Calhoun: Wake-Up Call

The city wants to wipe him out, but Paul Trujillo is a Very Important Artist

Paul Trujillo isn't in school right now, but the sixteen-year-old is getting a hell of a civics lesson — with extra credit in art appreciation.

Trujillo was born in Denver and has always lived with his grandparents at 303 Galapago Street. He's been creating art for as long as he can remember — first drawings, then paintings on his bedroom door and on the walls of the attic. He got interested in graffiti five years ago, when he was on his way home from elementary school and spotted some writers painting a wall behind the Boys & Girls Club. It was the first time he'd seen graffiti produced in broad daylight.

He started painting the fence behind his grandparents' house. "I love his art," his grandfather, Henry Vigil, told Westword last year. "Like I always tell him, I don't ever want to see him painting Me killa you! Me killa Westside! That's crap. That has nothing to do with graffiti art. You didn't see the caveman putting that on their walls. They decorated to tell a story, to have a history of what was going on. That's the only thing we know about them. But I like his work, his expressions."

The city wasn't as fond of Trujillo's work. Every time he put up a new piece, an anti-graffiti crew would come paint over it — even though Vigil says he never signed a graffiti-removal authorization form. But so far, the city hasn't touched Trujillo's latest piece: a 26-foot-long "Vote Obama" mural on the alley fence that he created with the help of two friends, Noe Salido and Cris Balderas, after he was inspired by the Democratic National Convention.

The city hasn't touched the sign, but it's certainly sent in its review: According to the Denver planning department, the word "vote" makes the mural a political sign, and election signs are limited by city statute to no more than eight square feet. On September 12, the city sent a notice of violation to the Vigils, giving them thirty days to remove the sign ("Save Obama!" October 2). When the mural failed to disappear, city inspectors came out again, talked to Trujillo's grandparents, then issued a cease-and-desist order on October 16, giving the property owners fifteen days to appeal the order to the city's board of adjustment (they haven't) or thirty days to come into compliance. After that, the Vigils can be fined $150.

But after that, of course, the election will be over — and the word "vote" merely an artistic relic, not a political suggestion. On November 5, won't the mural qualify as art? No, says Julius Zsako, communications director for the planning department: "It meets the criteria for an election sign. It says 'vote,' and it names a candidate."

Even if the election is over.

Trujillo had planned to paint over the piece next month, anyway, as he's painted over pieces dozens of times before. "I think that's what's holding that fence up — all that paint," he says.

But the city's dilemma in differentiating between art and signage will not be wiped away as easily. Because after he read about Trujillo's mural, which made the Los Angeles Times, Seth Ford asked the artist to paint a similar piece on the back of his family's garage at 1539 Monroe Street. "My family and I felt strongly that it was a violation of First Amendment rights to keep Paul and his friends from painting whatever they wanted to on his grandparents' back fence," Ford says. "The property-rights issues involved in this are no little matter. Neither is the fact that the city wants to be the one to dictate what good art is. And the fact is that it's not a sign, it's art."

Good art. "The piece on our garage is absolutely fabulous," he says. "We love it. I go out daily and look for inspiration."

Before the trio painted the piece on October 18, Ford — who recently moved back to Denver for a new job, which explains why he's living with his parents — let the neighbors know what they had planned. "We haven't heard any negative feedback," he says.

"There is a big difference between graffiti art and tagging," he notes. "I was a high-school kid in Denver — this is not tagging." Nor is it an election sign, he says. It's art.

And he's prepared to argue that point with the city — in court, if need be.

Ford isn't alone. Other homeowners are interested in having Trujillo paint their property, too. "I'm just looking for an artist who is looking for a nice, big brick canvas to work on," explains one west Denver resident. "Right now, the dull gray that the back side of the garage is painted really doesn't help to enliven the neighborhood."

More murals could certainly make Zsako's job more lively. And they'd definitely help Trujillo, who'd like to start a business with Salido and Balderas.

Trujillo's already received one very high-profile commission. Last week he got a call from local Barack Obama staffer Ben Jacoff, asking him to paint three pieces for a campaign office that just opened at Colfax and York, in a former sushi restaurant. Jacoff supplied Trujillo with a box of donated spray paint — and now, just past walls decorated with cherry blossoms and Japanese scenes, there are three giant pieces: one a portrait of Barack Obama, with the word "Progress"; one a painting of Obama's campaign logo, with the word "Hope"; and the third an Obama quote: "No one can stand in the way of millions of voices call'n for change."

Trujillo didn't get paid for the work, but he got something better: tickets to Sunday's rally in Civic Center Park. "You just looked back," says the sixteen-year-old, "and saw all those people backed up all the way to the steps of the Capitol, and it reminded me of when Martin Luther King spoke." Trujillo was looking back from the VIP section.

As in Very Important Painter.

KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Patricia Calhoun co-founded Westword in 1977; she’s been the editor ever since. She’s a regular on the weekly CPT12 roundtable Colorado Inside Out, played a real journalist in John Sayles’s Silver City, once interviewed President Bill Clinton while wearing flip-flops, and has been honored with numerous national awards for her columns and feature-writing.
Contact: Patricia Calhoun