Downtown/Capitol Hill/Denver/Any corner/Any alley/Light posts/Sidewalks/Brick walls/Graffiti or art?/Artists or criminals?
Either way it's poetry to me.
That verse is the prologue to Laura Russell's book Urban Poetry, a collection of images of stencil graffiti in central and downtown Denver that Russell, a photographer from Bellingham, Washington, shot over a one-year period beginning in late 2001. The Museum of Modern Art recently purchased Urban Poetry for its permanent collection, along with Russell's Lakeside: An American Icon, a photographic study of Lakeside Amusement Park.
Since completing Urban Poetry, Russell has been traveling the country, photographing stencil graffiti in major American cities from Seattle to New York. She was back in Denver last month on a graffiti safari the week a Westword story on local stencil-graffiti artists hit the streets ("Canned Heat," October 16), and stopped by the office to ask directions to several of the graffiti pieces featured in the article.
"In my opinion, Denver has the best stencil graffiti in the country -- better than Vancouver, and definitely better than New York," she said. "Denver has the best political messages in its graffiti. That's why I keep coming back here. New York graffiti has been corrupted by the corporations. Many of the stencils I find there are advertisements for soda and clothing brands. It's a huge shame."
A devoted fan of Shepard Fairey, whose stencil graffiti is on display at the Th'ink Tank Studio and Art Gallery through December 12 (a Fairey stencil of a book press adorns her business cards), Russell considers her photography something of an adrenaline sport -- much like illegally spray-painting sidewalks. "I think some of the appeal is the fact that it's a bit dangerous," she says. "I know it's not smart for a woman to be roaming around alleys in some of these neighborhoods by herself. My attention is not focused on what's happening around me; it's on shooting photos, which is just not safe. A friend suggested that I have a black vest made up that has the words 'Police Crime Scene Photographer' printed on the back in the hope that no roughnecks would bother me. If my mother knew what I did to get these photos, she'd have a coronary."
One of the pieces Russell photographed on her recent swing through town was a spray-painted portrait of George W. Bush above the slogan "One Term President," on Sherman Street between 10th and 11th avenues.
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"One Term President" is a worldwide sticker and stencil campaign; OTPs can be seen on the streets of Paris, London and Madrid, along with a spinoff that shows Tony Blair above the phrase "Two-Term Prime Minister." But one of the image's progenitors is local: University of Colorado chemistry professor Niels Damrauer and his brother Craig distributed what they say were the first batch of "One Term President" images at anti-war protests in Boston in February and March. Niels was living in Boston at the time, and Craig was in Brooklyn.
"I started going to Boston protests wearing Xerox copies of a sticker I got at a San Francisco protest," Niels says. "This was a picture of George with the words 'War Monger' underneath. I carried copies and a stapler in case people wanted to wear one. I think I maybe gave one or two away. Craig and I talked about this, and he simply said that he thought it was the wrong approach. A kind of angry dead end. He suggested 'One Term President,' and I made a new design and started wearing printouts of these. The response was, in all truth, heartwarming. People resonated with 'One Term President.' It made their eyes light up, and they wanted to have the image and the message."
Someone -- not one of the Damrauers -- got the image to Adbusters magazine, which this spring printed "One Term President" as a stencil that anyone could cut out and use to make graffiti. Since then, OTP has gone global. Niels puts up OTPs in Boulder, and Craig does the same in New York City, but the brothers are responsible for only a fraction of the thousands, if not tens of thousands, of OTPs out there.
"It was, from our perspective, simply an attempt to brand the president," says Craig. "Just like you think futuristic design when you think about Apple or sophisticated engineering for BMW, we want George W. Bush's brand to be much like that of his father's. In other words, you see the image often enough, and you start to believe it."