Joe Pagac: Big Picture

The work of Joe Pagac's is one of large scale with an equally large imagination.


Sky Islands (Whale Mural) 2019 in Tucson, Arizona Completed 2019. Sponsored by Banner Health. Image courtesy of Joe Pagac.

Murals symbolize a community’s identity. Whether it be a shared ideal or a local icon captured in a multi-story memorial painting, murals aggrandize an aspect of what it means to live in that neighborhood. At the intersection of 14th and U Street, a nine-story tall mural of saxophonist Buck Hill looks at the streets below with a smile. At its cultural peak, this intersection and more broadly the Cardozo neighborhood was known as “Black Broadway” and served as a hub for jazz musicians like Marvin Gaye, Duke Ellington, Buck Hill, and Miles Davis as well as singer Billie Holliday. After the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., the Cardozo neighborhood suffered riots and other acts of violence. What used to be a place of harmony became blighted by crime. The Cardozo neighborhood has since rebounded and yet again become a cultural hub of D.C.

This past August, the city government commissioned Tuscon native Joe Pagac to create his third mural in the first ward of the city. His mural of Buck Hill, the tallest in the city and one that commemorates a local icon, celebrating the musical roots of the nation’s capital.

Buck Hill Mural located in Washington, D.C. Images courtesy of Joe Pagac.

What lead you to begin painting murals?

JOE PAGAC: I graduated with a degree in visual communication and illustration, which was more geared towards illustration and advertising, and I just liked getting my hands dirty. I put an ad in the paper, “Artist for Hire,” and just started getting a lot of mural calls. In 2009, I had a buddy who was a concert promoter, and he came up with this idea of doing a live painting of a mural. Through that, I started really developing an interest in doing more public spaces where you get a lot more feedback and a lot more people see it. I was talking to a cousin of mine telling him that I really wanted to start doing huge murals and not so many smaller ones. His suggestion was just paint one huge mural and then you'll be known as the guy who paints big murals. So I did a Kickstarter campaign and did a four thousand square foot mural right in the downtown area here in Tucson.


What brings you back to the mural form?

It's the public feedback I get. I get daily emails from strangers and calls and texts thanking me for making the city a more beautiful place and making their drive a little better. I think one of the hardest things to find in jobs these days is a sense that you're in some way contributing to society in a positive way. The positive public feedback that kind of keeps me going at it when I'm having those eight hour weeks and hanging off nine story buildings.


As in the case with the Buck Hill mural?

Right. With Buck Hill, when we were out there, it was ninety-five degrees out, humid, and I'm okay with heights, but I don't love them for sure.


Even the month before I was stressed and then being up there was pretty stressful as well. We rented an apartment in that building that we painted for the month that just furnished it with inflatable furniture and a “my first kitchen” set. It was cool to be staying in the neighborhood and feeling like you're a part of the community. The things that I paint out in D.C. and the iconography that people respond to there is totally different from the stuff I'm painting here in Tucson, or the stuff I paint when I'm in Denver and Las Vegas.

Do you see that there's a little bit more of an audience for surreal art styles in the West then than over here in the East Coast? 

I would say at least with the three groups that I've worked with so far in D.C., they've pulled away from the surrealism. Tucson really embraces the weird and the surreal. It's more of an artsy, hippie, laid-back culture. D.C. is more of a proud city that embraces its history rather than be a goofball. I quickly realized when I was graduating from school that it would be okay to paint what's inside other people's hearts and not just what was in my own. I think that helped me build up a career as a muralist, because it can be real hard to make a living if you're insisting on only painting what's in your heart.

 Did you carry the same philosophy for concert murals that you did at the Rialto Theatre? 

Those murals ended up being six walls that I would change out every single month. I got fast at them, so I could do a 12 foot by 12 foot mural in an hour and a half. I was rushing on it. What was cool about that is they would just send me a band name and a date. I would usually look at album art they use and see if they had an aesthetic that they tried to carry through with their music, and then I would try to design something with that aesthetic. A lot of times, especially with more modern bands, they're not sticking to any particular look, so I would listen to the music and come up with something fun and weird, or I would listen to lyrics or pick a song that was popular of theirs and create something based on that. I was just constantly getting to be creative and experiment. Because they were getting painted over in a few weeks, it didn't really matter if I did something and didn't like it that much. It wasn't up long enough for it to be an eyesore. It kind of bummed me out to have to paint over it again a few weeks later. 


