Native American artist, Dwayne Manuel re-imagines O’odham designs

Dwayne Manuel uses spray paint to leave traces of traditional O’odham designs around downtown Phoenix. Manuel developed his unique style in 2006 out of a genuine love for his cultural heritage. He explains, “[the designs] are representations of the relationship between traditional Native American culture and modern American society/culture.” Most of his designs are inspired by the circle of life. He explains, “pretty much everything is a circle in O’odham culture, the maze of life, the sun, the moon, we dance in a circle, and a lot of ceremonies utilize circular composition.” But also, he adds, “it feels right to me and is aesthetically perfect, the eye loves to look at it.”


When Manuel mentions his heritage, he is referring to the On’k Akimel O’odham Nation. The natives of the Sonoran desert region, have a deep connection to water, as they are also known as the ‘Salt River people.’ He has deep respect for his family traditions and O’odham culture. He explains, “Although many aspects of my heritage have been lost due to colonialism, my people do hold on to certain ceremonies and some language. One tradition I love to keep alive is the idea of respect.” He reasons that it is something everyone needs to practice daily, both giving and receiving it.

Collaboration with @breeze1phx

He uses the affectionate tag #Oodhamsmashbros when referring to work made with his another native artist, Thomas ‘Breze One’ Marcus. The Phoenix artists have been collaborating since they first crossed paths. The artist explains, “we’re trying to hold it down for our O’odham brothers and sisters here in Arizona. We’re here to represent, to motivate and inspire our people. And we smash. Smash hard!” A lot of their collaborations are concentrated on 16th Street in Phoenix, Breze’s “stomping grounds.”

Even though the artist is without gallery representation, he keeps busy with work. Currently, he is working with the crew, Neoglyphix. He explains, “’Neo’ means new, and ‘Glyphix’ means writings on the wall.” Their goal is to “represent the new way of painting/drawing (graffiti) on the walls.”

we represent the action of living, breathing, painting, of being in the now. We’re not sitting in a museum for ‘specialists’ to study and claim to know whats going on with the past, we’re here, we’re now and we’re telling our own stories, our own ideas in our own way.

He speaks of the group with a sense of humor, calling them “a crew of wild, crazy-ass natives,” but they are serious artists with a nobel goal. Last December, the group hosted a benefit for the resistances in Standing Rock and Arizona. Manuel donated works for the raffle to raise money to help with #no202 efforts. The controversial construction project is described with the terms “border militarization” and “environmental racism” on Native American lands in a Facebook invite for the benefit to halt the project.  

Manuel studied art with Norman Akers at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, NM and Alfred Quiroz at the University of Arizona in Tucson. His talent is undeniable–especially in his woven praxis portraits, in which he immortalizes the weavers that are keeping O’odham basket-weaving traditions alive. The artist–whose mother, Alice, is the head teacher of their community’s weaving circle–painted his friends, Dawn and Tasha, his aunt, Berdina, and his sister, Raeann, for the on-going series.

He also uses his art to explore his feelings towards matters of the soul, spirit, and inner light. Manuel painted, “Blood in the Water” to directly acknowledge issues dealing with water, both past, and present. He says, the title entails, “the action of a separation of blood from the body, to spill in water, the element that brings and cultivates life…it’s like bringing together two life elements in an almost bitter ceremonious style, but for the greater good.”

Possession Aggression, 2016

The artist has a dark sense of humor. He uses #slaughterofthesoul to tag his delightfully twisted works including Possession Aggression. He explains, “I have an interest and connection to the darker things in life. It’s always been that way since I was a young lad.” This interest has only been encouraged by his love for Adult Swim and his favorite comics. He theorizes that these sketches are probably why he’s such a good-natured person; he says, “[It’s] because I let the darker things out of me when I want to.”

That’s what I tell my students, I tell them its good to let things out, Especially negative things. It’s not good to keep those thoughts, ideas, and feelings inside. You have to let them out somehow. That’s why I believe art is a great tool for humanity–a great way to remain human.”

He often identifies his murals with the tag, #terrorzona which he explains as “the sum of terror and Arizona.” He says, to him “it represents the raw, grimey, straight forward subculture communities within the state of Arizona. It’s the underground, a place where mainstream sheep are terrified to fully embrace.” I asked him what it would look like in an ideal state, to which he replied, “It looks like a heavily spray painted playground with 1,000 ft. walls. Where punk and thrash music ply 24/7, where everyone Is expressing themselves the way they want and having a good time. A place where you piss on the mainstream.” Speaking of thrash music, the artist’s alter-ego was born while playing with his High School grindcore band, Scalped. He carries a little piece of Dwayno Insano, on the 4 wormed bass devastation, with him everywhere.

Follow Manuel on his Instagram and Facebook for his latest projects. Email him at to commission work.

Dwayne Manuel spoke with Diana Ledesma via email January 27, 2017.

Subscribe to keep in touch!

About the author:

Diana Ledesma is an arts professional living in New York City. She obtained her masters from New York University in 2016, completing her thesis on the status of the Mexican American art market.


Leave a Reply