I got a call a few weeks ago from Jolt, local graffiti OG and head of the graffiti advocacy group Guerilla Garden.
"Hey, man," said Jolt, aka Jeremy Ulibarri. The background was noisy, like a freight train or an... indoor swimming pool? "We're doing that project I was telling you about today. You should come down and check it out."
When I've gotten invited to watch graffiti writers work in the past, the location has usually been some "permission wall" in an alley that no one ever sees (or a very non-permission spot on a rooftop in the middle of the night.) Jolt, though, always seems to have random projects cooking that involve teaching kids the more artistic, evolved side of graffiti. But working with businesses, non-profits or the city is a difficult line to walk, particularly since Denver -- as one of the first municipalities to make it illegal for minors to possess spray paint -- has been operating a very expensive battle against graffiti vandalism for years. The last thing officials want to do in most cases is put spray cans in the hands of unpredictable teens, no matter how structured the program.
Double whammy: Jolt's latest wall is not only actual city property, but the kids painting it are juvenile offenders serving time in the state youth corrections system. The $10,000 mural in the Rude Recreation Center near the Sun Valley housing projects is an experiment in restorative justice, explained juvenile parole officer Martin Friedman. The idea is to engage young offenders in public service to the same community that they had ostensibly harmed with their crime.
We Believe Local Journalism is Critical to the Life of a City
Engaging with our readers is essential to Westword's mission. Make a financial contribution or sign up for a newsletter, and help us keep telling Denver's stories with no paywalls.
Support Our Journalism
The fifteen-by-seventy-foot mural in the center's pool area was designed by Jolt and graffiti artist/illustrator Delton Demarest to look like a series of portholes looking out onto an underwater seascape. After writing a letter and submitting works of art, twelve teens were chosen to take part in a series of classes led by Jolt and Demarest on basic graffiti art techniques such as shading, color-matching and style. It's not easy stuff, which is why many teenage graffiti writers never progress beyond the crappiest of scrawled tags and wavy pot leaves.
But with a few sessions at Rude rec, many of the program's participants were fully painting their own characters and forming styles, clearly locked in the artistic process of experimentation and critique with their peers -- then stepping back and trying again, week by week. And at the end, their creation stays on the big wall of the community center for all to see. As one of the teens said to me, "It sure beats picking up trash on the side of some highway."
On the last day of the project, Westword intern Alexis Johnson made a quick video of the action (above). We weren't allowed to show any of the teens' faces or use their full names, since juvenile criminal records are supposed to be sealed and all. But you get the picture. A grand opening for the mural will be held at Rude rec, 2855 W Holden Place, on June 27 from 10 a.m.-2 p.m..