The writing's on the wall.
The Democratic National Convention in Denver will go down as a huge success — as long as you're not a local artist, that is.
Early on Sunday, August 24, the day before the DNC officially kicked off a mile away at the Pepsi Center, a crew of between fifteen and twenty cops — some from the Denver Police Department, others from Aurora, many in riot gear — descended on The Other Side Arts, a non-profit gallery at 1644 Platte Street, and started snooping around. They were there to "clean up the neighborhood," one officer told Remi Darby, an artist who lives in the building and was headed out for brunch, and they asked about cars parked by the gallery and graffiti on its exterior walls. The cars belonged to TOSA artists, he told the cops, and the graffiti? Those were actually works of art, pieces that had been commissioned by the gallery; the creation of one Keith Haring-like mural the year before had even been documented on YouTube.
When TOSA opened in this spot eight years ago, there were weeds growing out of the sidewalk, and Platte Street was far from the hipster hangout it is today. But while the neighborhood has changed, the gallery's mission has not. "We've always been a venue for graffiti artists," explains Crissy Robinette, TOSA's executive director.
These cops apparently didn't get the memo. Because within an hour, they were power-painting the side of the building. And when the officers departed — in a bus, Darby recalls — they left behind a freshly painted wall, essentially an open invitation to taggers.
The next day, Robinette contacted the city to find out why TOSA's outdoor art had been wiped out and its signs and dumpster confiscated. But officials at Denver Partners Against Graffiti, the city agency in charge of graffiti removal, denied that they'd been involved with the clean sweep — even though Darby and other witnesses had spotted a Denver Partners Against Graffiti vehicle outside the gallery. Instead, Robinette was told that TOSA had been targeted by the Denver Police Department because the gallery had allegedly rented space to radical protesters.
In the days that followed, as Robinette continued to see police officers coming and going through the alley by TOSA, she heard that the building's murals had allegedly contained "anarchists's messages."
They hadn't, she told the officers.
But while Robinette continued to insist that the murals contained no secret protester code, there was no denying the art inside the gallery that week: The exhibit was designed to "spark dialogue between diverse communities around our current political climate and how it affects the future of our country," according to TOSA's promotional materials. That goal was no more radical than the missions of a half-dozen other homegrown, DNC-related shows around town (including one at Next, which I juried), but this exhibit's title, UnConventional, came uncomfortably close to Unconventional Denver, the name of a local anarchist group.
For the cops, at least.
The Downtown Denver Partnership sponsored an alternative transportation project named Get Downtown Unconventionally — and no one saw that booster group getting busted by the DPD. For that matter, Westword published an Unconventional Guide to Denver for convention-goers, and our building, too, escaped unscathed. But the name was enough to bring TOSA to the attention of the clean-slate club.
And TOSA wasn't the only gallery to get an unexpected paint job — even if its squad of cops was clearly the best armed (and likely the best paid) of the cleanup crews. Denver Partners Against Graffiti vehicles also showed up early last week at Orange Cat Studios on Larimer Street, and workers covered the murals on the outside of that building, too. When owner Sean Rice arrived, he found a freshly painted wall — on a street where he hadn't seen graffiti abatement crews in the four years he's had the gallery, despite his repeated requests that the agency remove tags from other spots in the neighborhood. In fact, Rice says, he'd commissioned the pieces for the outside of Orange Cat just to make sure taggers didn't make their mark there. Within a day, someone took advantage of the new, empty gray canvas, posting a paper piece by OBEY, which was featured at the temporary Manifest Hope show set up for the convention a few blocks away. And just as quickly, the city's cleanup crew returned, prepared to paint over the new piece or power-wash it off the wall. But this time, Rice was in the building — and he told them to leave the art alone. According to the Denver Partners Against Graffiti website, "The city must have a signed authorization form to remove graffiti from private property." But the city hadn't had Rice's permission the first time it erased the Orange Cat art, and Rice wasn't about to give it now. "It wasn't tagging," he points out. "There was nothing bad on my building, nothing political at all. Just art."
Even so, he notes, "I had to chase them away twice."
He's planning on keeping the OBEY piece and getting new murals up by the election. The artwork may not have been political before, but the act of replacing it certainly is.
Robinette understands. Last Friday she filed a police report, complaining that someone — perhaps even the agency where she filed the report — had vandalized the TOSA building, erasing a wall of art. She plans to make another claim for damages with the city, if she can figure out where to make that claim. "I'm so frustrated," she says. "It's such an insult to the artists."
The Denver Department of Public Works, which oversees the graffiti-abatement group, referred questions about the disappearing murals to the DPD; by the end of the day Tuesday, Detective John White was still looking for answers to my questions. And the questions keep coming.
This isn't the first time that TOSA has been targeted by the Denver police. Jeff Ball, a TOSA founder and Darby's partner, is still steaming over an incident six years ago, when the DPD broke up a fundraiser for the Breakdown book collective, which had rented space at the gallery. But back then, the mayor wasn't touting Denver's arts scene — while paying for out-of-town artists to do big Dialogue: City projects during the DNC. Meanwhile, local arts groups that set up their own convention-related events found themselves wiped off the map.
"In the city, there's all this talk about art," Ball says. "John Hickenlooper's always talking about the creative class. But it's like the trickle-down creative class."
And waiting for that economic trickle to reach this city's real creative class, the independent groups and galleries that make much of Denver's artistic growth possible, can be like watching paint dry.