Denver discovers the difference between art and vandalism

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The city's not whitewashing this one. It made a mistake, and it plans to make good on it.

On Monday, representatives of several Denver agencies — including the Department of Public Works, Solid Waste Management, Denver City Council, Denver Partners Against Graffiti, the Denver Police Department and the Denver Office of Cultural Affairs — met with Crissy Robinette and Jeff Ball at The Other Side Arts, at 1644 Platte Street. It was the first time many of those people had stepped foot in the edgy, non-profit gallery, but it won't be the last.

"We had a productive meeting," says Ann Williams, spokeswoman for Public Works. "The goal was to explain what happened at their gallery as far as the murals went, and put it in context."


Denver Office of Cultural Affairs

Here's what happened: On the morning of Sunday, August 24, at least a dozen police officers — some wearing riot gear — erased two murals on the side of TOSA while the Platte Street brunch crowd looked on, watching what might have been the most high-priced painting crew in history. Certainly, the officers were better paid than the urban artists who created the original murals.

And here's the context: Those police officers were sweeping through the city, looking for signs of potential trouble that might affect the Democratic National Convention. TOSA isn't far from the Pepsi Center, and it's even closer to Cuernavaca Park, where the Tent State group — which an organizer had once predicted would be 50,000 strong, and ultimately turned into just a handful — would be gathering the next day. The officers thought they found some suspicious items in the alley by TOSA, including tags that could be anarchists' messages. So they confiscated a dumpster and some signs — and painted over murals that were real works of art, whose creation had even been documented on YouTube more than a year before. "Of course, it was never the intention to remove actual artists' murals in the course of trying to maintain safety during a very unique event," Williams explains.

Even if that was the result.

After the unfortunate erasure was brought to the city's attention ("Blankety-Blank," September 4), the assorted Denver agencies that had worked on the DNC and continue to work on graffiti abatement met with Robinette and Ball and asked TOSA to come up with a proposal for replacing the murals. Robinette's working on that right now. "They're willing to pay artists to come back and repaint the murals, and we're really looking forward to being able to pay graffiti artists," she says. "A lot of the meeting focused on education: How can we educate the community and the city to the differences between murals and tagging? What steps can we put into place?"

The city took one of those steps Tuesday, at a meeting of the graffiti task force that's been studying the issue for almost two years, and hastily added "removal of authorized art" to this week's agenda. "The original intent was just to clean up graffiti," says Denver City Councilwoman Judy Montero, who co-chairs the group with Regina Huerter of the Department of Public Safety. Graffiti is the number-one priority of Montero's fellow councilmembers, but as the task force members started assessing the situation, they realized that sometimes what people were calling graffiti was really art. That what the task force is really trying to do is clean up vandalism.

"I think there's now recognition that there's a difference between graffiti vandalism and graffiti art," says Erin Trapp, the director of DOCA, who attended both the TOSA and task force meetings. "Art can be part of the solution." In the city budget that will be proposed Monday, she's hoping there will be money earmarked for the prevention of graffiti — and not just prevention, but projects that will help channel the energies of potential taggers into legitimate art forms. But as she admitted to the task force, "in arts education, we'll be rebuilding from almost the ground up."

TOSA, which has worked with both kids and graffiti artists during its eight years on Platte Street, will be a good place to start. "They even offered to use us as a poster child for the program," Ball says. "I don't think we could have asked for a better response." Adds Robinette, "We're excited to be a part of this."

Montero, too, is "very optimistic," even though TOSA is — "guess where? In my district," she told the meeting. "Murals or urban art are usually in areas that are already arts districts or emerging."

And in fact, the city's second "removal of authorized art" was also in Montero's district, at Orange Cat Studios, at 2625 Larimer Street. Denver Partners Against Graffiti — which is on target to clean up four million square feet of graffiti this year — was busy before the DNC, cleaning up after an unusually active spate of tagging. On August 20, a Partners truck responded to a graffiti-abatement call on upper Larimer, and while crew members were in the neighborhood, they decided to paint over a mural on the wall of Orange Cat. Even though they didn't have the signed authorization form that building owners must have on file with the city in order for Partners to do graffiti abatement — and no authorization at all to erase art.

"It's kind of obvious that both these places are galleries," Montero said, suggesting that in future situations, a gallery's owner should be contacted if there's any confusion over what's art. "And these murals had been there a long time," Trapp added. Perhaps the city's authorization form could be amended to include notations of any art on the property, to clarify situations "when an owner gives permission for abatement — but the tenant puts up art to discourage graffiti." Which is what had happened at TOSA, and the murals on that building had proved to be very effective at protecting property.

Except from the police.

What happened at Orange Cat wasn't quite the same as what happened at TOSA, Trapp told the task force, because this action wasn't part of the DNC security sweep. So the gallery will have to file a claim with the city for compensation — but according to local arts lawyers, Orange Cat has good grounds for such a claim, since a specific federal statute, the Visual Artists Rights Act, prohibits the mutilation of works of visual art. Which studio owner Sean Rice will tell the city, if anyone from Denver Partners Against Graffiti ever returns his phone call.

And whether or not he's compensated for the loss of the mural he'd commissioned local graffiti artists to paint, he plans to replace it. "Whoever does the work," he says, "I'm going to ask them to include a City of Denver graffiti task-force truck and a person spraying over the work. It wasn't political before, but it will be now."

 The same goes for TOSA. "Our main goal is to spark that dialogue," Ball says.

"Before, we told the artists to do whatever they'd like," Robinette explains. This time, though, there will be more discussion of the content, which will "maybe be something on censorship."

And that's the moral of this mural story.

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