Discover street art in Ajo, Arizona

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(Last Updated On: November 24, 2018)

The exuberant street art in Ajo, Arizona is a bold and colorful sign of this old mining town’s artistic rebirth.

Street art in Ajo Arizona "heART of the Desert" by Kat Anderson (AlasKat) and "Doors of Perception" by Valeria and Isabella H - ExplorationVacation.net

(“heART of the Desert” by Kat Anderson (AlasKat) and “Doors of Perception” by Valeria and Isabella H)

Lively street art in the heart of Ajo

Arizona’s southern borderland can seem like a desolate place, but a group of artists and community activists in Ajo are proving that art can thrive in this often overlooked region of the Sonoran Desert.

Murals bold enough to stop traffic

Visitors driving through Ajo, Arizona, on their way to Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument might not notice the beautiful Spanish Colonial plaza that forms the heart of downtown. However, they are unlikely to miss the town’s street art.

Murals in Ajo Arizona - ExplorationVacation.net

Ajo’s murals cover the walls of several buildings located just off the main plaza where many are clearly visible from the highway.

Street art in Ajo Arizona "Sonora" by Harriet Wood aka Miss Hazard - ExplorationVacation.net

(“Sonora” by Barcelona-based street artist Harriet Wood aka Miss Hazard.)

There’s nothing timid about these murals. They are big and bold. Many are bright colors. And many carry strong messages about life along the border.

(“Wild in the Plaza of Memory” by Leanne C Miller takes its theme from Pamela Uschuk’s poem “I have an Illegal Alien in My Trunk”.)

Ajo Arizona mural “Spy Drones Over Sonora” by local artist Mike DaWolf Baker - ExplorationVacation.net

(“Spy Drones Over Sonora” by local artist Mike (DaWolf) Baker.)

Ajo’s re-birth as an art community

The murals that entice drivers to take a break in Ajo didn’t appear by accident. They are part of a plan to turn a dying mining community into a thriving center for the arts.

The past is past

For generations, Ajo, Arizona, was defined by its enormous copper mine.

The New Cornelia mine not only provided the economic basis for the town, but most of the town itself in the form of a downtown plaza and worker housing built and owned by the mine.

That all came to an end when the mine closed in 1985.

Without the mine, Ajo was all but abandoned by residents who could afford to move elsewhere in search of jobs.

But abandoned housing is cheap housing. Soon snowbirds and artists seeking warm winters and an inexpensive place to live drifted into the area. Most started out living in RVs or other seasonal housing. However, over time, they began to settle permanently alongside the town’s remaining Mexican-American and Tohono O’odham communities.

Art as a path to the future

With all these artists in Ajo, a few folks started thinking that maybe the arts could be used to build a sustainable economic base for the town. To make that happen, they formed the non-profit International Sonoran Desert Alliance.

The ISDA purchased the plaza and the historic Curley School. They renovated the mostly abandoned plaza and rented the space out to local businesses, art galleries, a café, and organizations like the local library and Chamber of Commerce. The historic school became artist housing, art workshops, and a small hotel.

With plenty of artists and art to sell, the focus then turned to getting visitors into town to buy art.

This is where Ajo’s traffic-stopping street art enters the story.

Murals to the rescue

Although a few murals showed up in Ajo earlier (it is a town filled with artists, after all), the first big painting project was in 2015.

The 2015 Ajo Street Art Project brought local and regional artists together to create murals. The event was designed to bring the diverse community together around art and leave the community with eye-catching street art that would also draw visitors – and their wallets – into Ajo. To do this, the artists worked in collaboration with local Mexican, American, and Tohono O’odham residents to ensure the murals reflected community values and concerns. And then everyone set to work painting.

A second event in 2017 was a more ad hoc affair, but drew an even more far-flung group of artists (including Miss Hazard, who made her way here from Spain) and resulted in more murals.

Big art and big ideas in Artist Alley

Although street art can be found throughout Ajo, the greatest concentration of murals is just past the plaza in and around Artist Alley.

Artist Alley Ajo Arizona - ExplorationVacation.net

Art Alley in Ajo Arizona - ExplorationVacation.net

The alley is filled with bold, often big, paintings. While a few are simply beautiful or whimsical, many tackle issues central to life here.

(Click on the individual image to find out more about the image and artist.)

Some of the murals are straightforward, while others may be hard to understand. But figuring out the meaning behind Ajo’s street art is part of the fun.

Plan your trip to see Ajo’s street art

Getting to Ajo

Ajo, Arizona, is in a very rural area about a two-hour drive south of Phoenix. It’s also 20 minutes north of Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, making it a gateway to the park. Highway 85 goes right past the Art Alley and the surrounding murals at the south end of town.

There is regular weekday bus service between Phoenix and Ajo via Phoenix Route 685. To get there by bus takes about 3 ½hours.

The USA border check is south of Ajo, but north of the entrance to Organ Pipe Cactus. Traffic coming north sometimes backs up considerably.

Seeing Ajo’s street art

Ajo’s murals are located throughout town and are publicly accessible, with the largest concentration in and adjacent to Artists Alley south of the plaza.

The murals featured here were photographed in February 2018. Most were created during the 2015 and 2017 Ajo Street Art Projects. There seems to be some ongoing work, as a couple murals are still just sketches or only partially painted.

A couple of smaller pieces are severely deteriorated, but in general the art was in good shape when I visited.

It’s not clear yet whether another mural project will occur in 2019, as the International Sonoran Desert Alliance no longer funds this program.

(Click on the individual image to find out more about the image and artist.)

Other things to do in Ajo

I was surprised by how much there was to do in and around this small town.

Dining in Ajo

Sadly, the food scene in Ajo hasn’t caught up to the art scene.

The best restaurant in town when I visited seemed to be 100 Estrella, which has an interesting selection of beers and great burgers. It’s also conveniently located across the street from Art Alley.

Harris & Smith Coffee on the plaza has a nice chai.

Lodging in Ajo

Discover street art in Ajo Arizona - ExplorationVacation.netThe Sonoran Desert Inn and Conference Center is part of the Curley School complex. We didn’t stay there, but it looks gorgeous. Otherwise, hotel options within the city are fairly limited. Check TripAdvisor to read reviews and find the best deal. (Affiliate link)

On the other hand, Airbnb has a number of options in Ajo. We stayed at Dos Casitas, which includes a private courtyard, super friendly hosts, and an amazing hot breakfast. (If you aren’t already a member of Airbnb, use this Airbnb code to save $40 on your first booking. In exchange, I’ll receive a $20 credit.)

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Discover street art in Ajo Arizona - ExplorationVacation.net
Discover street art in Ajo Arizona - ExplorationVacation.net
Discover street art in Ajo Arizona - ExplorationVacation.net
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It’s just 2 hours from us and we have been planning a trip to the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument. Thanks for this tip!!!

Loved this post! Ajo looks like a fun destination. Street art can really revitalize an area and bring new visitors. Great photography!

I would love to explore Artists’ Alley in Ajo, Arizona. I love destinations with an abundance of street art, and Ajo certainly seems to have a wide variety of it.

It’s wonderful the way that so many cities around the world are using street art to revitalise communities. And, as in Ajo, it provides a space for social commentary. I love the mural with Pamela Uschuk’s poem.

What stunning street art. We are planning a trip to Arizona in 2020. I am going to add Ajo to the itinterary.

It is wonderful to read this community didn’t die out when the copper mine closed. What a fantastic revitalization for snowbirds and talented artists!!