The Magnet Mafia Sticks to Street Art
The city looks different when you have a pocket full of magnets.
Bricks, concrete, glass and anything containing organic matter recede into the background, leaving only metal. So what Matt Feeney and Harrison Nealey see are dumpsters, light poles, air conditioners, electrical boxes and LOADING ONLY signs. Even in the dark, they scan the length of Platte Street and visually omit the surfaces of non-magnetic aluminum and plastic/alloy composites, automatically ignore objects that may be metal but are too obvious and boring to be worth the effort. Instead, they give high-fives to water meters, flick wrists toward balconies and brush palms against newspaper boxes, leaving a trail of "art tags" — flat magnets featuring original works by assorted artists, official signs that the Magnet Mafia was here.
Inside Paris on the Platte, they stand amid the late-night clamor of cigarette smoke and unfulfilled nihilism, Matt smiling like a birthday cake, Harrison not, chatting with each other about spots they can hit, spots they shouldn't hit, and spots they'd hit if they only had the balls and maybe some kind of construction crane. Harrison looks around, then snaps his hand in an upward motion like he's signaling to someone in the other room. But no one is watching as the magnet he just flipped flies up and sticks to the air duct. He orders a coffee and nods toward the ceiling.
"This is actually the first spot the Magnet Mafia ever got up on," Harrison says.
It was in the spring of 2006. "And we were so nervous," Matt recalls, laughing. "We were sitting at that table, like, 'Is anybody looking? Is the coast clear? Okay, go! Go!'"
Since that time, the Magnet Mafia has become a household name in Denver's low-to-the-ground cultural scene, and many artists have joined the growing network. Magnets have proved the perfect way for Matt and Harrison to meld their love of graffiti and street art with their support for the arts community, both local and global.
"It's not really graffiti," Harrison explains. "It's art that's in the street. You can leave it or you can remove it. You can take it home, you can sell it, or you can hang it up somewhere else."
But first you have to find it. Most magnets are placed where they can easily be plucked off by a passerby, but Matt and Harrison also seek out spots that offer maximum visibility and hang time. Behold the underpass where 15th Street dunks below the railroad tracks: The pine-green side of the bridge presents a perfect billboard for descending motorists.
"What do you think?" Harrison asks.
Beneath his arm, Matt has a magnet the size of a poster rolled into a tube. "It's perfect," he answers, "but..." The pause says this: To get to the spot, someone will have to shimmy across the ledge of a huge I-beam, similar to the one above the South Platte River that Harrison traversed last year in order to hang a magnet. While a fall from there would have meant getting wet (or worse), if you slip up above 15th, it's nothing but thirty feet and concrete dreams. Plus, there's a street sweeper circling the darkened strip below like some kind of freaky shark. "...it's pretty fucking gnarly," he concludes.
After some heavy consultation during which Matt confesses a fear of heights that developed upon his graduation from Dakota Ridge High School, Harrison is up on the I-beam, crouching awkwardly. When a wave of headlights passes beneath him, he freezes like a gargoyle in a hoodie, only to reanimate moments later and continue along his plodding mission. The magnet goes up. It's a piece of art that the friends created at an event at Vinyl, an abstract, suitable for framing, and a complete mystery to the random observer who might spot it. Still, it seems to fit with the nearby Museum of Contemporary Art and the towering Millennium Bridge.
And really, given the subjectivity of art, what's the difference between a painting inside a museum and a piece outside on a wall? If the piece on the wall is graffiti, the answer is a felony — and ever-increasing penalties for vandalism in Denver have made it much less inviting to act on the tagger impulse. But if the piece on the wall is magnetic art?
"We actually try not to focus on it being removable graffiti or safe graffiti because it's not as illegal," Matt says. "We more want to show that it's just another way of getting up on the streets. But, yeah, having a loophole to getting busted is a nice by-product of that."
When two magnets of the same pole are pushed close, they fly apart. But flip one around and they stick together. Opposites attract.
