The Writing on the Wall

The city's ready to erase an illegal advertisement.

At 120 feet wide and 80 feet tall, Terabeam Corp.'s new billboard demands attention.

And since it appeared on the wall of the Allright Parking garage at 1420 Stout Street, it's gotten plenty of attention from the Mayor's Office of Art, Culture and Film, the city's zoning department, and just about anyone in Denver who's ever tried to install a mural only to have it rejected by the city as too commercial.

"I've been getting a lot of calls," John Grant, the city's public-art administrator, says of Terabeam's addition to downtown.

The billboard -- which features a generic-looking stretch of the Rocky Mountains, an expanse of blue sky and giant lettering that reads "You're already doing business a Mile High. How about taking a shot at the speed of light. Terabeam: Beyond Limits" -- doesn't represent a new direction for the city, which has strict rules governing both murals and signs. It's simply a violation of both.

"Terabeam hired a company out of Oregon that never even checked to see if there are any laws and didn't apply for any permits," Grant says. "It would be the biggest sign in Denver, and by no means does it qualify as a mural. Whether I like it or not, it doesn't adhere to the process, and they didn't go through the laws."

As the city now defines it, a mural is a one-of-a-kind work of art done by an artist. Although murals can be paid for by a company or an organization, no more than 5 percent of the surface space can bear the name of the sponsor, and no logos or trademarked material are permitted. For an example of a mural done right, Grant points to the painting on the side of the Davis & Shaw building at 1434 Champa Street, which sports two flowers and the word "Grow." Way up in the corner, in very small print, it reads: "Sponsored by the Denver Botanic Gardens."

The city's rules regarding murals solidified over the last four years, as Grant's department reacted to a number of billboards painted without permission from him. In 1997, a large image of a headless man holding an umbrella -- an advertisement for the traveling Cirque du Soleil show -- appeared on the Davis & Shaw building. Although the painting was interesting, it was also part of a larger advertising scheme, Grant says, and that led to the rule requiring that murals be one of a kind. The next year, Nike paid for a giant painting of Denver Bronco Terrell Davis on the Allright wall, with the words "Migraine symptoms: blurry vision; sharp stabbing pain; your job title is defensive coordinator," and a Nike logo in the corner. That mural inspired the no-logo rule.

Grant understands the allure of the Allright wall. "It's the perfect, gigantic sales pitch," he explains, "and the reason everybody wants it is because it is right across from the Colorado Convention Center." But because of the scrutiny that prominent murals receive, the city also keeps a close eye on the subject. "Never again will we put up something like the Terrell Davis mural," Grant says. "Things have changed. The regulations have gotten much stricter since then."

If a painting doesn't qualify as a mural, then it's considered a sign. And the city has rules for signs as well, the most basic of which is that anyone who wants to erect a sign has to first apply for a zoning permit, something Terabeam didn't do, either.

Terabeam, a Seattle firm that connects companies to fiber-optic networks by beaming the information through the air, opened a Denver office in May. Spokesman Lou Gellos says Terabeam knew that Denver had restrictions on murals and worked hard to make sure its design conformed to them. "We had planned to meet those guidelines in the same way that the Nike ad did," he says. "The choice that was made was the one that we thought was the most artistic. That's why you don't see giant pieces of our equipment."

Even if Terabeam didn't get the rules right, the company that produced the ad, Portland-based Art FX Murals, probably should have known better: It was responsible for putting the now-banned Terrell Davis mural on the same building. But Art FX owner Mark Bennett says, "It's news to us that the city has issues, but we'll do what we have to. We'll bend over backward to make sure everything is right with the city.

"Terabeam worked real hard on a design that would be well received by the city of Denver and tried to do the Rocky Mountains and the 'Mile High' caption," he adds.

Art FX specializes in advertising murals; it has painted Nike-sponsored images similar to the Terrell Davis picture in Detroit, San Francisco and Portland. In fact, the company paints dozens of murals every year in cities across the country, pitching everything from Disney movies to HBO programs, Apple computers to Henry Weinhard beer.

And now it can prepare to paint over this one.

"[The city] issued a cease-and-desist order this week," Grant says of the Terabeam billboard. "It's coming down. I think the zoning department will give them to mid-July to get it off."

 
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