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Art of War

Travis Burns thinks the city should provide a place where his art isn't a crime.
Tony Gallagher

Hip-hop fashion mogul Marc Ecko has enraged Denver's political establishment, drop-kicked the beehive of ornery neighborhood groups, and flipped the bird to Denver Partners Against Graffiti.

But Denver City Council president Rosemary Rodriquez and her gaggle of property owners -- who hoisted pickets reading things like "No tagging, no graffiti, no 'artwork'" at a recent press conference -- are not the only ones concerned about Ecko's plans. Members of the local hip-hop and graffiti communities have been strangely silent on the issue because Ecko hasn't bothered to involve or even give so much as a 'sup to anyone in the Mile High City -- other than his high-profile attorney, David Lane.

Ecko is working hard to re-create the constitutional scrum he encountered last year when New York City officials rescinded his permits for a "graffiti block party" he organized to promote his new graffiti-centric video game, Getting Up: Contents Under Pressure. Federal court ruled in Ecko's favor, and the event went forward successfully, with artists creating large graffiti pieces on plywood facades made to look like subway cars. Now the mega-designer plans to hold a similar happening in Denver. But before he applies for permits, Ecko wants the city to drop the section of its anti-graffiti ordinance that makes it illegal for anyone under eighteen to possess a can of spray paint. That, his attorney argues, is a violation of Ecko's First Amendment rights, as the event is to be open to underage artists. And if the city doesn't toss the law pronto, he'll sue.

Ecko set a deadline of April 17 for the legal volley to begin, but the date came and went. In fact, two days later, Lane sent an e-mail to City Attorney Cole Finegan stating that if the city could ensure that juveniles would not be ticketed for possessing spray paint or broad-tipped markers during the event, then Ecko would hold his art festival on June 18, 2006, in Skyline Park.

So far, city officials aren't budging on changing the anti-graffiti ordinance, but they've also never told Ecko he can't hold the event. And without any local support from Denver's myriad street-level advocacy groups, Ecko is beginning to look less like a liberator of youth culture than a deep-pocketed outsider using the city as a platform to pump up publicity for his brands.

"We don't know exactly what [Ecko] is trying to do," says Edward Foreal, a representative of Guerilla Garden, a coalition of the city's more well-known crews that was formed a year ago as a way for serious graffiti artists to distinguish themselves from the hordes of tagger gangs. Some of Foreal's complex, multi-colored pieces can be found legally painted on the north-facing wall of the handball court at South High School. "I would like to think that Ecko actually is sincere in trying to raise awareness and trying to earn legitimization for this style of art. But I think there is distrust, because nobody in Denver has really spoken with him. And especially the way he's going about getting his event to take place with the lawsuit. It could turn out to be more dangerous for us in the end."

Part of this concern stems from the fact that Ecko is viewed by some as the Donald Trump of the hip-hop world, out to milk money from the culture with, as one local commentator put it, "shitty rap, stupid magazines and T.J. Maxx clothing."

(Ecko failed to return several phone messages and e-mails from Westword.)

Jeff Campbell, director of the Colorado Hip-Hop Coalition, has reached out to Ecko's people but says that discussion has been very limited. Ecko reminds him of another hip-hop entrepreneur: Russell Simmons. In 2004, the mogul announced plans for Denver's Hip-Hop Festival and Summit, then bailed, leaving behind a shockingly embarrassing event that was shunned by even local hip-hoppers ("Hip-Hop Hype," February 17, 2005). "People got all excited because our city's name dropped out of some celeb's mouth, without a truly organized and mobilized community," Campbell says. "We go unnoticed, and they wind up dealing with city officials that do not have a clue."

Jay, a graffiti artist and teacher in Denver, would love to see Ecko's festival come to Denver, but he worries about the long-term costs once the smoke clears: "We want to make sure that if [Ecko] is here to do something with the graffiti community, that he just doesn't up and leave and leave us with more than we're dealing with already. Because this could generate a lot of hate toward us. It already is. I would like to see Marc Ecko work with the city council."

"This is our lives, our livelihoods, our jobs," adds Foreal. "If we have a city that's hating what we do for a living, how are we going to survive? But it's art. It's time that the city embraces it. It's time the city views it as more than vandalism."

Avoiding the criminal label isn't as easy as getting permission from property owners before starting to paint, as many city officials claim. Guerilla Garden members are constantly seeking out "legal walls," but even for those, they are supposed to apply for a special permit. To do that, the artist must contact Rudi Cerri, public-art administrator for the city's Office of Cultural Affairs, and submit not only a letter from the property owner, but also a letter of support from the local neighborhood group and a "full-color scale rendering" of what the piece would look like. After that, Cerri looks to see if the content qualifies as a work "based in the traditions of fine art." If not, the proposal is kicked up to a "public-art subcommittee" that meets once a month and decides if potential murals violate any specific standards. Considering the spontaneous nature of street art, it's not surprising that Cerri is unaware of any graffiti artists jumping through the permitting hoops.

Denver Police Department anti-graffiti detective Ray Ruybal remembers only twice in ten years that he's asked graffiti artists to get the permit. "The majority of the time, if they have the property owners permission, we don't really push that." In fact, permits are used so infrequently that he wasn't even sure which city department issues them. Guerilla Garden members, however, cite incidences in the past two years in which police have threatened to ticket them for painting on legal walls or had city crews paint over completed murals that were done without permits.

"We're criminalized right off the bat," Jay says. "Vandalism and graffiti art are two separate things. We want the city to embrace graffiti art, just as they do any other art. But when we try and go get a permit, nobody from the city knows how to do it for us because nobody's ever done it."

On April 16, Travis Burns was arrested along with two friends for spray-painting in Northside Park at the redeveloped site of the old Metropolitan Wastewater Facility. It wasn't the first time the 29-year-old Denver native was ticketed for graffiti, but it was the first time he was slapped with a felony. While technically they don't constitute a legal wall, the freestanding barriers have been a well-known painting location since the late-'80s. There is even an official plaque that discusses how "the abandoned plant was a blank canvas for graffiti artists," next to photographs of the colorful pieces.

"I've been to fifteen different countries around the world and painted in almost every single one of them, and no one's ever sweated me," says Burns, who until recently was a photojournalist for the Navy. "And in my own home town, I get thrown in jail and charged with a felony -- for painting?"

As with 80 percent of the graffiti arrests, the charge is likely to be reduced to a misdemeanor with fines and community service, says Detective Ruybal.

Burns would prefer to have an authorized space to practice his art, much like Boulder has done with its official graffiti wall, rather than constantly having to walk the line on what might be considered legal. "You know how there's a skatepark in downtown Denver?" he asks. "Well, the city needs to provide the same thing for artists."

A festival could help clear the air on graffiti art. But before Marc Ecko starts launching any more legal bombs from his Manhattan office, many local graffiti writers think he should first check out the real issues on the ground.


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