Harrison is tall, black, good-looking and exceedingly mellow, with a voice like a sleepy DJ on a smooth-jazz station. Matt possesses the kind of whiteness usually encountered only at evangelical mega-churches, as well as an ADD-tinged affability that makes it seem like nothing in the world is stoking him more than what you're saying right now. Harrison doesn't drink or do drugs; Matt partakes.
They are best friends, but they describe their relationship more as that of two "nemesi" or "frienemies." Both are in their mid-twenties and, according to an unscientific survey of their peers, considered cool guys who people like. This is important, because the lion's share of their notoriety has come through friend-making campaigns both on MySpace and in real space, and their success through an ability to collaborate across a wide spectrum of visual-art disciplines.
Their latest and most geographically ambitious project is a magnet exchange with artists in Austria. The scheme came to them through Alicia Bailey, who has a studio on Santa Fe Drive where she specializes in crafting highly conceptual handmade books. Alicia is a member of Spondere, a small art collective of like-minded women, and several members traveled to Vienna in December to hang magnets painted by Denver locals. While three middle-aged women dressed in scarves and berets and creeping through European alleyways may not seem like stereotypical American street artists, their campaign earned newspaper headlines about the "Bilder-Anschläge der Magnet-Mafia," which translates roughly to "a Magnet Mafia art attack."
To return the favor, Matt and Harrison plan to decorate Denver with magnets crafted by their German-speaking counterparts. Right now, the tile-sized Austrian strips are still in a stack on Matt's countertop, where Harrison sits carefully snipping the edges off some hand-painted magnets sent by OhNo, a street artist in West Virginia. Matt then places small stickers on the back with their logo and website, www.magnetmafia.com, so that people who find the magnets can share their discoveries online, preferably with photos.
But first, the Magnet Mafia coordinates with individual artists and collectives around the country to make the original magnet art. "This is amazing to me," Matt says. "We've got artists who will sit down and actually put in the time to do stuff like this. They send us packs of their own little stickers and artwork; we put anything that people send us straight on the magnet and get them up in Colorado."
Eventually, they'd like the Magnet Mafia to be organized enough that artists from around the globe can engineer trades without having to go directly through them. As Matt explains it, "They talk through our Internet platform and say, 'Okay, I'll send out twenty of my pieces and you send twenty to me, and we'll put each other's stuff up in different cities.'"
In this city, Matt lives in Highland, in an old two-story house that's been in a stalled remodel since he purchased it four years ago. The kitchen is all high-end granite and stainless steel, but the rest of the place is more or less gutted, giving it a warehouse-like feel that's perfect for an art studio. Tags and other scribblings adorn the bare rafters and wall studs; someone has written the words "stairway," "to" and "heaven" on the vertical risers of a set of steps that read from the top as "heaven to stairway."
The Magnet Mafia name was inspired by a discovery in the basement. When Matt was tearing some shelves out down there, he discovered a secret vault. The concrete door to the chamber was a foot thick and set on hefty hinges from the turn of the last century. "We found all of these documents and newspapers from the 1920s," Matt says. "Then I looked up some records and figured out that this was the house where the Smaldone family lived."
The Smaldones got their start bootlegging during Prohibition, then moved on to gambling and loan-sharking, a criminal enterprise they ran out of the original Gaetano's, just six blocks away from Matt's new house. By the time he made his discovery, the Smaldone family had long been out of the crime business and Gaetano's had moved into the hands of the Wynkoop Restaurant Group. Matt had his own business, a small mortgage company (this was before the subprime loan crisis gutted the market), and Harrison was helping out in his home office. It was basically a two-man operation, and they spent much of their downtime talking about graffiti and street art and cooking up the idea of a magnet crew. The house's backstory was so cool that they decided to co-opt it for the name of their new art enterprise.
The two had known each other since middle school in Littleton. At Dakota Ridge, they'd discovered a shared interest in art and design and often teamed up on extra-curricular projects, like tricking out Matt's car or creating comics making fun of each other and hanging them around the school for the amusement of friends.
