Geography Student Creates Story Map Of Tucson's Murals

Sept. 4, 2018

From story mapping Tucson murals to examining how fictional TV and movies shape our understanding of the physical world, Ph.D. candidate Laura Sharp is embracing the field of visual geography.

photo of mural

“Epic Rides,” located at 534 N. Stone Ave., is by Joe Pagac. The mural is the largest in Tucson. © Joe Pagac


To gain some real-world experience, Laura Sharp, a Ph.D. candidate in the School of Geography and Development, is interning for the City of Tucson’s Geographic Information Systems Division for a year. One of her first projects was to create a story map of the city’s vibrant street art.

The project, titled “Murals of Tucson: Cultural Legacy Through Contemporary Art,” allows locals and visitors to explore the murals of downtown Tucson online or in person. The site serves as a guide to lead people to the artistic creations embedded in downtown neighborhoods. 

Sharp’s boss Peter Johnson had the idea for the project.

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"One of the things that interested us in Laura when we hired her was her skill presenting data in a visually pleasing and engaging manner,” said Johnson, IT Manager for the city’s Department of Information Technology. “Because of this talent, she was an obvious choice to work on the mural map project, which I've been wanting to do for years. The resulting work speaks for itself as it's been a hit with both local and social media and does a fantastic job highlighting the colorful arts scene in downtown Tucson."

Sharp researched the art and the artists, took pictures of the murals, wrote the captions, and created the story map site. She wants to add more of Tucson’s murals in the online tour.

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As a geographer, Sharp is intrigued by the complicated role of murals in downtown redevelopment. Many see the murals as an expression of downtown Tucson’s creativity and vitality, a reason to move to and invest in the area.

“But when you read about the creative vision of the artists, some consider their murals as a response to the homogenization that redevelopment is causing,” Sharp said.

Sharp loved working on a project that shares the art and culture of the city. “It makes you happy to live in Tucson.”

Sharp is also working on other interesting projects for the City of Tucson. She developed a new website to host all the story maps made by the city. She is creating a site that illustrates for taxpayers how the half-cent sales tax collected from Proposition 101 is being spent on public safety capital needs and road repairsShe is also developing an application that allows Tucsonans to identify the lead police officer in their neighborhood rather than call 911 for nonemergency concerns.

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When she is not interning or teaching, Sharp is working on her dissertation, titled “Location Filming in Los Angeles.” Rather than analyze what onscreen images communicate about the physical world, she is focusing on “how did that place end up on the screen at all.” Sharp has interviewed several location scouts and production designers in Los Angeles about their decision-making process for mapping their vision onto the real world.

“I went on a location scout with someone, and she was looking for a house of a 30-year-old single mother who lives in Virginia,” Sharp said.  “What she selects is filtered through her idea of what kind of house she thinks a single mom can afford and what she thinks Virginia looks like.”

Sharp adds, “These representations have an effect on how we think about the world, and so the people who make these decisions have some power to tell us what the world is like.”


Tucson Arts Brigade offers docent-led tours of many of the city’s murals! Contact for details.