Lil Fresh Sam and Daniel Chavez Tackle Systemic Injustice in RiNo Murals

Artist Samantha Aragon, aka Lil Fresh Sam, puts finishing touches on one of the panels in RiNo.EXPAND
Artist Samantha Aragon, aka Lil Fresh Sam, puts finishing touches on one of the panels in RiNo.
Anthony Maes @Anthonymvze
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Four new murals have landed at 3198 Blake Street: The Butterfly Effect, a street-art project that encourages pedestrians to take action to stop systemic injustice. The six-by-six-foot panels, collages of thought-provoking imagery made with paint, pastels, wheat paste and spray paint, were created by artists Samantha Aragon, who goes by Lil Fresh Sam; Daniel Chavez, who grew up in Sunnyside and has been painting murals in Denver since 2004; Abidili Adan; and Jesse Pride.

“It’s not your typical mural,” says Aragon. “Not only is it intricate, the photos and terms we use are really in your face.”

Raised in Denver, Aragon — who owns the fashion company INFATUÉ in Los Angeles — creates art in a variety of media, including painting and photography. “What I love to do is just create,” she explains.

During the start of the Black Lives Matter protests in late May, she was in Denver visiting her family. She wanted to take some sort of action, so she began to educate herself on different issues, then decided to use art to express what she had learned.

Each panel addresses a different cause, she says. The first, “Invisible Shackles," has images related to slavery, the school-to-prison pipeline and African-American revolutionary struggles, from the fight against Jim Crow to protests against the police murder of George Floyd. The second, “Golden Cage,” is about immigration; the title is based on a term used within immigrant communities for the lack of healthcare, education, travel and job resources in the United States, explains Chavez. The third, “Home,” addresses homelessness and poverty, with messages about empathy and mental illness. And the fourth, “Bias,” is about a variety of injustices, including sex trafficking and gentrification.

The project of the overall project, The Butterfly Effect, is a nod to the art of Favianna Rodriguez, who has painted monarch butterflies as a symbol of migration, says Chavez.

“I want people to look at and read the messages in these murals, learn something, and then find empathy in their hearts to do something about it,” Aragon says.

The murals also include logos and QR codes leading viewers to local nonprofits' websites. Participating organizations include the Gang Rescue and Support Project, a peer-run gang intervention program; Focus Points, a nonprofit that serves and advocates for low-income families in the Denver area; the Women’s Bean Project, a transitional employment program serving women who have struggled to obtain and maintain employment; and the Colorado Immigrant Rights Coalition, a membership-based coalition of immigrant, faith, labor, youth, community, business and ally organizations.

"Golden Cage" focuses on inequalities that arise around immigration.EXPAND
"Golden Cage" focuses on inequalities that arise around immigration.
Anthony Maes @Anthonymvze

Aragon is good friends with Scott Kiere, the CEO of Urban Green Development, the real estate company that built the structure at 32nd and Blake that she used as her canvas; Urban Green also covered the cost of supplies. After Aragon told Kiere that she wanted to give back to the community in some way, he said he had some nonprofits he wanted to support and asked her to collaborate. And The Butterfly Effect took off.

The location is perfect, Aragon says. Not only does the RiNo Art District support local art, but it has also been a catalyst for the widespread gentrification of Five Points, Curtis Park and surrounding neighborhoods over the past decade. “It’s the ideal place to have these types of conversations," she says.

"I approached this as an attempt to bridge the huge disconnect felt in the black and brown communities of east, north and west Denver's inner city with this newly gentrified area of Five Points," explains Chavez, who has resisted painting in the RiNO Art District because of the rampant gentrification of the neighborhood. 

Alaina Silva, a Factory Flats boardmember of Urban Green Development, says it was critical to let local artists speak about this particular historic movement. “We didn’t want to edit their voices," she says. "As real estate developers, we’re aware that this area was traditionally a minority community. We’ve wanted to allow voices within that community to still be able to represent their ideas."

The mural about immigration stands out for Silva. She’s from a mixed-status family and is very aware of the struggles the migrant community faces when crossing the border. “For me, the hard-to-swallow images that Sam includes make me engaged," she says. "They make me want to learn more about what she meant to do. And that’s what all these murals are meant to do."

The inclusion of QR codes makes this project even more powerful, Silva notes: “This link between the community coming together, providing the wall space, finding local artists that wanted to make a statement, and then tying that to the support of nonprofits...that symbiosis is really valuable."

Aragon says that small actions can go a long way, just like the butterfly effect the idea that tiny movements can have large-scale impacts on the world.

“I really care about creating meaning behind everything I do. That’s why I created this mural. It’s a stationary piece that will get people to take action,” Aragon says. “I want people to not just see, but also to look into the things they may never have thought or heard about before.”

Update July 21, 2020: This story has been updated to clarify the role Daniel Chavez, Abidili Adan, and Jesse Pride played in the creation of the mural and Chavez's thoughts about the work.

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