On a rainy October evening, a month after the Denver Selfie Museum opened, co-owner Alex Kurylin mans a desk in the basement of 1525 Market Street, welcoming a trickle of customers. Giggling couples explore the narrow halls, snapping photos of each other striking poses in front of small backdrops and installations built to charm.
They include a punching bag, a sign that reads “I CAN’T CONTROL MY SELFIE,” a Mona Lisa holding a cell phone, a wall of bubble gum machines and another of doughnut pillows. There are also giant crayons, chopsticks and sushi cushions; a swing surrounded by bananas; a colorful chainsaw-carved bear made of wood; and a chair built from skis. In a minimalist laundry room with a bathtub, balls cover the floor.
Murals from local artists decorate the walls: trippy optical illusions, a suicide-prevention smiley face, glitch art, neon cassette tapes, and the word "Denver" next to a hand flashing a peace sign.
The three most popular attractions are a disco-themed mirror room that reeks of marijuana, bedroom furniture affixed to a wall that allows guests to shoot photos in which they appear to be standing on their hands, and a deep pit brimming with translucent pink, white and silver balls.
A trio of twenty-somethings wanders in, asking Kurylin about the place. He gives them the rundown: For $25 a pop ($29 on weekends), you can explore 25 installations and take as many selfies as you want. Go ahead and touch the objects, but don’t destroy them.
“Can we just walk around without paying?” one woman asks, barging past him before he can answer. “We won’t take any pictures,” she calls back.
Empowered, the three wander through the narrow basement. “This is so cool,” they repeat. “Oh, my God. We’ve got to come back and take pictures.”
They seem unfazed at the prospect of paying the steep admission price some day. Yet that $25 a head is more than it costs to go to the nearby Museum of Contemporary Art. And the Denver Art Museum. And the Museum of Nature & Science.
Half an hour later, a well-coiffed couple in cocktail attire enters with a photographer in tow, who encourages them to look like they’re having fun before the camera: Play in the ball pit, throw balls up in the air, go wild. They do and make a calculated mess. It’s the stuff of Christmas cards and wedding invites, in which life always looks prettier than it is. Balls litter the museum floor.
Kurylin grins and bears it, as he picks up balls and tosses them back into the pit, explaining that it's all part of the job. And this couple is respectful compared to others he’s seen: One person kicked a hole in the ball pit; others have ripped down installations.
“All these things I created with my partner,” Kurylin explains. “When something gets broken, we get so upset. It's not like you can just buy it and replace it.”
Kurylin himself is not a selfie kind of guy. “I don’t even have a personal Instagram account,” he confesses, blushing. Instead, he’s an entrepreneurial immigrant with a classic American Dream story: He left Ukraine for the United States as a young man. When he arrived, he worked as a dishwasher, then a waiter, and eventually opened a T-shirt shop in Estes Park. After that, he moved to Denver, earned his real estate license and started buying and selling properties. He entered the escape-room business and spent three years running his company, Room 5280, which sprouted franchises across the country.
Bored, he looked into opening a selfie museum. He found a rented basement in a hundred-plus-year-old building downtown near the 16th Street Mall, where tourists would be sure to walk by. "It took us some time negotiating and explaining the concept to the owner, but she finally agreed to lease it to us," Kurylin says.
He launched the museum as a pop-up, but after a burst of success decided to keep it open for the long term, switching out installations every few months to keep things fresh. The business's product — the experience of taking and sharing selfies — and marketing strategy are one and the same. “We didn't have to advertise with anyone,” he says. “It's unexpected. I've owned businesses before. I never had a business before that just advertised itself and got so busy so quickly. Hopefully it stays that way.”
While this is Denver’s first museum devoted to selfies, it's far from unique. Candytopia, the Museum of Ice Cream and other Instagram-friendly destinations came before it, though Kurylin says he’s been too busy to visit most of them, except for Wonder Wonder in Boulder and Rainbow Vomit in Dallas.
But while he hopes to someday tour similar projects across the country and already has plans to open his first franchise in Seattle in a few months, there is one museum he refuses to visit: “I certainly don't want to go to the Museum of Selfies in Hollywood. Those guys are leaving us bad reviews because they think we're copying them,” he explains.
“Lame,” states one reviewer. “Original Hollywood Museum of Selfies is much much better.”
“OMG!” exclaims another. “We've been at the ORIGINAL Museum of Selfie in Hollywood and this one is just a fake.”
The Hollywood harassment soon went beyond online trolling. “They sent us a letter, saying our installations are their intellectual property,” Kurylin says. But that’s not true, he argues. The L.A. museum’s installations are substantially different, though both museums evoke the Mona Lisa (not exactly a fresh idea), have bathtubs (seen it before) and boast ball pits (go to the nearest McDonald’s to assess the originality of that).
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“I'm from Ukraine. Those guys are from Russia. Some people get jealous,” Kurylin notes.
He doubts that the Hollywood museum owners will follow through on their threat to sue, since they would have to do so in Colorado and since neither “museum” nor “selfie” could be trademarked. So Kurylin asked why they were going after him.
Their response: “Welcome to American business.”
The Selfie Museum is open from 2 to 8 p.m. Monday through Thursday, noon to 9 p.m. Friday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Saturday and 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Sunday at 1525 Market Street. Admission is free for kids ages four and under, $20 for kids five to twelve, $25 for adults on weekdays and $29 on weekends. Make a reservation at denverselfiemuseum.com; for more information, call 303-328-0104.