Which concert murals did you enjoy the most?

I got to do one for Snoop Dogg and then he used it as his backdrop for doing a whole bunch of photography. After his show, he like brought everyone out there and took photos. John Hodgman, actually, who played the PC on the “I'm a Mac, I'm a PC” commercials, saw the mural that I did promoting him and called me up and had me paint live on stage during his show, which was super cool. So, I got to do a 12 foot by 8 foot painting of Cthulhu during a dog storm with him in it. I did one of Val Kilmer not too long ago. He actually called me up and had me come down after the show and he gave me a piece of artwork he had done of him as Doc Holliday that he had signed and thanked me for doing that mural. As far as bands, there was Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros that I had some fun ones for.


What would you say have been some of the greatest challenges as an artist – be it muralist or general arts, besides the fear of heights?

I think what people don't realize is that the constant hustle to keep work coming in. Stay on top of doing your work. I think people walk by you and see you painting and they're like, “Oh, it must be nice to just paint all day.” I think they don't realize that I probably get to paint about a third of the time. The other two thirds are spent sending bids and going to meetings and site evaluations and doing all the paperwork and mock-ups. It's very much trying to do all aspects of business. It's not just the artwork. 


What are you working on right now?

Right now we're doing six thousand square feet of murals in the Tucson Medical Center Children's Wing, a hospital in Tucson.

"Maria" Muse Apartments Mural Downtown Phoenix, AZ. Image courtesy of Joe Pagac.

Do you prefer to do things that are catered towards younger ages for murals, or do you have no preference?

I think that younger age stuff is it's fun and it's easy to be creative with it. You know, because when you're painting for kids, nobody's going to tell you like you can't have that lizard like, playing soccer. I like the variety of jumping back and forth between all the different things I'm doing. I like new challenges and I like trying new styles and revisiting things that I've done before. So, it's hard for me to settle into one look.


What are specific stylistic aspects of your work that you find coming back to you often?

Coming up, Salvador Dali was my hero. I love surrealism. It's got a little bit of darkness to it, but it's not too dark to where it’s not accessible to everyone for the most part. I love nature. I love animals. If I have free time, I'm always out camping, hiking. Growing up, you know, a lot of other career choices I had were like, biologist and park ranger. I tend to gravitate more towards those subject matters when I'm coming up with murals if I get more free reign. I just did a mural with a roadrunner and a rattlesnake and horned toad all on a bicycle together recently. I had never noticed on a roadrunner, there's this rainbow stripe coming off the back of their eye. Finding little details like that and then emphasizing them is really fun.


What do you find to be the powers that murals that sculpture doesn't have, or do they more or less exist within the same vein?

You know, I would say that sculptures maybe can even be more powerful in some cases. I can paint that Buck Hill in two weeks when I'm out there at nine stories and to do a nine story sculpture of him would be millions and millions of dollars and probably take years. I do like the permanence of sculpture where murals, I think, you know, at least in this kind of climate and exterior, you know, you're looking at 20, maybe 30 years. In ideal conditions before that's got to either be repainted or they're probably toast. You look at the Statue of Liberty and European sculptures. You can go visit them a thousand years later, but I love the ability to put a lot of art out there quickly. 


You said that there is an impermanence to murals. Do you believe that your aged murals are beating time to the punch?

I guess that's the hope — that they would stay up for a really long time and be this like faded, historic part of the city, but I've found that the culture these days moves quickly. It's very much a throwaway culture and an instant gratification culture.  Even with the permanent murals I do now, I have a lot of people who will ask me, “That mural you did, it's been up for a few years, when are you going to paint a new one?” These are murals that I spent a month on and are gigantic. I think this need for a constant newness that makes me think that you have even these murals that I'm painting to be permanent will probably not last forever.


In a different interview, you said Buck Hill might be a career changer. What do you see yourself doing in the near future or the distant future?

I have no idea. My wife is a videographer and we started doing some music videos for people. That's one avenue I've always kind of wanted to try. I've got little projects I'm dabbling in with like learning how to do some basic deejaying and then creating some sort of show that. I'm working on a children's book. I'm working on a t-shirt line. Will any of them come to pass? I don't know. I'll dabble in stuff and then see if I'm enjoying it. If I am, I'll keep pushing it and if I'm not, I'll just move on to the next thing. I feel like that's like the best way to do life in general.

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