City announces program to fight graffiti by paying for murals

City officials announced a new program yesterday that will encourage artists to paint murals on walls across the city as a way to fight graffiti vandalism.

Erin Trapp of the Denver Office of Cultural Affairs told members of the city council that $50,000 has been put into something they have dubbed the Urban Arts Fund. After March 20, artists can begin applying for $500 to $7,500 grants to paint murals on walls deemed to be "graffiti hotspots." The hope, says Trapp, is that the existence of artful murals will deter tagging and "develop community ownership" of frequently vandalized areas.

The pilot program, modeled after similar efforts in Baltimore and Philadelphia, will encourage businesses and private property owners to contribute tax-exempt matching funds for new murals, which could number in the hundreds by year's end. Not just any proposal will get the go-ahead, however. This form, found on the DOCA website, states that applicants must solicit and receive the support of at least one city council member as a sponsor and be approved by a special Urban Arts Fund steering committee.

Regina Huerter, who oversees the Mayor's crime-prevention efforts, says they will be reviewing whether the existence of the murals will actually reduce the amount of unwanted graffiti in a given area and if that prompts a drop in other offenses. She says studies show a "correlation between graffiti and violent crime."

The program is the first major funding of an art-based graffiti diversion program since the Graffiti Task Force announced its recommendations. But the monies still pale in comparison to the record $1.6 million allocated this year for graffiti cleanup and the $200,000 set aside to streamline enforcement efforts between city agencies. Public Works has issued more than 1,300 violation notices to property owners who haven't cleaned graffiti from their buildings since November 2007, when the city adopted tougher rules. Denver Police Department Commander Doug Stephens reported that the two-man graffiti unit investigated 73 cases last year, but no word on how many of those resulted in arrests or prosecutions. (To hear more about Denver's long anti-graffiti history, check out last year's Westword feature on former graffiti cop Ray Ruybal.)

Denver has many amazing graffiti artists whose work has been relegated to the undersides of bridges or hidden alleyways. Hopefully, the Urban Arts Fund will allow them and other artists to bring higher aesthetics to some of the city's ugliest walls and prompt the many talentless taggers out there to aspire to more thoughtful public art, legal or otherwise. Hell, if they're willing to fill out a few forms, they could even get paid.

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