El Mac reflects on the influential creative output of Arizona-based graffiti innovator Pablo Luna (AKA KAPER), who spent four decades making art before his death last month.
PHOENIX, AZ—Pablo Luna, a Phoenix-based artist best known for graffiti writing using the moniker KAPER, died in Phoenix at age 52 on April 19, 2022 after four decades of making artworks in the Southwest. Luna influenced a generation of artists including El Mac, an internationally-renowned artist based in Los Angeles who has strong ties to Arizona.
When El Mac painted a mural titled Nuestra Gente on a building just east of downtown Phoenix in 2015, he collaborated with both Luna and Mesa, Arizona-based artist Mando Rascon. Their work for the piece, which echoes strong connections to graffiti culture, bookends the mural’s central female figure featuring El Mac’s distinctive repeating contour lines and concentric circles.
“I must have been about sixteen or seventeen when I met Pablo,” recalls El Mac, who grew up in Phoenix, where friends also know him by his given name Miles MacGregor. It was the mid-1990s, and Luna was about eleven years older than MacGregor. “For a long time, he lived around the corner from me, and we spent a lot of time together,” says El Mac. “He always seemed like an older brother.”
Today, El Mac is mourning the loss of his close friend, while also reflecting on Luna’s creative legacy. “It’s hard to quantify just how big his contribution was to the cultural growth of Phoenix, both directly and indirectly,” he says. “He would be considered a pioneer of the arts scene in Phoenix.”
Luna was doing murals and graffiti long before they went mainstream in metro Phoenix, according to El Mac.
“For a while in Phoenix, things wouldn’t really last if you painted something; there weren’t that many sanctioned places to paint, so the appeal of painting on a freight car was that your work could stay up for years and reach across the continent,” he says.
“He did thousands of trains,” El Mac recalls of Luna’s work as KAPER. “He has a national profile that’s really a whole different thing and separate from the local artist Pablo Luna who did murals and paintings on canvas.”
Luna was part of a graffiti crew called NG that’s been around since the mid-‘90s. “Pablo and Mando and Lalo were the three main people who got that going,” recalls El Mac. He’s referencing Lalo Cota, a Phoenix-based artist whose body of work includes several prominent murals painted throughout the region.
“I didn’t become officially involved until a few years after they started it,” El Mac says of the crew, whose current number he puts at over twenty artists. El Mac says the NG acronym has several meanings, including “Nitty Gritty” and “Never Glamorous,” among others. And he describes it as a sort of partnership or fraternity, explaining that “the adventure, camaraderie, adrenaline, and artistry is all mixed-up together.”
Numerous NG artists including Luna have exhibited their artworks in traditional art spaces, including the monOrchid gallery in Phoenix and Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art. On May 13, 2022, Mesa Contemporary Arts Museum will open an exhibition titled Somos Southwest, which will include one of Luna’s mixed media pieces titled Mariachis.
“He really was a great artist,” El Mac says of Luna. “He didn’t go to art school or have a fancy background, but he had a lot of talent.”
Today, one of the best places to see Luna’s work is chef Silvana Salcido Esparza’s Barrio Café, located on 16th Street north of Thomas Road in Phoenix. Luna painted a mural with skeletal calaca musicians behind the restaurant, and filled the walls and ceilings of a restroom with iconic elements of Mexican culture from luchadores to lowriders. “Chef Silvana has been one of Pablo’s greatest patrons,” explains El Mac.
Tributes to Luna are already popping up around the city.
Phoenix artist Thomas “Breeze” Marcus (Akimel, Tohono O’odham), who’s also part of the NG crew, painted a mural reading “KAPER” in the Oak Street Alley near 14th and Oak streets, and El Mac says more remembrances by artists are likely.
It’s possible that new murals honoring Luna will go up in places where Luna previously painted collaborative pieces with fellow artists, which include Carly’s Bistro in Phoenix’s Roosevelt Row arts district and Barrio Café. There’s even talk of writing a book to document Luna’s prolific career, given the depth and breadth of his impact.
“All of us younger artists were heavily influenced by Pablo; even if there wasn’t a direct connection, that link is there,” explains El Mac. “For anyone involved in the mural or graffiti scene in Phoenix, he was one of the early figures we looked to because he had talent, history, and respect.”
A memorial service is scheduled to take place at 5 pm Sunday, May 15, 2022 at the Nina Mason Pulliam Rio Salado Audubon Center, 3131 South Central Avenue in Phoenix.