Artists Behind Controversial "Bad Cop Versus Good Cop" Speak Out
"Bad Cop Versus Good Cop" mural on Cold Crush.
The side of Cold Crush, at 2700 Larimer Street, carries a powerful new statement: the boxing-style propaganda mural called "Bad Cop Versus Good Cop." Cold Crush co-owners Musa Bailey, Eric Cunningham and Brian Mathenge have had a wide range of local and national artists to put their spin on the "phoenix wall" — so named because of the number of times it's been painted — including Scot Lefavor, who painted this most recent piece over three days with help from Bailey and Bailey's three-year-old son, Glenn, all while listening to Rage Against the Machine and De La Sol. (There is a hidden De La Sol album reference in the text; see if you can find it.)
The mural lays dark and light cop figures over a bright-yellow background as red and black text yells, "An ongoing battle between good and evil!" And there are other words: "Every City," "Every Town," "Round After Round!" The boxing-poster symbols carry deep meaning; the effect is like a punch in the stomach. And since the mural was finished, discussion has gone several rounds. Jonathan Lamb, newly appointed mural director for RiNo, offers this statement on the piece: "Any art that sparks conversation is good for the community."
Lefavor has declined to speak with the media; now he's breaking his silence on the controversial "Bad Cop Versus Good Cop," talking about it alongside Bailey, his friend and collaborator:
Scot Lefavor (left) and Musa Bailey (right) in front of the new mural at Cold Crush.
Westword: What does the mural mean?
Scot Lefavor: It means being a decent human being and not using violence or falling down to violence to solve problems, not having fear. You shouldn’t be a cop if you have fear and you're using that fear and you're hiding behind a safety net, like a gun.
Musa Bailey: What it really means is — what's going on in your life? Which one of these people are you? That’s what it means to me. I just want to be a good cop — stop crimes and rapes and save old ladies' purses.
Tell me about the collaboration of the mural, and why did you decide to break your silence?
Lefavor: Musa's been getting a lot of heat. I understand how to do these things and be expressive. Musa and I, this is our collaboration, even before the paint was on the wall. I did the art, I did the typesetting, and based on our conversations, I painted it — but Musa was there the whole time.
Bailey: I didn’t paint this by myself. I didn’t want anyone to think I did this on my own. Scot is a genius. I love this kid. We're actually friends. I've known Scot for ten years. At the end of the day, he made the magic happen.
What do you think the propaganda style adds to it?
Lefavor: So we have Cold Crush, a really great spot for us, because we sit here almost every day and talk about life and politics and make jokes, really openly and freely. The discussion came up with Alton Sterling about this wall. Musa was like, "All right, we have to do something." We sat out here for a couple of hours trying to figure out what we were going to do. We needed to do something that’s a poster of sorts, a good-versus-evil kind of thing.
Bailey: We were throwing around a ton of ideas. Some bad ideas [laughs].
Lefavor: But then Musa was talking about posters or something or making an analogy about sports. I made these posters before with an analogy about boxing. It just seemed relevant. It had a little bit to do with Muhammad Ali's recent passing. It felt like a fitting connection.
Bailey: What if we do this poster about what's actually going on? Good versus evil. I'm not trying to make it black and white, literally. But it is a thing. There is love versus hate, there is right versus wrong. When someone gets shot, it's wrong. Since they're police officers, they have a gun and they have authority. They can be like fuck, I was just doing my job as a police officer. I know it's difficult to be a police officer. There are a lot of times where people are resisting, yes. But we're at a breaking point. These officers are never held responsible. It's acquittal after acquittal. That’s a problem I'm starting to have. I understand this is a dangerous job and that shit happens. But I believe if they take a life, they need to go to jail — or at the very least, be held responsible and not allowed to be a police officer.
Is the mural anarchist, "pro-cop" or "anti-cop" — or none of the above?
Lefavor: This isn’t an anti-cop piece. We agree there are good cops. We're really just opening up this conversation, not a confrontation. It’s a conversation of sorts we're trying to have. What we feel as citizens, there's a way to be a good cop. That’s your job. To protect and serve. We both know good cops. We're not here in any case to generalize about any group small or large. But at the same time, we want the bad cops to know we're watching them.
Bailey: My cousin is a police officer. To ask the Serpico question, the Serpico dilemma. Serpico is the quintessential Al Pacino movie; a New York City cop who exposed corruption in the '70s. The cops can't speak negatively about each other because their life is in jeopardy.
Do you think the good cops should be taking action or speaking out?
Lefavor: Yes. The good cops should be calling out the bad cops for their abuse of power and the lack of general understanding in seeing people where they're at. They're disconnected from the community they serve. That’s easy for me to say, because I'm white. I've been systematically allowed to play the privileged white-guy card; a black man can't run that card. Society has failed by villainizing black people and making it so that police have to go around on edge. Just to be clear, we didn’t want to make that generalization; we didn’t want to say "Fuck the police" and "All cops are bad." It's not the case.
Bailey: As I said, my cousin's a cop. He's seen some horrible things, things that the average person cannot imagine. They're dealing with the most stressful piece of society. Treating civilians as the enemy? Civilians are not the enemy. You're innocent until proven guilty, not the other way around.
Lefavor: They can't be out here being a judge and jury in the streets — that’s not okay. It would be completely different if it was a white kid: Just the way they treat black people.... When the Dallas shooting happened, we almost changed our mind. I was in bed; I was super-stressed about it, like, "Should we really do this?" We're so, so against cops getting shot. We don’t want people to think that's what the mural insinuates. It's not. We're against violence in general. As a whole, we want the piece to represent peace.
Tell us about why you wanted to use the boxing analogy?