"Matt was a Goody Two-shoes when I first met him," Harrison says. "He wouldn't even cuss!"
"I wouldn't even cuss," Matt concurs. But getting emancipated at seventeen from his parents, who'd gone through a divorce, and then spending a few years working at a skateboard shop cured him of that. The friends drifted apart in their early twenties — Harrison trying a few years of college, Matt working for a marketing firm in California. Then Matt moved back and became Mr. Broker, all the while daydreaming about graffiti. "But it wouldn't have been that fun getting arrested and having to explain to my real-estate clients why I'm out spray-painting other properties," he points out. Harrison had been working for fabrication and signage companies and had knowledge of other materials that could work on the street, such as industrial magnet sheeting often used for advertisements placed on the sides of vehicles.
"And we put the two together," Matt remembers. "You could do the artwork right on the magnets. So we were able to incorporate not only our own style, but all the other mixed mediums and put it on top of another medium covered with vinyl that can adhere to acrylics, screen prints or posters, then put it out on the streets in a new way."
In his house are boxes filled with fresh rolls of industrial-grade magnetic sheeting. Fifty feet goes for about $150 online, and the sheets are easily cut into ready-made canvases to adorn at concerts, fundraisers, even poetry slams. In less than two years, they estimate, over 5,000 Magnet Mafia pieces have gone up on the streets of Denver, ranging from the size of a quarter to a six-foot-long ray gun they slapped on a bridge awning. At an event called AfroBlu, they did a picture of Malcolm X to mark his assassination; another work — spread over several pieces — depicted Matt and Harrison riding spray-paint cans like rodeo cowboys. They borrowed a thirty-foot ladder to put it on the wall above a LoDo parking lot.
Most of their art is rough, chaotic. "We don't really take it too serious," Matt says. "It's hard for me to paint without people around. I like distractions; I like people to talk to, wondering what you're doing. If I'm by myself, I think about it too much. It's cool because we get to meet people, types of people we would never have met."
Some of the collaborations go better than others. "That's one of the crazy things when we paint," Matt says. "A lot of times one of us will hate it and the other will love it. And then we start throwing paint at each other."
"Usually it's because Matt will want me to turn it into something too fast and he'll, like, write some shit in there," Harrison explains.
"He stresses," says Matt.
"We have a really interesting relationship," Harrison adds. "He pisses me off; I piss him off. Half the time we're just yelling at each other."
"Yeah," Matt says. "But that's just because we're friends enough that we can say something like, 'That idea sucks; I hate that,' and it's not being critical."
Harrison acknowledges that the two are "not the freshest painters in the world." The purpose of the Magnet Mafia is not to be the freshest, though, but to build a platform that builds a scene. And since they embarked on their magnetized adventure, Matt and Harrison have connected with countless creative subgroups across town, involving everyone from dancers to photographers to musicians to political activists to fashion designers.
They have a little trouble explaining just how this came about. "We're just down to get involved, that's all," says Matt. "We're not trying to get so unique or exclusive. We just want to share art and have people share with us."
"We're just part of the community," Harrison says, "and we're trying to help bring the community up."
And to get up, you've got to get down.
Kym Bloom was confused when she got what seemed like a threatening e-mail on October 5.
"Our company the Downtown Denver Partnership found several of your magnets this morning and as you probably know it is illegal to put these up on public utilities (signs, electrical, news boxes, light poles, and so on)," it read. "Our company, the police, and other law enforcement has kept track of the 'Magnet Mafia' over the years and are fed up with all forms of graffiti. So please stop this behavior. Consider this your warning because the police will not take this lightly if caught."
Bloom, a local artist who helps run the Kanon Collective gallery, had placed magnets of her work downtown as part of last October's Denver Arts Week, a celebration of culture organized by the Denver Metro Convention & Visitors Bureau.
"It made me nervous that they had my name and I was going to go in some database, like I'm some renegade graffiti artist out to destroy downtown with my hideous magnets or something," says Bloom. "I thought the whole idea of the Magnet Mafia was this was a type of funky graffiti that didn't damage anybody's property. People could just peel it off and take it with them, sort of like spreading artwork."
