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How Denver Became the Surprising Street Art Capital of the Country

By Heather Balogh Rochfort

09.02.19

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The 2018 CRUSH WALLS festival featured collaborative murals such as this one, which includes a section by the artist “rumtum” (John Hastings), known for his signature whimsical take on the natural world.

Courtesy of CRUSH WALLS

The 2018 CRUSH WALLS festival featured collaborative murals such as this one, which includes a section by the artist “rumtum” (John Hastings), known for his signature whimsical take on the natural world.

Once frowned upon, the street art scene in fast-growing Denver is booming, with its colorful, captivating murals now a major draw for visitors to the city.

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Colorado’s capital is no longer the quiet city it was a few generations ago. “New Denver”—as locals call it—is filled with outdoor enthusiasts, beer aficionados, and hustling entrepreneurs launching tech startups. In the midst of this bustling and emerging economy, another subset of professionals is literally painting the town red (and yellow, blue, and green): street artists.

In the past decade, the street art scene in Denver has grown from illegal incidents of graffiti, quickly scrubbed from buildings, to a legitimate and bona fide movement. Some works are even commissioned by local business owners. Many people attribute this growing acceptance of Denver’s street artists to the city’s annual art festival CRUSH (Creative Rituals Under Social Harmony) WALLS.

Los Angeles–based artist VYAL ONE brought his hallucinatory style to the 2018 CRUSH WALLS festival.

Founded in 2010 by Denver graffitist Robin Munro, CRUSH WALLS takes place in Denver’s artistic and culturally diverse River North (RiNo) neighborhood. Every September, local, national, and international artists descend upon the Mile High City’s lively streets and narrow alleys to re-energize the neighborhood, creating colorful murals that address cultural concerns, creative moods, and shared human experience. In 2018, the free weeklong event saw a record-breaking 105,000 people in attendance.

More than 400 artists submitted applications to participate in this year’s 10th-anniversary festival, being held September 2–8. A panel of eight judges ultimately chose 80 Colorado artists and 16 national and international artists to collaborate on 80 vibrant murals stretching across 30 blocks in the RiNo neighborhood—a signifcant increase from last year’s 10 blocks. In short, CRUSH WALLS 2019 will be spectacular.

The World’s Best Cities for Street Art

But Denver’s street art scene flourishes year-round, too.

Denver-based art lover Erin Spradlin and her husband James Carlson founded Denver Graffiti Tours in 2018 after experiencing a memorable street art tour in Colombia. They believed a similar business would thrive in Denver’s sprawling mural landscape.

“Denver—specifically RiNo—is embracing it,” she says of the surge in street art’s popularity. “I know of all these other cities that make it extremely hard for artists to put up their work. Different cities apply limitations that force people to do it illegally, but it seems like Denver celebrates the artists’ talent.”

From illegal acts to sanctioned art

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Denver’s affinity for the arts can be traced back to 1988 when the Public Art program was established underneath the city’s Denver Arts & Venues division. The intent was simply stated: “Expand the opportunities for Denver residents to experience art in public places.” But street art was not part of the puzzle until the Urban Arts Fund (UAF) was founded as part of the Public Art program in 2009.

Another contributor to the 2018 CRUSH WALLS festival: Marka27 is a Dallas-born artist known for his powerful and often politically charged murals.

Today, the UAF describes itself as a “graffiti prevention and youth development program” that facilitates the creation of vibrant public murals in graffiti-prone areas throughout the city (not just in RiNo) with the help of youth and community participants. According to Ashley Geisheker, associate director of public relations and communications for VISIT DENVER, the UAF has placed more than 300 new murals in the city since 2009, protecting 500,000 square feet of walls from vandalism. In 2018 alone, UAF commissioned over 60 murals, signifying Denver’s increasing dedication to street art.

“Denver has seen significant growth in our street art and public art scene,” says Richard Scharf, president and CEO of VISIT DENVER. “These works often serve to beautify and exemplify the spirit of our neighborhoods and bring the community together. They are a great way to showcase the Mile High City’s deep appreciation for art and culture and enthusiastic desire to get outside.”

With the ephemeral nature of street art—and the upcoming CRUSH WALLS festival—it is tough to predict how Denver’s ever-changing streets will look next week or even next month. But one thing is for sure: They will certainly be colorful and captivating. Experience the city’s spirited murals on your next trip with a tour from Erin Spradlin and Denver Graffiti Tours, or check out these five favorites below for yourself (while they’re still around).

Jeremy Burns’s mural “Larimer Boy and Girl” plays with the 3-D structure of the building to create a mural that changes depending on where the viewer stands.

Five Murals Not to Miss

Larimer Boy and Girl

2732 Larimer St.

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This is arguably one of the most popular murals in Denver and for good reason. Created by Colorado native Jeremy Burns in 2015, Larimer Boy and Girl is almost an optical illusion. Burns painted the mural(s) on a building in RiNo with concrete pillars that jut out from the surface. When viewers glance at the mural from one angle, they see a surprised boy’s face. From another angle, it transforms into a completely different face—that of a saddened girl.

IMAC Eyeballs

26th St. & Larimer St.

Miami graffiti artist Ahol Sniffs Glue (aka David Anasagasti) created this orange-and-blue mural of half-closed eyeballs that stretches across the IMAC building in RiNo. According to Spradlin, the eyeballs are less popular for their aesthetics and more for their story. “American Eagle Outfitters ripped off his design and used it in their marketing campaigns,” she says. “They settled out of court, but visitors usually have a strong reaction to this visually interesting piece.”

Love This City

Seventh St. & Santa Fe Dr., 12th Ave. & Bannock St., and Broadway & Arapahoe St.

VIST DENVER commissioned Denver artist Pat Milbery for this three-part series of murals in the Santa Fe Art District, the Golden Triangle neighborhood, and in RiNo that express Milbery’s love for the city. Thanks to its colorful patterning and gargantuan size, the creation on Broadway and Arapahoe in RiNo is particularly Instagrammable: You can’t miss the cheerful birds and hearts peppered throughout the design.

Walmart Girl

Williams St. & E. Colfax Ave.

As the first outdoor creation by artist Ark Artiste, Walmart Girl set a high bar. A row of naked, gun-toting women with smiley faces for heads sits below a “No Trespassing” sign in the East Colfax neighborhood. To be sure, it is a bold mural: Artiste calls it a statement on how the American ideal of freedom has been exploited beyond measure.

Kid Boxer

2350 Arapahoe St.

Denver-based Thomas “Detour” Evans created this brilliant mural in the Five Points neighborhood that depicts five-year-old Britton-Grae Chapman, the son of one of the artist’s friends. For Detour, the project was personal, tackling both inclusion and diversity with a rendering of the African American youth standing in a boxer’s power stance with his arms flexed. By depicting the vivacious, young face—the kind of image he wished he had seen when he was a kid—he strives to show viewers that their story matters, regardless of age.

>>Next: Plan Your Trip With AFAR’s Guide to Denver

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