The Oak Street Alley Mural Festival in Phoenix’s Coronado neighborhood gives community members a chance to meet and talk with local artists whose live-painting reflects diverse styles and themes.
PHOENIX—For years, artists have transformed an off-the-beaten-path alley in Phoenix into a canvas of contemporary art, primarily through an event called the Oak Street Alley Mural Festival. The 2023 iteration happens on Saturday, March 18, in the Coronado Historic District just east of downtown, where the line-up includes live mural painting, along with live music, art vendors, a community mural, and food trucks.
The event is organized by an art teacher living in the neighborhood, who uses the moniker Phil Freedom for his creative work outside the classroom. A small team helps out, as well.
“I try to get ten to twelve featured artists, and often another ten to twelve artist friends show up to paint, too,” explains Freedom. “The featured artists get free reign, but I like to see a sketch or some previous work if people are coming on their own to paint.”
Artists who’ll be painting during the 2023 festival include Yai Cecream, Nyla Lee, Douglas Miles (San Carlos Apache, Akimel O’odham), Martin Moreno, JJ Horner, and many more. Maggie Keane, one of several artists living in Coronado, says she’ll be there brightening her existing murals, including one inspired by the standout “Take on Me” music video by Norwegian hitmakers A-ha.
“It’s a really great way to dress up the neighborhood,” Keane says of the alley art. “The festival is a great spot for people to come together and take pictures and hang out.”
The Oak Street alley is already filled with murals painted during the last decade by dozens of artists with myriad styles and diverse subject matter, ranging from biking to school violence. Over time, artists have branched out into adjoining alleys, sometimes adding work that memorializes community members who have died, including a little girl named Harmony who battled cancer, and graffiti legend Pablo Luna.
“We don’t want artists going over other people’s work,” says Freedom, who also coordinates a lot of the murals that happen there throughout the year. “I like to think that I loosely curate the space. I try my best not to step on anyone’s toes.”
Initially, the alley art came together organically, according to artist Bill Hemphill, whose studio at that time was located inside a nearby creative space called the Hive. Hemphill recalls alley walls getting tagged, neighbors looking for artists to make murals, and the alley serving as one of many sites for the now-defunct Paint PHX mural festival.
Freedom formally organized the first Oak Street Alley Mural Festival in 2018, but several others, including Hemphill, Thomas “Breeze” Marcus (Tohono O’odham), and a group called Murals of Phoenix, played key roles in its early days and evolution.
“It’s a great community event,” Hemphill says of the festival. “It’s a big conga line for the neighborhood.”
For artists, the festival provides a day to work together and to talk with people who come out to see them in action.
“I love it when a bunch of artists can paint close to each other while they’re having fun in the sun,” says Cecream, an artist born in Madrid who moved to Phoenix in 2009. “One of the best parts of live painting is interacting with the audience and seeing how the work makes them happy.”
Cecream remembers being one of the earliest artists to paint in the Oak Street alley, during a pivotal part of her creative journey.
“I was very into trying to figure out how to draw simple animal characters with an aesthetic that worked just right,” she recalls. “It was only my second mural, and working with spray paint was a challenge.”
Today, her body of work includes numerous murals, including a recent piece in El Monte, California that pays homage to the immigrant community in the Southwest. She’ll be painting over her original Oak Street alley mural of a pink cat during this year’s festival, replacing it with a cherry design drawn from a new body of work she hasn’t shown yet, essentially giving locals a sneak peek at a future direction for her evolving art practice.
This year, two events will bookend Saturday’s live painting. On Friday, March 17, there’s a companion art exhibition at local business Trill. On Sunday, March 19, Miles will lead a discussion titled “Art as an Equalizer and Platform for Change” at the Hive, where artists are presenting stencil, wheatpaste, and mural workshops.
Freedom says he’ll update the online event page with details as the festival date nears, but he’s also thinking about the big picture.
“This really works because of the community, and the fact that all ages come together to create this slightly utopian space inside our corporate, capitalist system,” reflects Freedom. “We’re visualizing and manifesting dreams of what we want to see in our city, and it feels like this is exactly what we should be doing now.”