Denver Artists Paint Murals on Boarded-Up Businesses

Jonathan Goldie's mural outside Gaslamp.
Jonathan Goldie's mural outside Gaslamp. Jonathan Goldie
In early April, artist Jonathan Goldie took a stroll downtown.

“A lot of the bars and places I’d go to, they had boarded up their windows," he says. "There are ones that had tags on them. The city looked horrible. It just looked abandoned, and a couple of the buildings that were really nice had these scribble tags on them. People are taking advantage of there not being many people around and making them look like shit.”

So he asked himself a question: “How can we give back to the businesses we love and make them look good?”

Having painted his first mural in Pittsburgh about a year ago and created five in Denver since then, he decided to offer his skills, at no cost, to local shops, bars and restaurants. He recruited some of his co-workers at Siege Gallery, an art space that had recently moved from the Art District on Santa Fe to a 6,000-square-foot spot between Market and Larimer streets, and they offered to paint murals on shuttered downtown businesses for free. They called their group Plywood Projects.

Goldie's first project was for Gaslamp, where he painted a snowboard-themed mural. Weso Knarly, a Siege member and tattoo artist, painted a piece at the Pour House Pub. They have plans for future murals at Rhein Haus Denver, the Retro Room Salon, the Refinery and Sidecar, among other spots.

Goldie's crew has been paying for materials from their own pockets, though they've set up a GoFundMe campaign so people can chip in for supplies. But the artists have already collected plenty of gratitude. "Neighbors have said, 'Thank you so much. It looks so much better. It's beautiful,'" says Goldie.

Other artists have been getting in on the action along East Colfax Avenue and Broadway.

Mar Williams joined Amanda Gold, Tyson Swartout and Jessica Halpine, among others, in painting the shuttered Mutiny Information Cafe. “I wanted to help Mutiny because they're important,” explains Williams. “I also wanted to paint something that would be playful and hopeful, but with more subversive meat than ‘We're all in this together.’ We absolutely are, and we get to decide collectively what that means. Everything is quiet, more careful, and the rush to consume is on pause. As scary as this thing is, there's a lot of power in this moment. I can't not be inspired by it.”
click to enlarge Mar Williams's mural outside Mutiny Information Cafe. - KYLE HARRIS
Mar Williams's mural outside Mutiny Information Cafe.
Kyle Harris
Erika Righter, owner of Hope Tank, closed her Broadway storefront back in March. While she loathed the notion of covering the windows with plain plywood, she feared that if she didn't, vandals might tag or smash the she decided to hire an artist to paint a mural on the boards. A relentless community organizer, she then encouraged other businesses along Broadway to do the same, offering to connect them with artists in an effort to both keep the neighborhood alive and support friends who are creatives.

She threw an online fundraiser and collected $2,500 to distribute to the artists. “I understand the value of what a muralist should be paid in a normal world,” she admits, and the total wasn't nearly enough. “Initially, I was like, ‘Oh, God, I feel terrible. I only have 200 bucks to do it.”

But when she offered that amount to the artists, they were grateful. Many are facing eviction and have lost shows and income, and every bit helps. “It's a real statement about how bad it is," Righter says. "It’s not like we raised tons of money, but I know how to stretch a buck.”

She's now found herself in the position of matchmaking street artists with businesses all around the city, and has a long list of artists waiting for work. The most recent project she organized is a piece by Los Mocochetes member and muralist Diego Flores at La Lovely Vintage on Broadway; more are coming.
click to enlarge The mural outside Hope Tank. - KYLE HARRIS
The mural outside Hope Tank.
Kyle Harris
Early on, Righter contacted the city, asking officials to support her efforts and maybe connect her with corporations like Home Depot and Lowe's for materials, but she got nowhere. “The navigating of that part of it is really frustrating,” she says. “I’m trying to run my business. That has been frustrating. That would have been a really easy ask for the mayor, our governor, our local reps to call on these corporations, who could have easily done this. That would have been a huge support. But it was us having to figure it out. We’re boarding this up. These are not buildings we own. These are buildings we are protecting that we rent.”

Denver Arts & Venues, the city’s cultural agency that's usually a major funder of street art, has decided to indefinitely suspend the granting process for its Urban Arts Fund, which commissions murals in an effort to prevent graffiti and beautify the city. With a mandated stay-at-home order and public-health officials recommending that people stay six feet apart well into the future, city officials didn’t think encouraging artists to hit the streets made sense.

Instead, Arts & Venues has focused its energy on emergency grants supporting artists through the Colorado Artist Relief Fund, a joint project with RedLine Contemporary and Colorado Creative Industries, the state’s arts agency. The money for that effort has been cobbled together from the Andy Warhol Foundation, Colorado Creative Industries and the Arts & Venues budget.

Even with the Urban Arts Fund suspended, Righter says the demand for new murals is high and artists are longing to get back to work. “One thing that came out of this that I did not anticipate — which is hilarious in my life — is that people have reached out about commissioning a mural on their building,” she says. “That is fucking awesome.”

Anyone interested in donating to Righter's project can go to her GoFundMe.

And while her list of people willing to create works, with an emphasis on artists from marginalized communities, is growing, Plywood Projects is recruiting more muralists to join its efforts downtown.

“We’re going to be very selective about who we choose to do the murals,” Goldie explains. “We don’t want anything negative or grimy. It has to be encouraging words...

“It’s kind of like a Crush Colorado, but at a virus time,” he adds. "And with fewer people." 
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Kyle Harris has been Westword’s Culture Editor since 2016, writing about the arts, music and film.
Contact: Kyle Harris