Photo by Vincent Ta
Photo by Vincent Ta

The ground of Tio’s Tacos is littered with history. Shattered plates, broken mirrors and discarded car parts decorate the concrete walkway behind the restaurant. Every piece comes from the life of owner Martin Sanchez, who led a tour through his junkyard art gallery on May 24 as one of the opening events of Saturation Fest. Sanchez pointed to a city mural on the ground, composed entirely of bits of tile and terra cotta, and said, “Son hitos de Riverside.” He said these are the landmarks of Riverside — the Fox Theatre, Mount Rubidoux and the art of the restaurant itself, built from the hands of one white-haired man with a tireless devotion to artistic expression.

That relentless devotion — to art, hard work and a do-it-yourself mentality — saturated downtown Riverside over Memorial Day weekend.

Saturation Fest began in 2001 when longtime Riverside resident Alaska Quilici brought together every local artist and band she knew. Since then, the event has ranged from a two-week beast to this year’s three-day soiree. It is a multi-venue powerhouse and host to a diverse array of artists and performers from the Inland Empire. Bands from places outside the Inland Empire, as close as LA and as far as Pittsburgh, have made appearances in past years, but the heart of the event has always been in Riverside — showcasing its talents and its gems, its people and its paintings, its music and its soul.

The brunt of the (almost entirely free) event was housed at Back to the Grind, Blood Orange Infoshop and Division 9 Gallery, major landmarks in the Riverside arts scene. If there is any question about whether or not that scene is still around, then this weekend proved that, yes, the arts in Riverside are alive and kicking. As the sun set and the Tio’s Tacos tour came to a close, I walked up University Avenue and saw something I haven’t seen since, well, ever: crowds of people spilling out of shops, crowding in front of open bar doors, laughing and smoking and crossing crosswalks en masse.

Back to the Grind, decorated with eclectic installations from local artists, transformed on Friday night from a hip coffee house into a Latin alt dance party. The usual rows of tables and chairs were removed to make room for a dance floor, illuminated by red and white string lights under the far-reaching branches of a withered paper tree. Electro-cumbia music blared from the speakers; as the coffee house’s lights were replaced by the frantic strobe of a disco light, hordes of people — some drunk off the moonshine from Pixels, others sashaying their hips with a latte in one hand and a stranger’s hand in the other — swayed and twirled to LA-based Zoom-B’s beats. It was wild, heavy and contagious, and exiting Back to the Grind was like leaving behind an entirely different world.

Over at Division 9 Gallery, a number of incredible artists rocked one of the most intimate venues of the weekend. Performing in the middle of the gallery, ground-level with an audience of around 20 sweaty bodies, Claremont’s Son of Cecil inspired a mini-circle pit as he reached the climactic finale of his song, “Excess.” He was followed by The Great Late, a rock group from Redlands that owned the stage for their record release show. The band’s album, “Human Race,” was freely available for people who wrote their e-mail on singer Jacob Harrison’s clipboard, for which I had to shove aside other eager attendees who liked what they heard.

As acts took to stages throughout downtown Riverside, the crowd at Division 9 ebbed and flowed, but the experience of standing face-to-face and shoulder-to-shoulder with artists, musicians, performers and fans was intoxicating. Division 9 housed unabashed head-bobbing and body-waving among a packed group of youths in revolt, curious Riversiders, groups of college students and gaggles of roving adults. Like the rest of the venues throughout the weekend, Division 9 offered a show for everybody. As I stood watching the Calicos, Habitat, Heavy Hawaii and Street Lights sing, thrash and deliver diversely powerful tunes, I felt like I was a part of something bigger than myself.

And in many ways, I actually was experiencing something larger than life. Most nights, downtown Riverside is an empty husk. Back to the Grind, Blood Orange and Division 9 serve as the stronghold for the city’s storied past in the arts, but that undercurrent of music, poetry and expression is only ever felt by those who are willing to look. Saturation Fest was fun — no doubt about that — but it is also part of a larger effort to revitalize the scene that Riverside’s artists, musicians, writers and performers so desperately need.

I felt that need as I sat in Back to the Grind’s basement on Saturday, May 25, watching local spoken word artists spit truths from their stage. Officially titled “Slam-A-Lama-Ding-Dong,” the event served as the semi-finals for the fest’s first-ever poetry slam competition. Eleven spoken word artists delivered two-minute pieces on topics spanning cultural apathy to the Philippine-American war. Tianti Mhonaé, poetically called “Concrete Rose,” took the stage and delivered an impassioned performance sans microphone — her voice and presence were enough to fill the basement air.

Mhonaé is the founder of Floasis, a spoken word open mic venue held monthly at Back to the Grind. The praise from the crowd that afternoon suggested familiar relationships fostered by a love of poetry; I felt like members of the audience had seen each other perform before, and the work of the poets (including Pretty Blaq, Sophie Violette, and UCR student Alex Gomez) was universally supported and applauded. Although they were technically competing, the artists were truly there to share their passion, and I felt it entirely.

And really, sharing that passion is what the arts scene in Riverside is really about. Over a period of three days, venues downtown were saturated by local musicians, collaborative workshops (including home beer-brewing, juggling and image-transferring), art, poetry, food trucks, coffee, cigarette smoke, $5 Pabst Blue Ribbon, sweat, free posters and EPs. It was free, it was wild and it was Riverside through and through.

During the tour at Tio’s Tacos, Sanchez’s daughter, Stephanie, told the crowd that the family calls him an “organized hoarder.” As I absorbed the decades of history sprawled throughout his open-air art gallery, I understood that Sanchez had placed his entire life on display for the sake of artistic expression, paying homage to landmarks of the city and of his home.

The word “landmark” has two definitions. It refers to the establishment of a featured location, like Tio’s Tacos or Back to the Grind — but it also refers to an important stage or turning point in something’s timeline. As Saturation Fest draws larger crowds and incorporates greater numbers of venues each year, I firmly believe this festival is a landmark in the future of Riverside’s developing, fighting, thriving arts scene.

Whether you are an artist, poet, musician, record collector or simply a lover of the arts, Riverside has a venue for your passion. A home for your installations. A stage for your sound.

In fact, it’s saturated with them.