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Old Pueblo muralist Rock ‘Cyfi’ Martinez on graffiti culture in 2017 and the dismal glint of celebrity

click to enlarge Rock “Cyfi” Martinez at his mural on Stone Avenue.

Brian Smith

Rock “Cyfi” Martinez at his mural on Stone Avenue.

When Beyoncé pimps your work on her socials and when Apple appropriates your imagery, you're into a heightened cultural pop lexicon.

It's what happened after muralist/graffiti artist Rock "Cyfi" Martinez created a Prince mural on red brick in Minneapolis last year and pics of it went viral. He'd said his purple-hued, white dove stunner—done in street-weaned spray-can art—was "a gift to Minneapolis." It certainly was. He remembers turning around at one point while he was working on it to a sea of people watching him, like he was some global DJ. A pop star on a pop star. "It was insane."

Clearly Martinez is uncomfortable talking about this. Not the work—he grew up a Tucson b-boy, and Prince (and Michael Jackson) were two of his main musical figureheads as a kid—more the whole idea of a graffiti artist as a star.

Graffiti is about anonymity by tradition partially because it's mostly illegal. No matter how evolved an artist he is, or how much adoration is showered upon him, Martinez says emphatically that he "lets the art speak for itself. There are already way too many people with their bullshit selfies ..."

He nods at the contextually vital and nearly completed mural he's working on on Stone Avenue in Tucson, which he calls Electric Desert, and explains his work in two simple sentences: "As a graffiti artist, letters are the most important. This is graffiti without the letters."

It's a Thursday afternoon and Martinez is standing in a middle lane of Stone Avenue wearing Nikes, a zip-up sweatshirt, jeans, four-day growth and black-rimmed specs.

There's a rare afternoon lull in traffic. He's focusing on the bright desert flora in his mural, which is awash in the brassy, bleak afternoon sun. He tilts his head, shakes the spray can like habit, and nods slightly to some internal conversation, and says, "You're gonna flip."

He bounds back over the curb to the sidewalk, scales the ladder and with exacting precision sprays trails of grayish paint onto the surface, and the Belton paint smells briny and sweet before the wind gets it. Martinez is entirely engrossed in his work rhythm yet talks of grace and beauty of "long Arizona shadows" and how if you take time to discover them you'll actually see this city and desert differently. After a minute, he hops from the ladder, steps backward to the curb, and as a city bus zooms by within inches, he says, "See?"

I do kind of flip. The Spanish-colonial façade of this old flower shop built in the '30s, which is part of Plants for the Southwest nursery, is utterly transformed. It's illusionary; the shadows Martinez just added are unnoticeable unless you look specifically for them, but the new depth is certain.

It's realism on a lovely, deliberate frieze. Such touches are Martinez hallmarks.

He darts across the street for another angle. "Booyah!" he shouts. Then he begins talking of triadic colors and personal palettes, but I ignore all that because it's his work that gets me.

This colorful collage involves brightly hued, psych-out desert succulents and flowers, a skull, a black widow, agave, saguaro, even peyote. Like others Martinez has done in Tucson, it offers spectacular little vortexes of light, or the impressions of light, which Martinez creates off stems and tentacles with shadows, and they soothe yet sort of soar off the concrete three-dimensionally and settle into your unconscious. There's heft and subtle strength and you remember it well. It shows why Martinez is so damn desirable, in Tucson and all over the country, and, lately the world. This particular mural was commissioned by the nursery, and co-owner Gene Joseph tells me they gave Martinez little guidance, because "they wanted him." They were fans of his work.

People who don't know him fall in love with his art so often he averages three commissions from each single piece of work. Owners of the Shift Performance car tune up place across from the nursery hit up Martinez while I'm there. They want a mural to grace three up-sliding industrial doors. Martinez is so busy he'll likely decline the offer, which would be lucrative. The artist is flying to Philadelphia in a week or so, and then Paris and then North Dakota. He's got one due for the City of Tucson too, and an art show in Minneapolis, "inside where the Prince mural is." And, he recently returned from Mexico, where he was invited to represent the U.S. to paint graffiti there.

