Art History

What We Can Learn From Our City’s Street Art

Mark Lopez
6 min read
Protect Mount Taylor
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On the side wall of Java Joe’s, on Ninth and Park, there’s a vast mural. An array of colors and letters melding into one another like many-hued lava slithering across the plaster of this simple, homey coffee shop in Downtown Albuquerque. It has futuristic cities, mountains, old adobes. It’s literally an entire world, a celebration of culture. Pinks, oranges, yellows, reds, greens, blues. An exploding sun, a star reaching over the horizon. A dark road leading up to the mountains; it reminds me of Popocatépetl and Iztaccíhuatl, two volcanoes overlooking the Valley of Mexico, a white woman engulfed in smoke. Whether that was the artists’ intentions or not, this is the great thing about art: that a person can simply look. And just by looking, we see what’s there, and we see what’s not there, based on our own interpretation.

As a student, being away from home can be hard. It can be difficult to confine yourself to a classroom, listening to a professor drawl on and on about the Glass-Steagall Act and the aftereffects of a torn-up economy. Yes, it’s important. But what’s also important is knowing your city, and letting your city teach you about its own particular spirit, its own harmonious education. It’s written on its walls. Head to the Country Club Food Store on 10th and Coal. There’s a mural showing a wide desert. Above this are images of endangered animals: an eagle, a tiger, an elephant, a wolf and, lastly, mankind. It shows our connection with the animal kingdom, all kindred spirits breathing the same air. An inscription states, “Environmental change is the primary cause of the extinction of animals, but now the changes are greatly accelerated by human activity.”

Images like this cause us to think, to question. And isn’t that what education is for? Isn’t that what being in a classroom is supposed to instill in us? On Fifth and Iron, on a fence surrounding a power substation, there’s an homage to
Where the Wild Things Are. Max break dances while one of the wild things holds a boombox, clearly getting the party started. Near this is a mural painted by students from Coronado Elementary School with wisps of color and writing. It looks like Jean-Michel Basquiat decided to bomb the walls of an Albuquerque neighborhood. A multicolored assortment of paletas dance toward a Mexican man pushing an ice cream cart. The piece is alive with the energy of youth, the promise of a vibrant future, a world without limits. Give us freedom. Give us liberty. Give us life.

A little farther down the wall is an image of Cesar Chavez, his face strong, sturdy. It’s a reminder of the plight of immigrant farm workers, a bold telling of the struggle to be human in a world that seeks separation based on class and skin color. This is the education they don’t teach you about in public school. And if they do, it’s skimmed over, barely touched on. But as long as these walls stand, this is always here, always a reminder of our past.

On Second and Gold, there’s an image of the Alvarado Hotel. Built in 1902, it was once considered to be one of the most beautiful railroad hotels in the world. Burqueños were proud of this establishment; they reveled in its beauty. It was also a Harvey House. But in 1970, it was torn down only to become a parking lot. Traces of its grandeur were soon nothing more than gravel and asphalt. The image that now stands is only a remembrance of what was and how we can never get it back. An emblem reads: “With no past, we have no future.” A newspaper headline at the bottom of the piece reads: “Moronic officials destroy landmarks.” A bright sun overlooks the hotel, while beneath it are protesters, Natives, Harvey Girls and the men who broke their backs to construct this illustrious building.

Near the Flying Star Café in Nob Hill, there’s a collaborative mural by artists Jaque Fragua, Ernest Doty and Ryan Montoya. An expansive piece outlining the risks and casualties of nuclear war, an atomic bomb–created and first tested in New Mexico–annihilating people, structures, wildlife. A sandhill crane on the roof of a police caravan. A kiva repurposed as a storage tank holding nuclear waste. Marionettes, operated by two hands (one says “Life”; one says “Love”), in the forms of an officer shooting an Indian. A hot air balloon with the Zia symbol in the distance, watching, waiting. It’s a human reaction to inhumane circumstances. A collection of horrific stories detailing the plight of Native Americans, the hardships of a society that can’t trust the people who are supposed to protect them. What do you do when you can’t literally speak out? You create.

Down Central in the EDo district, there’s an image of a Native child. A white band coats his or her head, mouth open, almost as if they are in the midst of relaying a secret, or about to beg that we honor their space, their presence, their life. Near the child’s face is an inscription stating: Protect Mount Taylor.” Another says “Honor the People.” To the left it has the website for Honor the Treaties (, an organization that uses art and advocacy to bring attention to the plight of indigenous communities. This collaborative mural by Nani Chacon and Jaque Fragua is a representation of efforts to protect the proposed site for the Roca Honda Uranium Mine, which is located on sacred land.

Do you understand, dear students? Our city is speaking to us. It’s telling us to remember our past. To embrace our future. To not give into the horrors of erasing people. Get out of the classroom. Get out of your neighborhood. Just look. That’s all you have to do. Though these are only a few examples, they are enough for a lifetime of thought and speculation. It’s not just about looking; it’s about seeing. Open your eyes.

A Good Indian Is Alive

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