The e-mail came from Erik Helgeson, a 26-year-old service representative with the Downtown Denver Partnership, the private group funded by downtown businesses that helps maintain, improve and promote that part of town. The Partnership spends an estimated $95,000 a year for private contractors to clean up graffiti; in 2007, they dealt with 9,132 pieces. And after those contractors spotted hundreds of magnets downtown, Helgeson says, the Partnership looked for the artists' names, and then "we contacted them to let them know it's illegal."
But who says it's illegal to hang magnets in Denver?
In the summer of 2006, an undercover cop dressed as a homeless person spotted Harrison placing a magnet on an electrical box on the side of a building in Capitol Hill. Harrison was arrested and charged with trespassing (the box was considered to be on private property) and "posting unauthorized posters." He spent thirty hours in jail before he could reach Matt to come bail him out. But when his case came up for a hearing, the city attorney took one look at the file and immediately dismissed the posting charge; Harrison pleaded guilty to misdemeanor trespass.
Helgeson's e-mail to the contrary, Detective George Gray of the Denver Police Department's Graffiti Unit says he'd never heard of the Magnet Mafia before being contacted by Westword. His unit is focused on taking down major graffiti crews and tagger gangs, not arresting people who make art on magnets. "Since there is obviously no damage, you'd pretty much say, 'Hey, take that down,'" he explains. "As far as my position, I don't see that as being illegal, or my job to enforce — except for the trespassing thing, if they had to cross onto private property to do it."
Over at the Crime Prevention and Control Commission, the city agency charged with managing anti-graffiti policy, they're more familiar with the work of the Magnet Mafia. "Yeah, they've been seen around town," says spokewoman Neddra Niblet. "They've been taken down." But city ordinances define graffiti as markings posted on property without consent by means of "painting, spray painting, drawing, etching, carving, scratching or any similar method." There's no mention of magnets.
"I'm kind of struggling with exactly where the magnets fall," says Denver Department of Public Works spokeswoman Ann Williams after Niblet refers further questions to that agency. Public Works often deals with fliers and advertisements for concerts or businesses that are hung without permission, Williams says, adding that she needs to ask around for the policy regarding magnets.
Another Public Works spokeswoman soon calls with that information. "Unless it's an advertisement or it interferes with a traffic sign, we're not going to take enforcement steps," Revekka Balancier says. "The law says the unlawful poster will be liable for the cost of removal, and in this case, there is no cost of removal, so we would most likely leave it be."
But the Downtown Denver Partnership holds to its darker view of the Magnet Mafia. "They're very organized," says operations manager Don Pesek. "They put their little number on the back of their magnet, and they have their little website, and they're very proud of defacing public property." While Pesek acknowledges that magnets do far less physical damage than standard graffiti, he insists that magnet removal comes at a cost. "Particularly when someone has to get up on a ladder or get the bucket truck to remove a magnet that's way up high," he says. "And it's still visual pollution. I mean, when you're driving down and you see this scribbling, it's still, I feel, offensive to the community."
Apparently, no one explained to the Partnership that last fall's offensive magnet influx was part of Denver Arts Week. Jayne Buck, vice president of tourism for the Denver Metro Convention & Visitors Bureau, organized the seven-day arts celebration; to help promote the project, her office coordinated with Rodney Wallace, a "real innovative" artist and Magnet Mafia member. "His idea was art infestation," Buck remembers, "and he wanted to put art in public places or just at random and make sure that Denver was seen filled with art."
The visitors' bureau, which is funded largely from the lodger's tax collected by the city ($12.5 million last year), spent a total of $98,351 marketing Denver Arts Week (using the unfortunate slogan "Be a Tourist in Your Own Town," as though art weren't a part of everyday life). Much of the money went to billboards promoting the Denver Art Museum's Louvre exhibit, Buck says; she estimates the project got another $344,412 from in-kind donations through such media sponsors as CBS4 and the Denver Newspaper Agency. "The goal was that we wouldn't expend tons of advertising dollars, that we would use grassroots and PR efforts, with minimal investment in the first year, knowing that this would be something that the arts community would benefit from," she adds.
