Fading Denver Graffiti Honors a Woman Who Shot 300 Nazis

Kyle Harris
The wheat-paste art near City Park honoring anti-fascist sniper Lyudmila Pavlichenko in 2017.
I was wiping off sweat and waiting for a walk sign halfway through a six-mile run late one night in September 2017 when I noticed an image praising a woman who'd gunned down 300 Nazis wheat-pasted to a traffic-control box just outside Denver’s City Park.

Had Donald Trump conceived a baby the day he was elected president, the child would have been a squalling brat by that point. No doubt Trump had already given birth to some sort of spawn that had been showing up all summer long, across the country and even here in Colorado, where Proud Boys had yelled bigoted slurs in Boulder, white supremacists had vandalized a Jewish community center and a temple in Colorado Springs, and anti-Muslim fanatics had thrown a fit about the evils of Islam outside the State Capitol. Trump’s spawn made their biggest headlines when they rallied in Charlottesville, Virginia, that August at the Unite the Right rally, where twenty-year-old James Alex Fields Jr. plowed his car into a crowd of anti-racist demonstrators and murdered 32-year-old Heather Heyer.

A few blocks from City Park, where I stood looking at the image of a Soviet Nazi killer, fascists and anti-racists had been scribbling swastikas and circle-As and penning threats to stab each other in the face up and down East Colfax Avenue for months. The Sharpie scrawls were ugly and thoughtless, the sort of graffiti that comes from a hurried person drawing nudies on a stall in a crowded truck-stop restroom.

But this anti-Nazi image gracing the traffic-control box wasn’t clumsy or juvenile. It was poetic agitprop, the sort of art that’s out of style in Denver, where wallpaper abstractions — unfettered by earthly matters like the rise of fascism — hang transcendent on empty galleries' walls.

The image on the traffic-control box was a print of an iconic photo of a Soviet sniper from the Ukraine who shot dozens of Nazis during World War II. In the picture, she smiles proudly, holding her rifle and looking off into the distance, with a red star behind her. The text on the print, “300 Nazis Fell By Her Gun,” echoes Woody Guthrie’s “Miss Pavlichenko,” an ode to Lyudmila Pavlichenko.

The song is unflinching propaganda praising anti-fascists who kill Nazis, once the sort of all-American “This Land Is Your Land” pastime of my grandfather’s generation. He was a colonel in the Air Force, and weeks before he died, he took me out to lunch and smiled, reminiscing about him and his buddy “taking care of a fascist” who was attempting to rape a woman on the streets of Italy during the war. My grandfather was old-fashioned that way: He thought bigots and rapists deserved a fist, not the White House.

When Guthrie twangs the verse “Your smile shines as bright as any new morning sun/But more than three hundred nazidogs fell by your gun,” his singing is as homemade as the wheat-pasted poster. Both are plain-spoken. Both glorify Nazi killing, something the proponents of nonviolence on the left and the conservatives railing against antifa both condemn.

On that fall night, I took out my camera, eager to snap a photo and show it to my family. I considered writing about it, but I was sure the image would be buffed over by the city’s graffiti-removal crew any day.

But I was wrong. Cold weather came and went. Hail pounded my garden into the grave; whatever vegetables survived went to seed or shriveled up. The graffiti war on Colfax raged and eventually petered out. Still that print of Pavlichenko stayed: “300 Nazis Fell By Her Gun.”

I wondered if somebody with Denver Partners Against Graffiti saw the image and opted to leave it up in a quiet show of anti-fascist solidarity. For more than a year, nobody defaced that image of Pavlichenko — almost as though people feared her spirit would gun down anybody who dared try.

click to enlarge Weather worn and defaced, the anti-fascist print lingers as of late December 2018. - KYLE HARRIS
Weather worn and defaced, the anti-fascist print lingers as of late December 2018.
Kyle Harris
In recent weeks, though, somebody tried to rip the print down and managed to make the text illegible. Perhaps it was a fascist — but surely that person would have covered the image in swastikas. Maybe it was someone who simply likes public space to look tidy, unfettered by political art. My guess: a well-meaning liberal who didn’t like the confrontational message and decided it was bad optics to allow anti-fascists even one sheet of paper to suggest that shooting Nazis was a praiseworthy act.

Whoever succeeded in desecrating the text and sullying the print failed to erase what matters most in that image: Pavlichenko's air of satisfaction. Perhaps the city will eventually buff over the art, or a do-gooder neighbor will scrape it away. Maybe the artist will return and wheat-paste another copy on the silver box, if that artist is still in the city.

Whatever happens, it's clear from what's left of the print who wins in the end: the woman with the rifle and the proud smile.

Update: A Westword reader pointed out that the image of the woman more closely resembles Rosa Shanina, a different Soviet sniper who killed 59 Nazis; watch for more on this. The story was updated on December 29 to reflect that.