The street art going up around Denver has been one of the few bright spots during the coronavirus pandemic. But then a homophobe with a Big Gulp cast a shadow on the work that Karlee Mariel and Armina Jusufagic were doing, a mural commemorating life during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Over the past few weeks, the artists behind the creative agency Zada had put up several murals around town supporting front-line workers.
Mariel, an abstract artist who's spent two decades painting street art, had recently returned home to Centennial after spending time on the East Coast studying art and establishing herself in the New Jersey and New York scenes. Jusufagic had just left San Francisco for Denver, where she's getting her start as a street artist.
The two women met, started their agency, and began creating murals that celebrate Denver’s diversity, encouraging people to find joy during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We were doing this to give back to the community,” explains Jusufagic. “It’s a hard time, and art changes people and changes your mood.”
The project was working; passersby have been enthusiastic. An EMT recently pulled over his ambulance in order to take a picture of their painting of a surgeon wearing a Wonder Woman mask at Broadway and Irvington Place. “He told us that he was truly grateful for all of the public art that had been created around the city that was supporting the medical community,” Mariel recalls.
Their latest mural, at Colfax Avenue and Franklin Street, is an image of two women wearing masks and kissing; it seemed like a spirited way to support the LGBTQ community through the pandemic.
Several hours into the project on Monday, May 18, Mariel was standing on a ladder and painting the women kissing. Below her, Jusufagic was documenting the process and painting a heart.
“I can’t tell you the quantity of people who had been shouting out really positive messages and encouragement from their cars that were passing by,” recalls Mariel. “People were honking and waving. There were people on bikes and walking who stopped, and they even thanked us for bringing our murals there to beautify what would otherwise be an abandoned, boxed-up old building.”
But that joy was soon interrupted. Mariel heard a crash against the wall, froze, looked down, and saw soda and ice pouring out of a Big Gulp cup rolling down the sidewalk.
A person driving by had hurled the drink at the artists. The mural and painting gear were soaked; so was Jusufagic’s camera.
“I felt like we were targeted and victimized for painting a mural of two women kissing in public,” says Mariel. “Both Armina and I were so excited about all the positive feedback, and then a hate crime happened.”
“It was very unsettling,” adds Jusufagic, who served in the military, plays basketball and stands six feet tall. While she's confident that she can adequately defend herself, she was shocked. “Now we have to deal with this hate that I didn’t even know was present in Denver.”
The two artists had plans to paint a similar mural of two mask-wearing men kissing, and now they wondered whether they should move forward with the plan. They decided they had to.
“Armina said, ‘You know we’re doing the right thing and creating meaningful work if violent acts like this are happening,’” recalls Mariel.
The two did not file a police report. Instead, they decided to reach out to other people in the LGBTQ community, asking them to be present when they paint their next mural.
“I feel like most of us can live with autonomy and experience freedom for being who we are,” says Mariel. “But in a split second, we can be targeted and become victims of hate crimes simply for being ourselves and supporting a variety of communities.”
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She worries about this particular mural's future. “I said, ‘Wow, this mural could be destroyed tomorrow,’" she remembers. “You never know what could happen or what other homophobic person could obliterate the artwork we were putting up.”
Still, they plan to continue painting.
“We hope to paint murals in a variety of neighborhoods and support a range of populations, of different people, of cultures...the GLBT community and humanity as a whole,” says Mariel. “The bigger picture in this is we are all susceptible to becoming ill and losing our lives in this, no matter who we are.
"We wanted to communicate that yes, we are in this together, and yes, we can get through this together.”