That meant that individual artists and arts organizations were left to do much of their own marketing. Wallace organized what he calls a "massive throwdown" by artists, who started placing magnets of their work at Union Station and worked their way up the 16th Street Mall. "I used the magnets as a serious marketing tool," he explains.
Wallace thinks it's ironic that artists were slapped for participating in a city-subsidized project, but it doesn't surprise him. "The city in general has disconnects all over the place," he says. "They know that cultural tourism is a huge business. They want to fill up the hotels and tourism spots. But we know that to be a Denver artist don't mean shit unless Denver art means something."
And the Partnership is still confused. "I don't understand how this can be considered art," Pesek says. "Maybe the drawing on the magnets might be considered art, so put it in a forum where art can be appreciated — not up high on a light pole."
It's like throwing a pizza," Harrison says. "Then you feel it stick up top and it's really satisfying."
The Denver Skatepark is dark and empty — except for Matt and Harrison flipping magnets up to the underside of the metal gazebo. It's a place where they think the magnets have a chance to be seen before the "purple shirts" — the crews wearing purple polos who clean downtown — take them down and throw them away.
Matt and Harrison don't see themselves as rebels. They praise the Hickenlooper administration for cultivating the arts. They are as excited as anyone about the fancy new museums, because a more artistic Denver means a Denver with more street art. Now if only the city would recognize that street art is art. "It sucks when the city isn't being awesome about street art," Matt says. "By cultivating art in general, you are actually cultivating more people who could have a passion for street art. And with magnets, anybody can join in."
They say that Hickenlooper, who early on touted Richard Florida's Rise of the Creative Class and Denver's status as a creative city, should understand this: Street art, including top-notch graffiti, isn't an indicator of a lack of areas for people to showcase art, but rather an indicator of their abundance.
Denver has seen numerous street-art groups come and go. Various wheat-paste posters, stencils and sidewalk paintings can be spotted around town. A few years ago, the artists known as "Caul" would string together black wooden cutouts of birds and fling them onto telephone wires. More recently, a guerrilla crocheting crew called the Ladies Fancywork Society has been knitting yarn around light poles, bike racks and car antennas.
But it's the magnets that are really taking off. Yummies member Ray Young Chu, who painted magnets for the Austrian exchange and has done other guerrilla art campaigns promoting his work, feels that street art in Denver is misunderstood. "We are really trying to beautify the earth," he explains. "We try to put something up that makes people smile or think a little bit. We don't have the money or support to pay for huge billboards or advertisements. It's done because it's really fun to be out in the streets doing that and expressing yourself."
There's just so much to express — and sometimes the message is the medium.
"As far as concepts or ideas for things we have put out in the street, we've barely even started," Harrison says. "We've barely even touched the two-dimensional stuff. Just imagine if there were a row of shoes walking up the side of that building, the soles embedded with magnets. Or a crazy vine with a big-ass flower hanging off of it. What the fuck is that? Why is it there? There is just so much expression in that. It makes people think more."
And here's what Matt is thinking, as the snow falls down and the magnets go up: "I hate those dancing aliens." He's talking about Borofsky's "Dancers" sculpture in front of the Denver Performing Arts Complex. "It'd be cool to paint some big ol', old-school Nikes on them," he says.
"We should call up the Ladies Fancywork Society and see if they can knit some up," Harrison offers.
"They'd have to go on quickly so we could get out of there."
"That's why we'd use magnets, to attach them around the back."
"The aliens need some high-tops!"
But before they can really focus on "Dancers," Matt and Harrison will be displaying the Austrian magnets on March 1 at Matter Studio, then taking them to the streets, where everyone can enjoy them. They're already working on similar magnet swaps with artists in North Carolina, New York and London.
Get enough magnets out there, they say, and pretty soon all sorts of opposites will find themselves stuck together.
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