It's easy to think that Denver actually condones graffiti because of the praise poured on last weekend's street-art-is-good-for-development CRUSH festival, in the once-graffitied industrial neighborhood that's now the RiNo Art District. But don't worry: The city still has it in for spray-paint-toting vandals.
Even as the paint dries in RiNo, Denver Solid Waste Management and subgroup Denver Partners Against Graffiti will host their eighth annual Brush Off! on Saturday, September 23. This is a chance for kids and adults alike to join forces with the city and paint over graffiti in the much less gentrified Barnum Park neighborhood. (Watch out, Barnum: Even if spray paint is still taboo, the cupcake shops are coming.)
“Join the fun, help beautify Denver!” read promo materials from Solid Waste Management. “Volunteers of all ages are needed to help pick up litter and paint out graffiti vandalism along the Federal Blvd. corridor.”
Of course, the city’s not talking about the much-touted murals lining the Cherry Creek Bike Path or those under the I-70 viaduct. And it’s not focused on all those the hip-hop pieces promoting breweries in RiNo. (Because what’s more authentically hip-hop than hip-hoppy craft beer?)
No, the city is talking about the taggers, hobgoblins of the upscale “street art is cool” crowd, and the muralists who aren’t considered good enough to be turned into a brand quite yet. The city is also talking about those artists who refuse to play by the rules, who won’t bother with permits or cozy relationships with Denver Arts & Venues, Solid Waste or handmade-homemade brew peddlers.
But don't forget that most of the people throwing up city-approved murals started as taggers. And if you believe the self-help books, all great artists were bad artists once upon a time.
Yes, tagging is criminal. It’s un-permitted. It's destructive. Heaven knows, it can be ungodly ugly. But it is still art — or at least a baby step in that direction. And for that reason alone, like it or not, it's important — if you believe that street art matters.
Marking up a city is the tagger’s way of saying, “I’m here. I’m real. My voice matters.” In turn, buffing out a tagger's work is the city’s way of saying, “Your voice doesn’t matter."
Those wicked taggers’ voices don’t matter because they haven’t gone through proper channels or otherwise gained respectability; they haven’t been vetted by a commercial gallery operator or a nonprofit space or Arts & Venues or a contemporary-arts museum. (Well, they were sort of vetted by the Museum of Contemporary Art during the recent Basquiat and graffiti exhibits, but Basquiat’s now canonically safe – and most important, for those who would otherwise be threatened by his not-so-attractive work, he's dead.)
During these tough times, with artists being priced out of Denver, the city knows it’s better to invite countercultural artists into the fold than to fight them or cover up their work with gray paint. That explains government wonks’ pro-street art, pro-DIY rhetoric. It explains the attempts to form strategic partnerships with underground artists. Well, that and good taste.
I'll admit it: Some Denver officials know what’s cool, and who can blame them for wanting to control it through liberal tolerance — or, better yet, funding? Both are great ways to rip the teeth out of potentially rebellious art movements that would otherwise throw up unauthorized murals that criticize the city and developers erecting New Denver one ugly mixed-use rectangular condo at a time. (I challenge anyone to show me a tag that's uglier than most new construction.)
So why not form a private-public partnership to boost a Krylon Renaissance? Medici the most talented street artists, invite them in, give them a seat at the table and pay them to become a brand? After all, keeping them tethered is cheaper than jailing them.
But within hours of that graffiti being removed, some kids are going to show up with Sharpies and express themselves. Their work isn't going to be pretty; it might be crass, maybe even critical of the city. But anybody who actually cares about street art will be thrilled, because no matter how much the powerful want to control deviant artistic urges, it can’t Brush Off! creative rebellion that easily.
Brush Off! starts at 8 a.m. Saturday, September 23, at Barnum Park, West Fifth Avenue, east of Julian Street. Call 720-913-1311 for more information.