It’s Just Surreal

Alumnus Joe Pagac '05 spreads whimsy and wonder

By:
Ford Burkhart, Chris Richards photos
Joe Pagac

Since when do javelinas ride bicycles?

Since Joe Pagac ’05 became Tucson’s premier muralist. His tortoises pedal pretty well, too, as do his jackalopes. They all play together on a giant wall at Sixth Street and Stone Avenue. 

It’s no surprise that Pagac rhymes with “magic.”

Pagac’s murals have popped up by the hundreds, from Tucson to Las Vegas to Washington, D.C., in a 15-year career launched almost by accident. It all started in a University of Arizona Art 101 class titled Drawing.

A desert cycling-themed mural adorns the building that houses bike event promoters Epic Rides.

Pagac signed up for the class just to fill an empty spot in his schedule. Soon, professor Sheila Pitt took him aside and advised him he could be a pro — a very successful one. He was stunned.

“He had lots of talent,” recalls Pitt. “He just needed somebody to tell him.” Pitt pushed him, gave him extra assignments. He was hooked.

Pagac earned a BFA in visual communication and illustration, with some classical training during a semester abroad in Florence, Italy. 

“Imagine being able to go in and sketch Michelangelo’s David every day,” he says. 

After graduation, Pagac put an ad in the newspaper for an “artist for hire.” He started with murals for a few private clients. Some were painted at high speed for big events and some decorated high-end homes. Soon, he quit his job at a mortgage company. His wife, Arielle Alelunas ’08, who studied business at the UA, helps Pagac create his art when she’s not running her videography business.

Last year, Banner – University Medical Center commissioned Pagac to paint another popular local mural, the 5,000-square-foot spectacle of whales swimming across a desert sky at sunset spray painted on the wall of a former 
movie theater at Grant Road and Campbell Avenue.

The whimsy of Pagac’s work reflects his early fascination with surrealist painter and sculptor Salvador Dalí. Like Dalí, he maintains sculpture as an important part of his repertoire. This year, he’s working on a sculpture for the Tucson International Airport that may evoke the Spanish artist. 

“It’s going to be a whole bunch of animals: a packrat with a suitcase, a turtle with another suitcase,” Pagac says. 

But he hasn’t abandoned mural work. His latest is in Washington, D.C., six blocks north of the White House. The D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities and the Department of Public Works tapped him to create the capital’s tallest mural, one with a local history theme. At nine stories high, it shows D.C. postal worker and tenor saxophonist Buck Hill leaning against the building. 

Unlike some muralists, Pagac says he shies away from overly political art. “As people look up from their drive through downtown,” he says, “I just want them to smile.”