Denver Street Artists Transform Stretch of Cherry Creek Trail | Westword

Chris Haven Recruits a Crew of Street Artists to Beautify the Cherry Creek Trail

"These spaces are important. The artists get to express themselves and the public gets to enjoy the art, and we want to keep it that way."
Chris Haven at work on the Cherry Creek Trail
Chris Haven at work on the Cherry Creek Trail Evan Semón Photography
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For Denver's street artists, the Cherry Creek Trail is a "holy mecca," says Chris Haven, a renowned pop-surrealist.

"It's just this gigantic stretch of walls right in the middle of the city," adds the Westminster native, recalling how it was always a dream of his to turn the walls along the banks of Cherry Creek into his own personal canvas.

"When I was a kid, we would drive by and I would see all kinds of graffiti down there," Haven says. "Mostly letters and tagging and stuff. It's got high visibility — everybody sees it on Speer when driving, basically — so for many artists, it's always been a place where to have your art would be amazing. And for so many years, there was no art down there. It was like, 'Why isn't the city allowing us to paint down there?'"

Back in 2009, Denver Arts & Venues had created the Urban Arts Fund and begun putting murals in graffiti-prone areas, including art along the Cherry Creek Trail. In 2018, the city's Public Art program boosted those efforts, commissioning more than sixty murals. All told, the UAF has put up over 300 murals since its inception.

But many local artists weren't given a chance to take part in their creation, since Arts & Venues held a public call for national and international artists, taking a "gallerist" approach to commissioning pieces around Denver that involved interviews and applications. "When they did those first original calls, you know, a lot of artists that were from Denver didn't get accepted, and a lot of out-of-state artists got it," Haven recalls.

Fast-forward to 2024.

"Since the pandemic, we have seen a large and unusual increase in tagging, including directly on the existing murals, some of which have been in place for over ten years," notes Yolanda Quesada, director of marketing and communications for Denver Parks & Recreation. "If the murals are unable to be cleaned and the original artists are unable to revisit Denver to repaint them, then the entire mural needs to be removed. This creates more blank wall space and removes an asset for the community and the trail."

The solution? A new Parks & Rec pilot project along the Cherry Creek Trail that takes an "artist" approach to adding murals to the walls. Curated by Haven, it's been carried out by dozens of Denver muralists, with just one out-of-state name: Birdcap, out of Memphis.
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Anthony Garcia Sr. added some mural magic to the trail for the first time.
Evan Semón

Rather than go through a complex application process to bring in artists for the coverups and new murals, Parks & Rec decided to let Haven use his personal connections and years of friendships with big names in the street-art scene, like Patrick Kane McGregor and Jeremy Silas Ulibarri, aka Jolt.

"I think it's great that they bypassed the call stuff and just let me curate," Haven says. "I know a lot of the artists in Denver, so it's really easy for me to just reach out and ask them to come down with me. I tried to have a positive mind, you know, and make sure that the people did nothing political or anything negative. But in general, I just let them do what they want to do, which is, I think, the best for creative artists. To just do what you want to do."

The city gave Haven and his crew a small stretch of the Cherry Creek Trail between Champa and Arapahoe streets, but it was more than enough space for them to flex their mural muscles.
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Artist Tristan McGregor honored manga creator Akira Toriyama (young and old), who passed away on March 1.
Evan Semón

"For us, it's always been like, 'What an amazing place to paint,'" Haven says. "So it was an honor to be able to paint down there and have something there for the city and for the place I grew up in."

The painting was initially done pro bono, since there was no funding to pay the artists. But the Denver Theatre District has since announced it will apply for a grant to help foot the bill.

"The opportunity was presented from the beginning without funding included, as it was intended to be a small pilot project," Quesada says, noting that there was a "pause" for internal coordination on the program, "as we received more interest than originally anticipated."

According to Haven, he did an initial round of murals in March with six artists, and talk around the street-art water cooler prompted others to show interest. "A bunch of people were hitting me up, trying to paint down there," he recalls.
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Chris Haven created a selfie spot for pups to pose in front of some familiar friends.
Evan Semón

Haven, who did multiple murals himself, ultimately brought in seventeen artists for the project: Birdcap, McGregor and his son Tristan, Jolt, Delton Demarest, Max Kauffman, @BrettDrawsStuff, Mike Graves, Anthony Garcia, @Brooklynnbk, RubeZilla, Katey Allen, Matador, Lyfr, Koko Bayer, Chelsea Lewinski and Sandra Fettingis.

