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3 Valley Muralists Bring the City Streets to Life

This artistic trio bridge the gap between street art and fine art.

By Rebecca L. Rhoades

Clockwise From Left Lauren Lee’s colorful flowers add life to a street corner in Tempe. • According to Tato Caraveo, this image depicts gentrification and a person’s ability to pick up and move. • A detail from Jake Early’s mural that showcases the evolution of Tempe.

From technicolor cactus blooms to images that explore Mexican and Native American culture, the murals of Phoenix add color and character to the often-monotonous sea of beige buildings that line the streets. More than just creative backdrops for Instagram selfies, these larger-than-life works of art tell stories about our city’s history and people—as well as of the muralists themselves. While they may not receive the accolades and recognition that those in some of our top galleries do, these talented individuals, each with a unique viewpoint, create works that make us laugh, think and fall in love all over again with our natural surroundings. Here, we introduce you to three top artists whose work fits as well on a public wall as it does in your living room.

The Sound of Art

Tato Caraveo is a longtime favorite of the downtown mural scene. The Phoenix native’s public works, which grace everything from the home of the Arizona Opera to The Theodore Craft Beer + Wine Bar to an alleyway behind open-air food court The Churchill, are some of the most recognizable in town. It’s a distinction that both pleases and frustrates the artist. Lyrical in their emotion—often literally, with the characters playing instruments in homage to Caraveo’s background as a bass player—they feature surrealist elongated figures with delicate, pinched facial features frolicking whimsically on candy-colored backgrounds.

“I’ve been doing murals since high school, and I never wanted anyone to know that a painting was mine. So I tried to make every mural totally different,” he recalls with a laugh. “Then I got stuck on this distorted figure, and now everyone is like, ‘Oh yeah, that’s him.’ Now the cat’s out of the bag. When I see a mural and I don’t know who painted it, it’s a little more exciting for me. It creates a mystery, and then I need to find out whose work it is.”

The artist poses in front of his mural located behind The Churchill.

A former graffiti artist, Caraveo’s medium of choice remains spray paint. “I can work on a small painting with a brush, and it will take a week, maybe longer, to finish. With spray paint, I can do a four-story mural in less than week. But there are so many tricks and techniques involved that you’re constantly challenging yourself. Can I get that little crease right there? How much detail can I do with a spray can? It’s all about control. After almost 30 years of painting with it, I’m still learning to this day.”

When not outside working on his latest public piece, Caraveo can be found putting brush to canvas in his Grand Avenue apartment that overlooks the historic Braggs Pie Factory building. Here, at the top of the entry stairway, stacks of canvases sit next to bass guitars and other musical instruments. Cans of spray paint line wooden shelves, while brushes, acrylics and charcoals are piled on tabletops. Works by fellow artists cover the walls.

ABOVE Tato Caraveo is known for his surrealist figures that feature elongated limbs and distorted features. RIGHT “Musicians are my favorite subject to paint,” Caraveo explains. “I love instruments—the shapes, the curves, being able to contort them. And then I can bring that quality into the figures playing them.” This acrylic on panel sold to a collector of his work.

“I love being in the studio, because it’s just me being what I want to be,” Caraveo notes. “I’ll find a few days here and there to just sit in there all day and all night and just paint. It’s so meditative. I’ll listen to music and work, uninterrupted, for hours and hours.”

These days, most of Caraveo’s fine art serves as inspiration for his murals. “I’m trying to build up a catalog of concepts for murals,” he explains. Music is a favorite subject. The sensual curves of an upright bass are twisted and stretched, the profile of a baby grand piano is warped, and the arms and legs of a musician, pulled long and thin like taffy, wrap themselves around instruments, their sharp elbows and knees filling empty spaces in the image. “I love the shapes of the instruments, and being able to distort them is even more fun,” Caraveo says. “I have a series of musicians that I’ve put away for about a year, and I’m slowly working on them. I had just started the series, when things got busy with murals. Summer is my studio time, so I’ll get back to them then.”

Finding Beauty in Nature

In early 2019, Lauren Lee traveled to New York City to see the installation of her artwork in Manhattan’s Penn Station. The rail station serves more than 600,000 passengers every day. The artist’s jewel-toned blossoming desert flora bedecked the building’s interior and exterior—there was even a brilliant rainbow-hued prickly pear image adorning a staircase that leads busy commuters to the main entrance on 7th Avenue. It was all part of the international tourism campaign “Come See What’s Blooming in Scottsdale.” For Lee, it was an experience she’ll never forget.

“It was really cold because it was winter,” she recalls. “But as soon as I saw all of my work, I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m overheating right now.’ I felt overwhelmed. I had to go to the Starbucks in Penn Station to take a breather.”

The campaign was the second time Lee partnered with Experience Scottsdale, the city’s marketing agency. An earlier collaboration resulted in three murals in Old Town; one can still be found on the side of Geisha a Go Go sushi restaurant. “The work she does is just exquisite,” says Stephanie Pressler, director of community affairs for the organization. “She showcases the Sonoran Desert in such a beautiful way, and her paintings are larger than life.”

