monkey face and the logo for Martinez’s business.
Martinez and Rush will add photo-realistic images of children drawing, so that it appears as if the children are sketching the images on the wall. Just for fun, realistic insects will run across the whole thing.
“So, it’s going to look like the kids are drawing, but, at the same time, like a photo that insects are walking over,” Martinez said.
He said the wall previously was covered with stencil art and, later, artwork by Rush that was vandalized.
Because Martinez’s shop is less than a block away, he approached Rush one day to assure Rush that he wasn’t responsible for the damage. Rush, an established artist whose work has received numerous exhibitions, suggested they collaborate on a mural. Martinez loved the idea.
“People would assume, no, we’re graffiti kids. They’re not going to let us do a painting right in the middle of downtown,” he said.
But he sought and received the permission of Doug Biggers, executive director of the Rialto. He followed up by successfully applying for a grant from the Tucson Pima Arts Council.
“He gets a free piece of artwork. We get a free billboard for our shop. The kids get a way to express themselves,” Martinez said.
Martinez, the son of a construction worker and a home healthcare provider, is a graduate of Pueblo High Magnet School.
While living on Tucson’s South Side during his teen years, he started his own tagging crew. He got caught painting train cars near the Barraza-Aviation Parkway. He spent three years on probation and paid “a huge fine.”
He still fights the urge to splash his alias across the random empty wall.
“I have that want to go out there . . . but I have way too much to lose,” Martinez said.
In July 2005, he opened Art Terrain. He’s also an instructor with Art in Reality, a city of Tucson program that offers free art classes to youths 14 to 21.
“I teach kids how to use a spray can to make art rather than to vandalize,” he said.
His main income comes from the completion of about 20 commissioned works a year, at no less than $2,000 per commission.
He’s painted murals for tattoo shops and the Nimbus Brewing Company. He’s responsible for the exploding heart mural on the front of Coffee Vein on North Stone Avenue near Drachman Street. He once covered a flower shop in flowers and angels, a job that earned him $9,000.
“I’m not a starving artist because I paint what people want. . . . You wouldn’t believe how many cactus and mountain scenes that I’ve painted,” Martinez said.
He doesn’t mind. The regular paychecks allow him to do the work he wants to do. And even with commissioned work, he’s often able to persuade customers to let him do it his way.
“I’m doing 20-foot Gila monsters clawing the sides of people’s buildings . . . and huge saguaros and huge birds,” he said.
Legit but, somehow, still subversive.
Anne T. Denogean can be reached at 573-4582 and firstname.lastname@example.org. Address letters to P.O. Box 26767, Tucson, AZ 85726-6767. Her columns run Tuesdays and Fridays.