"It's been a lot of energy and a lot of my time," Haven says.
click to enlarge Mural of cartoon garbage men.
Much of Haven's work is inspired by the environment around him.
Chris Perez

"Going down there, meeting the artists, giving out the spots. But I'm thankful that I'm put in a position where I can give these artists an opportunity and give back. For one, it definitely brightens up the area. A lot of those areas are like dark tunnels, and at night you have some vagrants traveling on it sometimes. So it makes it more inviting to have color and stuff there. Also, the people just enjoy it. We've gotten such good feedback painting down there."

According to Quesada, the goal was to "record and quantify the impact of tagging in the area" while also adding art along a busy trail that sees nearly 1,000,000 users a year.
click to enlarge Murals on the Cherry Creek Trail in Denver.
Haven has aspirations of turning the Cherry Creek Trail into one of the world's largest outdoor galleries.
Chris Perez
"Murals add fun, interest, and help create another reason for people to go down and visit the trail," Quesada tells Westword. "The Cherry Creek Trail is a gem of the city, and adding art helps to enhance this community asset and increase activation along the corridor. We initiated this pilot project in an effort to clean up the trail walls and bring vibrancy to this area."

Restoring the trail's emphasis on art was a driving force for the department. "We want to continue to provide that opportunity to see and experience art daily, at no cost to residents," Quesada adds.

Haven hopes people in the street-art community will be more respectful of these new murals. But if they do get tagged, he and the other artists plan to come out and fix them as soon as possible. "These spaces are important," he says. "The artists get to express themselves and the public gets to enjoy the art, and we want to keep it that way."
click to enlarge An art mural of a monkey figure.
Jolt is one of the many recognizable Denver street artists who took part in the Cherry Creek beautification.
Chris Perez

Haven started expressing himself early.

"I got into art originally when I was really little, through my grandma," he recalls.

"Me and her would draw cartoons like Garfield and try to do realism pictures of people, and then it just kind of developed from there. I took art classes when I was in school and got into graffiti and kind of merged graffiti and regular art to do more street-art-type murals."
click to enlarge An art mural of a leprechaun and a rainbow.
One of the biggest goals that Haven had when curating the Cherry Creek Trail murals was blending the art with the surroundings.
Chris Perez

One of his signatures is the Pyramid character.

"They just kind of developed organically over time," he says.

"When I was in graffiti, I would mostly do letters, and I kind of wanted to find a character and just develop it over time. And he evolved into what he is today."
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Chris Haven with one of his pyramid paintings.
Evan Semón

Haven's partnership with the city began when he put his iconic pyramid art on some electrical boxes. He was then pegged to do a mural installation at the Denver Skatepark last summer, which led to Parks & Rec noticing his work.
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Sewage drains were a popular theme to play with for the artists.
Evan Semón Photography

"Staff reached out to him to gauge his interest on adding a few pieces to the trail," Quesada says.

"They asked me to curate some artists," he remembers. "There wasn't any funding available by the city, so everything would be out of the artists' pockets, and they also donated their time and supplies to paint."

But the artists were willing — it's a great opportunity to have their work seen, plus they didn't have to go through the giant call, he says, "where [the city] has to interview people and get drafts of their work, and the process that goes with that."

Quesada tells Westword that the art is intended to bring "creativity and beauty" to everyday places. "With proper funding and community support, this program could grow in the future," she says.

Haven hopes to be part of those future plans.

"My goal — my long-term goal — would be for [the trail] to be one of the largest outside galleries in the world," he says. "If we can paint that whole thing or a great portion of it, I think it can be."

At the end of the day, Haven thinks the city should be utilizing the trail's walls instead of letting them sit empty or tagged with illegal graffiti.

"It's just a plus all around," he concludes. "People love to see new art, and it's just an amazing place for artists to paint. It's an opportunity I'm hoping to continue."
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