Guerilla Garden founder Jolt on the changing history and perception of street art

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Back before the organized bike paths, the boom of posh lofts and even the construction of Elitch's, downtown Denver painted a very different scene -- a scene of abandoned buildings, empty factories and graffiti.

Lots and lots of graffiti.

"Denver has always had a big scene for (graffiti)," says Jolt, one of the best-known names in Denver street art. "Being from north Denver and eleven years old or so in '93, when the scene was really booming, the influence was just around me in the neighborhood. It was easily accessible. It's a culture I grew up in."

See also: - Jolt gets some justice from Gangland - Track your favorite Denver street art with our interactive Google map - Gamma Acosta on Street Cred, graffiti and the importance of street art

Watch Jolt explain his world view:

As Jolt remembers it, downtown Denver was an oasis for graffiti artists, the promised land, a playground for street kids to master their art and refine their talent.

"Nobody went down there at all," he remembers. "That whole area was a canvas. There was no reason for anybody from outside the city to be there. The landscape was different, and it shaped a great graffiti scene."

Jolt grew up with the culture of street art and hip-hop all around him, and he used the culture to improve his craft. During his early years, he worked to improve the reputation of graffiti, to reverse its public perception as an illegal expression of hoodrat vandals. Today, he encourages making street art into a successful career.

"I don't even have that conversation with people about vandalism," Jolt says. "If they don't get it, then they don't get it. It's not going anywhere...if I'm painting a wall, they'll say 'I like this graffiti, but not the bad graffiti.' They try to differentiate, but it's all graffiti. It's all the same thing. It's all an art form."

Jolt's career in street art began when he landed a job painting a campaign for M&M's. "That was the first time that I actually got a chunk of change." Jolt says. "At that age, like $5,000 was enough to quite my job. But that gave me my confidence and bought a little bit of time for me to figure it out."

The turning point for Jolt came when he had some of his work up at the Botanic Gardens during a show dedicated to street art. Usually, graffiti artists don't come right out into the mainstream and claim their work, but this time, Jolt took the plunge. "I wasn't going to go," he says -- and he didn't change his mind until an artist he looked up to convinced him.

"It came out of a conversation with Lady Pink, a graffiti writer from the first generation of artists," Jolt recalls. "She was like 'Why are you ashamed of your work? Why are you hiding? Come out. Show people. Be proud.'

"She had this different take on it. So at that point I was like, 'Alright, lets try it.' It was time to try something else."

It turns out Lady Pink was right. Using the knowledge he had gained from his work on commercial campaigns, Jolt started to develop a versatile brand for himself and his work. Four years ago, he established Guerilla Garden, a studio/gallery to showcase his work and that of fellow artists while serving as a hub for new artists looking for guidance.

"With the knowledge I put into play with branding and whatnot, it when hand in hand and just kind of took it to a whole other level. It went from surviving to making money," Jolt says. "I give them advice. I tell them how to make money. I have been there, and I even tell them, 'Save yourself all them headaches.' I am trying to be down with everybody and what they are doing and help out in any way. A lot of good careers have been born in this studio over the last four years."

At the end of the day for Jolt, it is all about connecting the underground art scene to the people in the city who have the funding.

"It's all about sharing it," Jolt says, "because at the end of the day the art speaks for itself."

What matters most to him now is getting recognition -- not the kind of props that come in cash, but recognition of the work being done in Denver to establish a future for street art in the mainstream.

"Here in Denver, people recognize my work, but outside of Denver people don't really know what I'm doing, hence they really don't know what's going on in Denver as far as our art scene and our culture," Jolt says. "There are kids coming out of the pockets of the world, and they are interpreting it their own way, and that takes the culture to the next level. The further it grows, the better it becomes, the bigger it gets."

Denver always has and always will be his home because it is the perfect place to have a family, paint a wall legally and still be doing graffiti. Jolt has a lot of pride in his city and wants to work toward making it the best it can be.

"Across the board, the public art here in Denver is incredible," Jolt says. "It's great to be a part of it and grow with the city. Now it's just a matter of getting the world's attention on what's going on here...bringing people out here and sharing what we have."

Jolt has a busy summer planned for Guerilla Garden. Between community pieces, art shows, paintings, personal projects and a new mural next to David Choe's work at the Denver Performing Arts Complex, Jolt will continue to contribute to the scene.

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