* * * *

Martinez' work is not so-called "street art"—that overly branded, Madison Avenueized faux graffiti that's been used to sell everything from burgers to cars—and he's careful to make the distinction. "That's why you have people pulling Banksy's off walls," he says. "I don't hate Bansky. I hate Banksy followers. Or some mural artist who puts his name on his T-shirt. That shit is the wackest fucking shit because you're promoting who you are, you're not promoting what you're producing."

His murals and the field of graffiti arts is similar to filmmaking. Because film studies have been around so long everyone's a genre expert. Highly literate auteurs are able to reference countless on-point filmatic allusions to the giants who've come before, but are also trapped by the rules—whether they follow or defy them—and recent releases are telling: John Wick 2 with action, Nocturnal Animals with noir, Split with horror, La La Land with musical.

Martinez' work is rich in tradition: In the post Exit Through the Gift Shop world where Haring and Basquiat and Banksy are household names, graffiti artists face the kind of dilemmas of following or defying, or at least acknowledging in some way the innovators who came before. Martinez understands this, struggles with the illegal/ethical aspects of tagging but understands how it beautifies. Like Haring, Basquiat and Banksy, he struggles with the celebrity aspect.

Graffiti DNA is New York City and subways; it's black America, not ancient Greece. His reveals bits of Mexican mural art too, tracing back to the '20s, when murals were created with messages to be understood by underprivileged populations. Martinez is a graffiti artist by tradition and proud of it. He knows the rules well enough to push beyond them.

The boyish 36-year-old has been graffiting long enough—and he's skilled enough—so he doesn't come off sounding pretentious when talking about the work. But he takes it seriously.

He's accommodating in conversation, articulate in an autodidactic way; he's super self-aware and says only what he wants to say, is deceptively intuitive, picks up on my next question sometimes before I ask it. He listens closely, politely, never interrupts. Instantly likeable.

When I try to call him out on the seriousness I realize he's too sincere to be called out on anything; dude's refreshingly unironic. He never talks of his work as "his vision." He just laughs and shakes his head at that thought—he'd never be so gauche.

His is the antithesis of Trump life, of social-media cacophony, of an on-demand, it's-an-all-me world. Art defines us still, he believes. It must, "now more than ever." He pulls from the world right here, and he finds beauty in desolation, in places people aren't even looking, in desert wildlife and vegetation too, managing to paint the feminine and the soft into unforgiving desert scenes and parables. He sweetens the harsh. There's conflict in his choices of certain images, too, or how you see those choices; the skulls, black widows, peyote, UFOs. His is often about seeing the undersides to things, discovering some other narrative that no one else is paying attention to, or seeing, or feeling.

His crowning achievement in Tucson is its largest mural, the 55-foot high "Mayahuel (Goddess of Agave)" on Seventh Avenue on the west side of the historic Tucson Warehouse and Transfer building, part of Martinez' Cactus People series. There's the 1,500-square foot Dia De Los Muertos mural of Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, south of Mercado San Agustin near Cushing Street, which also stuns.

The self-described perfectionist gravitated young to graffiti writing and art, came up spraying illegally. He got popped once tagging trains and had to cough up $11K in fines. He had to rethink his program.

"I didn't study in my studio very safe," he says. "I risked everything for my artwork. And I learned how to scale things by applying myself. We're out there painting trains, we're out there painting billboards. But we're trying to produce something beautiful, not destroy anything.

"If you didn't earn your stripes on the street, you'd get beat up," he continues. "And if I didn't paint trains I wouldn't know how to do this. I might be old-school now—some kids might not respect me—but I'm remaining relevant. I'm old-school because I'm using a spray can. I'm not using stencils or a straight edge. I have no projectors. This is all in the traditional way of painting, and murals. I remain true because I'm not trying to sellout a culture and seeing what I can get for it. I don't have to paint my name for somebody to pay me." If he did I'm guessing it'd mess with his integrity, sort of like a great singer resorting to Auto-Tune for the hit.