Lefavor: It's an intense, personal, immediate battle between two people. It isn't fake, like WWE, but it's real strength and grit and pain. This is an intimate discussion, let alone thought, to have. Whose side are you on?
Bailey: The idea is, "I'm right; no, I'm right" — and they're battling. I always found boxing to be an extremely good analogy for human struggle. It’s a mirror, kind of a reflection.
In your opinion, is all art a political statement to some degree?
Lefavor: Not all art is a political statement, and, yes, this is a political piece.
Why does Cold Crush work as a good epicenter or backdrop for this kind of conversation?
Lefavor: This is a community of individuals and groups who meet here. I'm not just talking about Friday and Saturday nights, where it’s a club. It's more than just a club. It’s a group of like-minded individuals who share ideas about a whole lot of heavy things. This does represent a really good space to say a message like this. The Syrian refugee piece also happened to be political.
Bailey: Where else are a black dude from Denver and a white dude from Boston going to be able to meet each other? In my opinion, this is one of the most multicultural blocks in the whole state. It's everybody. It's not just one type of person here.
Lefavor: It's old-school hip-hop. The name derived from the Cold Crush brothers, who were rappers in the late '70's. This is an old-school hip-hop bar. That’s what the original intention was. That still without question lives. This wall's always been here. It just so happened that Brian [Mathenge] and Eric and Musa got this spot, and we had this awesome wall in late 2012. It was intended to be about art and music.
Musa, are your partners a part of the mural concept and approval?
Bailey: Just to give enough respect to my partner, he just had a baby. He's not from Denver, he's from Venice. He trusted the scene here. Scot did the first mural here; he did the first install inside. We've been able to have creative control over the space; Brian trusts us fully. Other people with commissions have an idea of the art they want from you. We don’t have that restriction here. We can make a political statement. I'm like, "Brian, we're getting a lot of heat for this." He's like, "Leave it." The ownership is behind the artists.
You touched on the multicultural nature of the space. Is that the case?
Bailey: Absolutely. You never know who you're talking to — it could be an OG gangbanger dude or a white kid from Boston who paints his ass off. It's forced integration. You create something and you make everyone come there. Powerful shit like this can happen. I'm proud of this place; I'm proud of Brian.
Lefavor: It's hip-hop that’s unapologetic. From all walks of life, ages, demographics, of color. Hip-hop is what we've all listened to and admired and kind of congealed to. We all love hip-hop. The trifecta of hip-hop is expression, through dance, art and music. That’s what hip-hop is. We're definitely living up to that quota. Art is a big part of it to me, why I really admire this place. We get to do bangers, we get to say whatever we want, and no one is gonna buff this. This is a business where we are making a statement.
Is it true your son Glenn helped paint the piece?
Bailey: Yes. For me, that’s a really important part. For the last two weeks, my son got to help paint something about the future of the world. I hate to sound corny, but this is for my son. I'm passionate, because I want to ask these questions, because I don’t want my son to be living this way when he's forty years old. Talking about it is a good thing.
Do you think the world has to exist in this binary? Or do you see the potential for any gray area in between?
Lefavor: In this situation, it's pretty hard to find that gray area. It’s a constant duality between good and bad, good and evil. Maybe those are things that I obsess on. I think there is beauty in the gray areas. In issues like this, I don’t see a whole lot of gray area. Dignity of human life? There's no gray.
Bailey: I'm not religious like that. I think a lot of religion is based off the binary concept. I think there are a lot of exceptions. The cops are a perfect example of that. Cops are people, too. The get divorces, they have kids who give them a hard time, just like anyone else. These guys who are shooting first are not doing a good job. They show up to the scene and they let it escalate.
Do you feel the binary of good and evil is an internal battle?
Lefavor: There's this binary inside of everyone; that's what makes Star Wars, Shakespeare, the Bible, even — think of David and Goliath.
Bailey: I battle with it internally. Who doesn’t have bad days? Who doesn’t wake up sometimes feeling good and wanting to do something positive? Everyone deals with this; if you don’t deal with this, you're full of shit. This is more than just a conversation about police. It’s a conversation about people. What kind of person are you? Treat other people the way you'd like to be treated, whether you know them or not. There's a lot of bigotry and hatred in the world.
Does the piece have as much to do with guns and systematic violence as it does with cops and systematic racism?
Lefavor: We wanted to stay away from the Second Amendment. We originally wanted to have guns in this piece but decided not to.
Bailey: The Second Amendment has come back and haunted itself. The country is full of guns. You can make a mechanically well-made gun, you can make a gun that’s an instrument, but they're always meant to do one thing. I don’t like the immediacy of having a gun. You could fly off the handle.
Lefavor: We shoot with paint, though.
So in your opinion, what's the solution?
Bailey: We need something that the cops can have that is beyond just shooting the subject. No more bullets in people. I know that sounds controversial, but what can they do besides shoot? They're shooting first. That’s the problem.
Lefavor: Blue lives matter, all lives matter? No shit. What we're talking about is black lives.
What do you think separates these modern instances of police brutality from the past?
Bailey: Not a lot of people were rolling around with video cameras back in the day. You had to be rich. So when Rodney King happened, it was a rare capture. Now it's a new video every single day. This is the question. This has been happening since the '60s. The only difference is that now, people put on their phone and record it. You can hear the screams in the background.
What was your goal in collaborating on this mural?
Lefavor: All we wanted to do was make people talk — and it worked. That’s the beauty of art. Despite our own fears of what people would think, a black person and a white person came together and made art.
Bailey: This is helping me work through this pain, as a black man who is 41 years old who has a son. This is what I think about every day. This is the way I could deal with and cope with events, not by reacting in a childish way. This is grown up. Friendship, artists working together transcends race and transcends everything. We're artists and we were like, "What can we do as an artist?" You dream for this moment.
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Denver, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.