Like a flower blooming from a cracked sidewalk, Oklahoma City’s DIY scene has always found a way. The last few years have seen a pandemic decimate the live music world, and when compounded with the usual punk community struggles (house venue regulation crackdowns, threadbare economics, etc.), OKC has been a particularly inhospitable place for a movement that prioritizes artistic freedom over financial viability. Although locals have continued to find fissures in the pavement, DIY isn’t the garden it could be if given the space, nutrients, and centralized TLC to thrive. This is why The Sanctuary, behind all of its sweaty mosh pits and mounted bestial heads, exists.
Sharing a space with Beloved Bones, an oddity store most recognized for its taxidermy, The Sanctuary lives within an antique shopping strip that corners NW 10th and May Ave. Complete with an intimate low-capacity main room and a quaint back patio, the all-ages DIY venue and creative arts collective has proven a popular gathering point for young, alternative crowds in the metro area.
The gothic overtones of Beloved Bones creates a unique identity that helps punk and metal music performances in particular feel at home. With musicians playing mere inches away from audiences at ground level — there are lights and sound but decidedly no stage — the all-ages venue has hosted numerous out-of-state acts, including death sludge band Primitive Man on a sold-out date of its 10th-anniversary tour in May. The majority of the venue’s shows, however, feature local bands and artists, and while the harsher niches of rock tend to be The Sanctuary’s wheelhouse, it has been open to all varieties of sound from the beginning.
“Our first show was a techno show that my friend Taylor put on with local DJs and one from out of town,” owner Mekala Littleton said. “We had a crazy turnout, and it felt really special to share the building with everyone for the first time. We received a lot of positive feedback and encouragement, and it meant everything to us.”
Littleton, who owns both The Sanctuary and Beloved Bones, cites the community as a key motivation for opening the space. After years of cultivating a small business with her natural creations and antique finds, paying booth rent here and selling online there, she knew that a brick-and-mortar storefront was in Beloved Bones’ not-so-distant future. However, it was the need for an all-ages DIY venue that led her to fast-track her plans and include The Sanctuary.
“After some serious thought, I decided that it made sense to give it a try now, and the community was on board,” Littleton said. “At that point, everything just started falling into place, and all of my focus shifted towards figuring out what we needed to do to make it happen.”
Beyond the immediate support of her partner and close friends, Littleton’s mission found assistance beyond the city and even the state. To help get The Sanctuary up and running, Tulsa’s Mass Movement Community Arts collective threw a fundraising concert last year, and Littleton found further funding through internationally crowdsourced microfinancial nonprofit Kiva. With deposits paid and everything up to spec, doors officially opened in February. Although only time ultimately will tell if The Sanctuary’s lifespan will outperform past greater metropolitan fringe venue upstarts like Warehouse B and First Pastafarian Church of Norman, the shared space business model is already providing more fruitful returns on average. The prospects are promising.
“For our first few months of being open, we’ve been focused primarily on hosting live music,” Littleton said. “Long-term, we really want to offer more creative and related events such as art shows, cinema nights, poetry nights, and art workshops … I want to host free workshops on simple music lessons—how to start punk bands, learn basic chords or progressions, that kind of thing—art shows, plant swaps, small business popups, cookouts, fundraisers, skate nights, paint and wine sort of events. I’d really love to have other artists and creatives come in and teach their own trades to others as well.”
Amongst small businesses from bookstores to coffee shops to dispensaries, this desire to include more local arts events is not uncommon. What sets The Sanctuary apart is a threefold manifesto. It puts these events at the forefront of its mission rather than view them as ancillary, it offers a one-of-a-kind immersive gothic atmosphere in which they can be conducted, and it makes significant efforts to be a safe space for its community. The venue’s name holds all of these layers of meaning.
“The word ‘sanctuary’ often suggests the idea of refuge, safety, or a sacred space, and that’s really what I wanted The Sanctuary to be,” Littleton said. “A safe, inclusive, and diverse space where folks know we’re here and investing ourselves into the community because we care and want to invite them to invest themselves as well and help us build an even better underground creative community in Oklahoma.”
While the local scene has mostly taken notice of The Sanctuary for its consistent promotion of all-ages fringe genre shows, those who have visited tend to come away with a greater sense of value for what the space provides.
“My entry point into the OKC music scene was through the folk and indie rock subgenres,” John Schlenner, one avid concertgoer, said. “Although The Sanctuary tends to host more shows in the metal and punk spaces, it has still instantly become one of my favorite venues … I know that the venue will always be a welcoming place and a safe space for folks who are less privileged than myself, which is something that is so important to have in this city and state these days.”
Like the art of taxidermy, The Sanctuary fills a void to rejuvenate life in an often overlooked place. With empathetic care, purposeful work, and a passionate eye for unorthodox beauty, the venue is not satisfied with merely keeping the lights on. It wants to be an inner glow that inspires.