Luscious pink blossoms, seen here on Lauren Lee’s “Don’t Wake the Dreamer,” are a common theme in her artwork.

Born and raised in Yuma, Lee taught at the New School for the Arts in Tempe after graduating from Arizona State University. About seven years ago, she decided to make the switch to full-time professional artist. Many residents remember her iconic “Three Birds” mural on the now-demolished GreenHaus gallery on Roosevelt Street; a new trio of birds, “Three Birds in Flight,” now adorns the Iluminate apartment complex just steps away from its long-gone predecessor. Additional well-known pieces include a 153-foot-long mural on Scottsdale’s Soho Live/Work townhomes; the equally long “Don’t Wake the Dreamer,” located at Hardy Drive and 5th Street in Tempe; a vibrant floral that spans the entrance of a fitness center in Tempe; and “Bloom,” a haunting image of five roses rising from human hands, which was created for Valley Metro’s Rotating Artist series.

Like her murals, Lee’s fine art is filled with organic forms and deeply pigmented tones. “Whether I’m designing for a building or for someone’s home, I’m aware that people live with the energy of the art I  make and display,” she says. “For me, art is the pursuit of the spiritual. That’s why I paint skies, mountains, plants and bodies. They are all objects made by the Creator, not by man.”

Brilliant shades of pinks, purples and teals combine with rich greens and oranges for a look that’s easily identifiable. “I like to stay in spectrums, so it’s not a random assortment of colors,” Lee explains. The artist begins with an acrylic base, and then builds texture and intensity with oils. Recently, she’s started adding crystals and other embellishments to her work for a more lush, energetic impression.

“A lot of people can’t quite put into words why they like my work,” she says. “They’ll say it’s the colors. But I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that I’m making things that we as humans find beautiful.

“Art adds something that’s not as obvious as we think it is,” she continues. “You’re bringing a source of life into your home. I take that very seriously. I need to make things that enhance people’s lives.”

Lee’s bold colors and fondness for nature are on display in this graphic diptych of agave leaves.

A Sense of Place

Jake Early credits his love of silk-screening to his childhood in Chico, California. His mom and all her siblings went to a Catholic school in Los Angeles where art classes were taught by Sister Corita Kent, who became world famous for her distinct brand of pop art.

“We had Corita’s art all around the house, which is lucky for me,” he says. “I was surrounded by this unique style.”

After graduating from college, Early worked in graphic design. As a hobby, he built a printing press in his garage and began printing serigraph posters. “One of them somehow worked its way into a gallery, and I quit my job a year later,” he recalls. “Since then, I’ve been doing public art or silk-screen prints.”

Much of Early’s work focuses on scenes from nature. But the artist has also created images of such man-made elements as the Golden Gate Bridge, Santa Barbara’s historic buildings and even bicycles. “There has to be a connection,” he says of the images’ common thread. “I’ll do architectural design or an object that is not in the natural landscape, but I have to feel something for it. If I have a personal connection, I enjoy drawing it. Then through color and composition, I make a print or a mural that expresses how I feel about it.” After moving to Arizona in 2007, that source of inspiration has often been the Sonoran Desert.

At 400 feet long, Jake Early’s tribute to Tempe, “Meet Me at Daley Park,” showcases the city’s history. It was painted in 2018.

Early’s largest public art piece is a 400-foot-long mural titled “Meet Me at Daley Park.” Located adjacent to the park that inspired its name, the painting showcases a visual history of Tempe, beginning with the open desert and ending with students attending ASU. Recently, the artist created a 35-foot-long mural on 14 sheets of plywood for a gallery show in Phoenix. The portable image celebrates the 100th anniversary of the Grand Canyon. He complemented it with two limited-edition serigraphs that capture segments of the design.

“Jake has a true appreciation for the desert, and he creates art that works in any style of house. There’s such an awesome flexibility to that,” says Lisa Olson, owner of Practical Art. “His serigraphs have a bit of a modern feel to them. So many people have compared his Grand Canyon image to works by Ed Mell. It has that block print look.” Olson books Early for shows every December; to date, he’s created 20 prints, plus the two new Grand Canyon prints, exclusively for her gallery.

Whether he’s working on a small serigraph on paper or using spray paint to create a wall-size mural, Early approaches each design in a similar manner. “They’re both produced in the same way,” he says. “They’re big, solid areas of flat color that combine to make an image. They’re kind of like puzzles.”

So how does the artist compare his work to that of his fellow muralists? “Lauren, Tato and I all have pretty identifiable styles,” he says. “I can see Lauren’s work, and I know it’s hers. Same with Tato’s. I like to think of it in terms of popular music or something where there’s room for everybody to work. That’s one of the parts I really enjoy. I’m inspired by the fact that there are so many different people doing great work throughout the Valley. I get excited every time I see it.”

A serigraph of the Grand Canyon was created for a show at Phoenix’s Practical Art. It celebrates the national park’s centennial.

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