The first sign that something was funny? People kept coming up to Jolt — real name Jeremy Silas Ulibarri — at First Friday, telling the urban artist that they'd seen his work on the History Channel earlier that evening, that his Guerilla Garden logo, a stylized graffiti gorilla, had been prominently featured in "Mile High Killers," the March 5 installment of the network's Gangland series.
And not just featured, but tagged as a gang sign, as one gang member's cartoonish gorilla chest tattoo – signifying North Side Mafia, the narrator assured viewers – morphed into the not-remotely-similar guerilla gorilla on one of Jolt's murals.
Jolt has been pushing that image at his Guerilla Garden studio, on city-commissioned murals, on clothing, even billboards for the Denver Botanic Gardens. He has not been pushing that image as a celebration of gang life.
In fact, Jolt's been doing his best to use the gorilla, and the graffiti art it stands for, to encourage kids to stay out of gangs and to instead express themselves in more creative, positive ways. The results have been so impressive that they earned Ulibarri and his Guerilla Garden one of Westword's 2010 MasterMind Awards.
But now all the good he's done is at risk. "Something like this can and will without a doubt destroy something that I have worked at for years," Jolt says.
He's been working with graffiti for thirteen years, since before he attended North High School. "I just got into art," Jolt recalls. He's never left it, either — though it took a while before he realized what he wanted to do with it, before he realized how such an urban art form could grow.
"I was at the bar drinking with this old lady," he remembers. "She said she knew Andy Warhol; she was really cool. She started telling me about these guerilla gardens she used to plant in New York in the '70s. It sounded like the approach I take when doing my graffiti." It does not sound like the approach of a hardened gang member — although since the producers of "Mile High Killers" never talked to Jolt, not before the episode ran, not since he's complained about the content, they wouldn't know that.
Jolt is adding color to a gray world, working with the environment to make the deteriorating landscape bloom with creativity. "I took the concept, and that's what I've applied to everything we do," he says. "I've created a kind of tagline: 'Naturalizing the urban environment.' It has lots of different meanings. My past works have been guided by an underlying aesthetic philosophy that attempts to 'naturalize' the urban landscape. Softening the hard steel and institutional walls of industry is a social imperative. For the health of social consciousness, artists must inject an element of abstracted ecology into industrial structures. I put it on everything: clothing, murals. It's really just the lifestyle that I live. And when I go back into the neighborhoods where I work with kids, they see that I can do that naturally."
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Working with kids: That's where Jolt has really made his mark, though his art draws raves from some very grown-up venues. At the Denver Botanic Gardens' urban gardens show two years ago, "he was clearly one of the most talented artists we had," says director Brian Vogt. "We had a couple of very renowned urban artists, but to have someone of that caliber locally was incredible." Then there were his projects for the Museo de las Américas. "I really love Jeremy," says former director Patty Ortiz, who now heads the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center in San Antonio. "People want to say tagging and graffiti are the same, and they're not. We've had long discussions about it. He wanted the city to have a better understanding. A lot of artists came from the graffiti genre, from the idea of a subculture.... He's definitely thoughtful about how he's brought that idea out in a positive way, working with kids."
"Jolt happens to be not just a talented mural artist, but a talented educator and teacher," says Barth Quenzer, an art teacher at Brown Elementary who worked with him on a city-subsidized Urban Arts Fund project last year. Last year we had a chance to work with three schools — Brown, Lake and Kunsmiller — and we had a really positive outcome. We covered approximately 24,000 square feet of vandalized public property. Jolt had the chance to work with eighty students. We actually just submitted our second round of grants. We're excited to have him back at DPS."
It looks like Jolt might have plenty of time to spare for Denver's schools. He'd planned to go to Los Angeles to paint next month, but he doesn't think he should do that while his brand has been labeled North Side Mafia. And he's worried that the show's sloppy work could kill more than a career: A kid wearing a T-shirt with one of his gorillas could become a gang target.
He wants an apology, and he wants it fast. "Mile High Killers" is slated to repeat this Friday.