Meet the face behind countless iconic Tucson murals: Modern Aquarian

White brings visions to life with her eye-catching artwork.

Have you sat down at a Tucson restaurant and noticed a gorgeous hand-drawn menu on the wall? Modern Aquarian probably did it.

Modern Aquarian owner and artist Ashley White has worked with over 75 Tucson businesses in the past six years.

A native of Richmond, Virginia, White was raised in Clemson, South Carolina. She moved to Tucson in 2009 and earned a master’s degree in higher education from the University of Arizona before working at the university as an adviser.

“Every day I was helping students figure out how to turn their passions into careers, but I wasn’t feeling fulfilled in my own work,” White said. “I was actually looking to go into either disaster relief or refugee resettlement when I found an ad from a restaurant looking for a chalkboard artist.”

The Beginning

Even though she hadn’t even done chalkboard art yet, she sent her drawing portfolio to the restaurant. They gave her the opportunity and she biked to the restaurant every day for two weeks to work on the project.

“I put in my notice before the board was even finished,” White said. “I knew I had found something I loved and was really good at.”

When White committed to her new career, she focused on branding.

Modern Aquarian artist Ashley WhiteModern Aquarian artist Ashley White (Credit: Jackie Tran)

“I spent quite a long time thinking of what I wanted to name my business,” White said. “I didn’t want to do something punny like a lot of hand letterers were doing at that time, and my name is too common to be Google-able. Like most great ideas, it just popped into my head one day in the shower. While I don’t read my daily horoscope, I find the description of Aquarius oddly accurate for me. Aquarians are said to be both creative and intellectual. That is exactly the foundation of my business — providing clients with functional artwork that communicates their product to the customer while being visually beautiful and cohesive with their brand. It was only later that I realized it was a pun anyway since Aquarius is my sign.”

Six years later, many of Tucson’s most popular restaurants feature Modern Aquarian art.

When White started, Modern Aquarian primarily showcased her talent with hand lettering and chalkboard menus. As she researched lettering and sign-making techniques, she fell more in love with the art of traditional sign painting and transitioned primarily to brush painting after countless hours of practicing.

However, straight lines and round circles aren’t the tricky part.

“It is a much more physical job than people realize,” White said. “A lot of my work requires me to be on a ladder all day for multiple days at a time. Sometimes if a restaurant is already open, I’ll have to lean over equipment like refrigerators or espresso machines.”

Furthermore, varying wall surfaces pose unique challenges.

Mural at Ten55 Brewing Company by Modern Aquarian

Mural at Ten55 Brewing Company by Modern Aquarian (Photo courtesy of Modern Aquarian on Facebook)

“Rough stucco is really difficult to draw and paint on,” White said. “I almost have to use a sponging technique rather than being able to pull a straight line. Almost all the work I did for Ten55 was on century-old brick. I’d be painting and suddenly a big chunk of brick would just fall right off the wall.”

Regardless of the unique challenges, White’s diversity has earned her a wide range of clientele around town. Styles range from the art nouveau-style beer goddess on the stairs at Tucson Hop Shop to the mid-century modern sign and cookbook paintings at Tito & Pep.

“I was introduced to Ashley via Ryan Trayte from Saywells Design, who did our logo and branding,” said John Martinez, owner-chef at Tito & Pep. “I discussed with him how my grandfather had been a sign painter in Tucson and that I wanted to have our signage painted on the facade of the building. He suggested Ashley and shared our logo with her and from there it was a go. She painted our signage over the course of two days and was great to work with.”

Not long after the restaurant opened, a vandal shattered the restaurant windows. While White’s work was initially the sign, Martinez reached back out.

Signage at Tito & Pep by Modern Aquarian

Signage at Tito & Pep by Modern Aquarian (Photo courtesy of Modern Aquarian on Facebook)

“After our windows were broken and had been boarded up, the last thing I wanted for our new restaurant was for us to look like we were closed,” Martinez said. “I knew Ashley was pretty busy but I reached out to her on the off chance she could do something. I asked her to do whatever she felt like doing; she knew our branding and our vibe and I trusted her completely as an artist.”

With paint remaining from the original signage, White came the next morning and painted the panels to cover the windows.

“What was incredible was that she free-handed the whole thing,” Martinez said. “She said she had taken inspiration from the illustrations of some old cookbooks. After the windows were replaced the paintings had become part of the restaurant and we wanted to put them back up. It took a little time to get them up but I am very happy we did. We get compliments all the time — we are going to get some lighting on them soon.”

Mural at Arizona Beer House by Modern Aquarian

Mural at Arizona Beer House by Modern Aquarian (Photo courtesy of Modern Aquarian on Facebook)

While some projects are as simple as painting on a logo, White also often creates designs from scratch.

“It’s really common for a client to have trouble articulating the atmosphere they’re trying to achieve,” White said. “Sometimes I’ll have them choose from adjectives like ‘casual, chic, young, quirky, classic, etc.’ I also have them describe their typical customer.”

Now, White works with clients on what she calls atmospheric branding or brand expansion. She helps clients to visually communicate their brand throughout the space.

Fat Noodle Menu Board  by Modern Aquarian

Fat Noodle Menu Board (Photo courtesy of Modern Aquarian on Facebook)

“I’m kind of working between the graphic designer, who designs the logo and other branded materials, and the architect, who design physical elements,” White said. “I love the challenge of communicating the identity of the business to customers through artwork. Sometimes that’s literally painting their logo on the building, but it could also include painting a mural that fits the theme, making a pattern from an icon in their logo, etc.”

Over at the soon-to-open Le Buzz location at Plaza Palomino, White sat down with the owner for a consultation. After finding out their desire for a “mid-century Tucson” feel, the two figured out the rest of the details.

“I’m really proud of our partnership there and how she’s trusted me to bring her vision to life,” White said. “I’ve painted a large mid-century abstract shape mural, a scenic mural inspired by the work of Maynard Dixon, a lettering mural out front, menu boards, logo sign, and a few more little things here and there.”

Modern Aquarian artist Ashley White

Modern Aquarian artist Ashley White (Credit: Jackie Tran)

Although White’s existing skillset had endless possibilities already, she recently incorporated new services: fabricating and gold leaf application.

“For example, I have a client who wanted his logo icon (a pair of sunglasses) painted on the wall,” White said. “When I told him I could actually make a pair of sunglasses from MDF (medium-density fiberboard) and black translucent acrylic, he got really excited. So part of my job is showing clients all the cool things we can do to make their business stand out. You don’t see any gold leaf signs in town, so I’m really stoked to bring back that lost art and show my clients what an impact it can have on their business.”

Cotton wall at Casa Marana by Modern Aquarian

Cotton wall at Casa Marana by Modern Aquarian (Photo courtesy of Modern Aquarian on Facebook)

While White’s list of clients spans pages, here are some of our favorite Modern Aquarian works you should keep an eye out for:

Modern Aquarian Client Highlights

Even though White’s work highlighted here focuses on restaurants and bars, she also works with various other commercial and non-commercial clients. If you’d like to work with her, reach out to her at modernaquarian.com/contact.

For more information, visit modernaquarian.com. Keep up with Modern Aquarian on Instagram.

Jackie is a food writer and photographer native to Tucson. He loves corgis and still thinks rickrolling is funny. If you'd like to stalk him, visit jackietran.com and his Instagram @jackie_tran_.

X