Tanguma moved to Colorado in 1983 because he thought there would be more opportunity here. The first piece he did in town was a mural in response to gang violence, paid for with small donations from churches and neighbors.
In 1993, Tanguma got a $100,000 commission for DIA. Initially, it was for one mural — but as he started painting, he decided to do more. "I wanted it to live up to how I felt about Denver, for the opportunity," he says. He insists that he was given no guidelines for what to paint, and it took him three years to finish the work. "I tried to paint according to my conscience. Because I told the committee I tried not to paint just for decoration. It has to have a meaning."
But meaning is created by the viewer as much as the artist. And it's not just conspiracy theorists who find unintended meaning in the murals. Tanguma remembers how passersby would question his work even while he was finishing it on the walls at DIA. One man complained that the Scottish boy's shawl had the crest of an enemy of his clan, so Tanguma included the man's family crest on the shawl. Others wondered why the multi-racial murals didn't have more black people, or white people, or why one country's flag seemed to be covering another's.
No matter how big the murals, no matter how inclusive the content, viewers always seem able to find a subtext, a code that explains the chaos now common in the new world.
Tanguma's murals have even traveled from the world of fictional fact into outright fiction. In Forever Conceal, Never Reveal, a novel published online in 2005, Washington-based author Dawn Meier wrote about a character who got sucked into the Masonic underworld and traveled to DIA in one scene:
"How on earth did the city of Denver approve of such horrific murals in their airport?" Aaron asked.
"They really didn't have anything to say about it. Freedom of speech; freedom of expression in art; all the freedom arguments allowed the Masons to influence all the murals you see. Here is another one." They moved on to the next one.
"Oh, Gordon. How horrible. I can't believe my eyes; a dark green giant monster wearing what looks like a gas mask, destroying a city. And what are these? It looks like women carrying dead babies. What sick person drew all these?"
"It doesn't matter who drew them, Aaron. This is the future."
Tanguma says he would like to "have a chance to meet with those folks and explain to them what I meant by this. I'm not part of any conspiracy whatsoever. I mean, it's weird to be saying that. In general, this is about humanity. What could they find bad about this?"