The city looks different when you have a pocket full of magnets.
Bricks, concrete, glass and anything containing organic matter recede into the background, leaving only metal. So what Matt Feeney and Harrison Nealey see are dumpsters, light poles, air conditioners, electrical boxes and LOADING ONLY signs. Even in the dark, they scan the length of Platte Street and visually omit the surfaces of non-magnetic aluminum and plastic/alloy composites, automatically ignore objects that may be metal but are too obvious and boring to be worth the effort. Instead, they give high-fives to water meters, flick wrists toward balconies and brush palms against newspaper boxes, leaving a trail of "art tags" — flat magnets featuring original works by assorted artists, official signs that the Magnet Mafia was here.
Inside Paris on the Platte, they stand amid the late-night clamor of cigarette smoke and unfulfilled nihilism, Matt smiling like a birthday cake, Harrison not, chatting with each other about spots they can hit, spots they shouldn't hit, and spots they'd hit if they only had the balls and maybe some kind of construction crane. Harrison looks around, then snaps his hand in an upward motion like he's signaling to someone in the other room. But no one is watching as the magnet he just flipped flies up and sticks to the air duct. He orders a coffee and nods toward the ceiling.
"This is actually the first spot the Magnet Mafia ever got up on," Harrison says.
It was in the spring of 2006. "And we were so nervous," Matt recalls, laughing. "We were sitting at that table, like, 'Is anybody looking? Is the coast clear? Okay, go! Go!'"
Since that time, the Magnet Mafia has become a household name in Denver's low-to-the-ground cultural scene, and many artists have joined the growing network. Magnets have proved the perfect way for Matt and Harrison to meld their love of graffiti and street art with their support for the arts community, both local and global.
"It's not really graffiti," Harrison explains. "It's art that's in the street. You can leave it or you can remove it. You can take it home, you can sell it, or you can hang it up somewhere else."
But first you have to find it. Most magnets are placed where they can easily be plucked off by a passerby, but Matt and Harrison also seek out spots that offer maximum visibility and hang time. Behold the underpass where 15th Street dunks below the railroad tracks: The pine-green side of the bridge presents a perfect billboard for descending motorists.
"What do you think?" Harrison asks.
Beneath his arm, Matt has a magnet the size of a poster rolled into a tube. "It's perfect," he answers, "but..." The pause says this: To get to the spot, someone will have to shimmy across the ledge of a huge I-beam, similar to the one above the South Platte River that Harrison traversed last year in order to hang a magnet. While a fall from there would have meant getting wet (or worse), if you slip up above 15th, it's nothing but thirty feet and concrete dreams. Plus, there's a street sweeper circling the darkened strip below like some kind of freaky shark. "...it's pretty fucking gnarly," he concludes.
After some heavy consultation during which Matt confesses a fear of heights that developed upon his graduation from Dakota Ridge High School, Harrison is up on the I-beam, crouching awkwardly. When a wave of headlights passes beneath him, he freezes like a gargoyle in a hoodie, only to reanimate moments later and continue along his plodding mission. The magnet goes up. It's a piece of art that the friends created at an event at Vinyl, an abstract, suitable for framing, and a complete mystery to the random observer who might spot it. Still, it seems to fit with the nearby Museum of Contemporary Art and the towering Millennium Bridge.
And really, given the subjectivity of art, what's the difference between a painting inside a museum and a piece outside on a wall? If the piece on the wall is graffiti, the answer is a felony — and ever-increasing penalties for vandalism in Denver have made it much less inviting to act on the tagger impulse. But if the piece on the wall is magnetic art?
"We actually try not to focus on it being removable graffiti or safe graffiti because it's not as illegal," Matt says. "We more want to show that it's just another way of getting up on the streets. But, yeah, having a loophole to getting busted is a nice by-product of that."
When two magnets of the same pole are pushed close, they fly apart. But flip one around and they stick together. Opposites attract.