DIA Conspiracies Take Off

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From the beginning of the design process, an effort was made to infuse art into the architecture, with 39 artists chosen to create original work for the project. These artists were selected by a committee of public officials, community members and working artists. There was a major cultural component to pieces chosen, and the committee was careful to include work by black, Native American and Hispanic artists. Still, there was no specific slot for a Mayan artist — which Jay Weidner insists Tanguma is.

Fanning has gotten calls about Tanguma's art, including one last year from a person who accused the airport of changing portions of his murals to cover up secret meanings. "They basically scream at me and ask me why we have taken those murals down, but they've never been changed or been taken down," she says. "Those murals will be there for a while. They're not coming down."

In fact, DIA will soon be getting more art. The airport will undergo $1.2 billion in infrastructure improvements over the next ten years, and under the city's one-percent-for-art program that requires all capital improvement projects to allocate that percentage of the budget to art, Fanning's program should get a significant boost.

And so the conspiracy calls will keep coming. "And really, there is nothing controversial here at all," Fanning insists. "I really don't give credence to any of the thinking that goes behind these theories."

Weidner does. He visited DIA while working on his documentary and checked out the Tanguma murals. "I don't know where he is," Weidner says of the artist. "Last I heard, he was in Chicago; that's all I could find out. I know he was commissioned to do the murals, and I know he was told pretty much what to paint. And that's all I know. He's pretty much just gone away."

Leo Tanguma, a quiet man with a gray goatee, hasn't moved from Colorado since DIA opened. Right now he's standing in front of "The Children of the World Dream of Peace," describing his work while travelers scurry past.

"This is my daughter's friend," he says, pointing to the children's faces. "That's my niece. Here's my other niece. This is my granddaughter, Sandiana. This is my other granddaughter." Other faces belong to friends of the family, neighbors, relatives. Some were victims of gang violence. "This little boy was at the zoo with his parents. At the zoo! And somebody was having a war in the neighborhood, and one of those bullets came in the air and paralyzed him," Tanguma says. "It took him one year to die. So when I met the parents, I went to their home, and they gave me his photographs."

The children represent a wide assortment of nationalities: "Panama. Brazil. Greece. Arabia. Sweden. Czech Republic." The mural is about kids dreaming of a world without violence, he explains, with the dream turning into a rainbow that leads to children of all nations putting down their weapons by beating swords into plowshares.

The soldier in the mural could be any soldier. "That's why I put a mask on him," Tanguma explains. "I didn't want to make him white or black. I wanted to make him villainous to give that aspect of something vile, something real, something mean."

Tanguma grew up in a small town in Texas, where Latinos were in the minority. He created his first mural when he was in the fifth grade and the local sheriff shot and killed three of his cousins in a questionable incident. He got up and went to the blackboard to draw what he liked to draw: horses, lions and tigers. "But this kid, somebody, said, 'Draw me killing the sheriff.' We were totally helpless in those days." So he drew the kid stabbing the sheriff. And then the teacher walked in. He got a few licks for his depiction.

"But somebody asked me to do that art," he remembers. "And in my life, I always felt that the community needed somebody to express its feelings."

He only finished school through the sixth grade. Later, he joined the military. While overseas, he got his GED and took a cartooning correspondence course. Once out of the service, Tanguma went to Texas Southern University in 1972, where he'd paint community-center walls or street murals for small commissions. His murals can now be found on the walls of elementary schools, college campuses, housing projects, churches and art museums across the western U.S.

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Jared Jacang Maher