Martinez avoids talk about the money he commands for legal murals, but says he no longer worries about food on the table and so neither does his 12-year-old son Ezekiel. Martinez talks of his son as often as he talks of his father, which is a lot. Fatherhood's a theme. Graffiti was all about getting up in the most highly visible areas. Now he's much more particular about where he paints, and what the images are saying, what the message is saying to a city as a whole, and to himself as a man, as a father, and a son.

"Tagging is expression," he says. "Is it wrong? Yeah. So is driving a car too fast. If I ever get busted doing graffiti, fuck it, I'll take it like a man. And if my son saw me in jail he would know it's because I was doing something I believed in."

* * * *

Martinez was born to a white mother and an Aztec and Yaqui dad, and has six siblings, and three more little ones who were adopted. Dad works blue-collar for the City of Tucson, and is "the best Martinez there is—he'd give his shirt off his back." Credits his old man for instilling in him a work ethic. Dad's a traditionalist, in his work and life. He works hard, and tries to contribute to a greater good. Martinez has certain pride: "I like that I'm deep-rooted Tucson," he says.

Rock (yes, Rock is his birth name) Martinez was mostly a nerdy breakdancing kid who "drew pictures all the time" and grew up in Hispanic neighborhoods in Tucson. He got picked on often, once getting tied to an ice-cream truck. "Look, I have a lazy eye, I wear glasses. Weirdos and freaks are my people."

For a number of years earlier in the aughts Martinez brought local kids, gangbangers and nationally known graffiti artists together in Tucson for his yearly Winta Fresh fest (and sometimes corresponding Summer Fresh). The city gave him so much shit it wasn't worth it. "I was bringing all these people together for one day to create art. Nobody got shot. Nobody got hurt. Know what I mean? I was doing it for the city of Tucson."

He had his own shop too, Art Terrain, and it moved locations before shuttering. Once a drunk driver smashed into it. ("I never saw any money.") He met people he really looked up to through his shop, like Chris Rush, Titus Castanza, Luis Mena, David Tineo. Folks who "pushed my boundaries." He taught art to at-risk kids for years in a City of Tucson program. ("Those kids were awesome, and I learned through my teaching.")

He's done countless Old Pueblo murals—from tattoo parlors and flower shops and brewers and walls and sides of buildings. "When Michael Jackson died, I painted illegally on the Dunkin' Donuts/Baskin-Robbins location, I pulled my cans out of my trunk and wrote 'Who's Bad.'"

Shit did get bad: his business dried up, he split with the mother of his son, he got a DUI. He was depressed. With a son to raise and no one showing interest in his art, Martinez bailed for Oakland. Three days later he got a call to do a book cover in Los Angeles, which led to a tour, and soon was painting for High Times' Cannabis Cup. He painted murals in Boston, Baltimore, all over the east coast, and that led to lucrative commissions, and when he came home to Tucson the work was rolling in. Now he splits time between Minnesota (where his girlfriend Brandi Kole lives) and Tucson where Ezekiel lives with mom.

He's consistently traveling, commission to commission, and we talk of Tucson and the little money here for work in arts. Contrary to city boosters, Tucson isn't doing all that well, and Martinez says he can't earn the money here like he can in Minnesota and elsewhere.

"But," he adds, "I can paint the city. And the world."

 * * * *

It's the first Sunday evening in March and I stroll past Martinez's finished 20' by 40' mural on Stone Avenue, and ideas pop out unexpectedly, images I'd missed too. It demands attention. A purposefully leaning saguaro of gentle jade calms. Shades of pink and cerise blend into tips of desert flowers and melancholy rises. A green skull tall as a five-year-old with purple shadowed eyes reminds me of Martinez' ideas of the circle of humanity and how his Tucson family lineage traces back to the 19th-century people of Fort Lowell. I think of these things now that I see them, even though I stared long and hard at this mural as Martinez was creating it—him moving with that kind of quickness that only inspiration can dictate.


More by Brian Smith

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