O’odham graffiti artist Thomas “Breeze” Marcus has a unique style that is catching the eye of many people in downtown Phoenix. The member of the Tohono O’odham Nation has been creating art since he could remember, but he picked up the unique style of art known as “graffiti art” when he was 13 years old.
“I was introduced to the graffiti art—not gang graffiti— in 93’,” said Marcus. “It opened up my vision to a lot of things; the elaborate lettering and mural work caught my interest.”
Marcus is the son of Sacena Marcus (Tohono O’odham) and Thomas Jefferson (Salt River); his biological father is Perry Whittington of the Gila River Indian Community. He has lived in Salt River since he was 5 years old, but he always attended Phoenix schools: Madison Park Middle School, Camelback High School and the Metro Tech vocational school. After graduating in 98’, he decided to focus on his love for graffiti at the time.
“Eventually I enrolled into Scottsdale Community College. I studied under Robert Yu.; he was the first real art teacher I had,” Marcus said. “He gave a lot of good insight and opened my eyes up to other possibilities. After that I got serious with painting canvas, having gallery shows and wanting to be a professional artist.”
Marcus quit his day job in 2005 to become a full-time artist. He currently has a gallery in the downtown Phoenix area with his buddies.
“It’s good, but being a full time artist isn’t always easy. The true success is in the determination, hard work and completion of projects” said Marcus.
Contemporary Art with Traditional Cultural References
His current signature style is the line work style that comes from graffiti, using a lot of shapes, structures and intricate patterns, like “weaving organized chaos.”
“I think of basket weavers and the way they make their intricate designs,” said Marcus about his painting style. “I think of the old women sitting on the ground making their baskets and using the materials from the desert, and even the Huhugam making their pottery a thousand years ago. I incorporate a lot of ideas from hieroglyphics from Central America and Egypt, but it all comes back to the O’odham culture, and I relate that with my graffiti art. It’s a bridge of traditional and contemporary lifestyle.
Marcus tries to include a message or meaning in his work, such as the art piece he did of South Mountain on a building located at Fifth Street and Roosevelt.
South Mountain is considered sacred by the O’odham culture as a healing mountain and the keeper of the stories. A proposed freeway extension to Loop 202 would disturb this mountain. Marcus painted this mural in October 2011 when the Gila River Indian Community brought up their opposition to building a freeway through the mountain.
“This is a tribute to our O’odham people, and to the mountain and the stories behind it,” said Marcus about his mural. “We don’t have [a very large] presence in the city; you see a lot of other Native American tribes and Hispanic cultures, but you don’t see a lot of O’odham culture; this is why I do these pieces.”
On the same building, Marcus used his painting to reproduce an old archeological map displaying all the old Huhugam village sites, canal systems and mountains with the O’odham names for the Maps of Phoenix art show, hosted by Phoenix New Times.
That is only one of four pieces that Marcus has painted along Roosevelt Street alone. He also worked on a multi-story mural of a rising Phoenix bird located in an alley behind the Hyatt Regency in downtown Phoenix, a piece at a skate park in Maryvale, and a few other pieces on 16th Street.
In the Community, Marcus’s painting of Red Mountain in the sunset is on the standpipe at the intersection of Palm Lane and Alma School Road. He has been painting on that standpipe for the past 13 years.
“I have painted about four or five murals on that standpipe in those 13 years,” said Marcus. “And [in all that time] it’s only been tagged on twice. Even though I’m enrolled elsewhere, for me Salt River is home, and when asked where I’m from, I say Salt River first.”
An Outlet for Young Artistic Talent
With the growing issue of graffiti, or tagging, in the Community, Marcus said he has talked to individual Council members and others to start a program for youth in the Community to use their art where it’s legal. He explained it would give them the opportunity to learn how to express themselves through art and try to mix contemporary art, pop culture and Community tradition. He believes this will help them learn and make them rethink tagging in an illegal space.
“That’s pretty much what we did here in Phoenix; we painted a wall that was really bad with graffiti. The wall would get tagged twice a month or more, and since that mural has been up it has not been tagged at all,” said Marcus. “I think if that tactic was used in Salt River, it would open up the kids’ minds to [thinking] ‘Oh, I don’t have to just scribble my name; I can take it to the next level.’ Like Dwayne Manuel, he is someone who comes from a similar background as me as far as art goes, but he did take it to the next level, obviously, because he is in school right now.
Although I never finished school, I encourage young people who are artists to finish and graduate.”
Marcus hopes the Community will someday incorporate an art project to help youth express themselves and turn graffiti into a positive. But until then, he will be continuing to do as much as he can in the downtown Phoenix area. He plans to travel to New York this summer to work on a mural in Brooklyn and then possibly in California. His next big project in the Valley will be working on a mural with five other artists for a restaurant in Terminal 4 at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport, into which he hopes to incorporate the O’odham culture.