Why the city wants to wipe out Barack Obama

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Get out the vote.

No, really. Grab a paintbrush and help erase the word "vote" from the mural of Barack Obama that's transformed an alley fence behind Galapago Street into an urban gallery. Because that may be the only way the city will let this piece of art stay up.

Blame me. While researching the distinctions between graffiti/signs/urban art, I came across this mural in the Baker neighborhood, a rapidly gentrifying area of small, older homes marked as much by for sale signs as by tags. The little house at 303 Galapago Street boasts a collection of kitsch in the windows, an outdoor shrine and an amazing painting brightening the alley. It's big, but there's no law limiting how big a piece of art can be on private property. In fact, there's no limiting art on private property at all. The problem is the word "vote," which could push the painting out of the realm of art and into the world of signs — specifically election signs, as defined by Section 59-537 (9) of the Denver Revised Municipal Code.


Barack Obama

The city's rule regarding the number of election signs permitted was relaxed this summer; previously, you were limited to "one sign per candidate or issue per street frontage" (which meant that houses on corners, but only houses on corners, could put up two signs per candidate or issue), but now you can post as many election signs as you want. But the rest of the rules remain the same: Election signs are not allowed on the public right of way (basically, within three feet of the curb or sidewalk), can be no more than six feet above grade, must not be illuminated or animated — and should be no more than eight square feet.

The Obama mural is 26 feet long.

Last month, Denver Zoning & Neighborhood Inspections Services studied the fence and determined that the word "vote" on the mural made it an election sign — a too-big election sign. And it sent the residents a cease-and-desist order requiring its removal within thirty days, or by mid-October. The only way this sign can be saved, the city suggests, is if the word "vote" is removed.

Well, there's one other possibility. Instead of getting out the vote, get a lawyer.

Chris Beall, a volunteer attorney with Colorado Lawyers for the Arts, took a look at the mural, then a more expansive look at the city's municipal code. "The answer to this issue," he says, "is in the definitions for a 'sign.' Under Section 59-2(265), a 'sign' is explicitly defined as NOT including 'works of art which in no way identify a product.' Because the mural is most definitely a work of art — see the federal Visual Artists Rights Act (VARA), which defines murals as among the kinds of 'fine art' within its protection — the mural here cannot be classified as a 'sign.' Moreover, it would be a violation of VARA for the City to remove or deface the mural without the artist's permission."

The writing's on the wall: Denver can't afford to erase another piece of art.

The mural of the story: Chris Beall had first contacted me last month after I wrote about how, in Denver's eagerness to make the city pretty — and okay, safe — for the Democratic National Convention, two local galleries had found their outdoor murals wiped out ("Off the Wall," September 11). But now the city's well on its way to making up for those blunders — and without a call from a lawyer!

Sean Rice, the proprietor of Orange Cat, a gallery at 2625 Larimer Street whose street-smart mural was painted over by an overly enthusiastic Denver Partners Against Graffiti crew, met with officials regarding what the city admits was a "removal of authorized art" and filed a claim with the city attorney to cover the cost of replacing the art. At a low estimate of $12 per square foot for more than 1,400 square feet, that's an expensive lesson for Denver — but a valuable one to learn as the gallery scene continues to grow and graffiti artists move off the streets and into studios.

And The Other Side Arts, the cooperative gallery at 1644 Platte Street that had two murals painted over by riot-gear-wearing cops the day before the DNC began (the officers told one Sunday bruncher watching the action that they'd spotted anarchist symbols in the art pointing to a Re-create '68 meeting spot — not that Re-create '68 proved capable of meeting its own expectations for the convention, much less organizing a crowd), will be submitting a proposal for replacing the larger piece to the Denver Office of Cultural Affairs, which got hauled into the mess because the Denver Police Department isn't usually in the touch-up business. "We're going to have the artist who did the original mural come back and do a portion of it," explains TOSA's Crissy Robinette, "and we're going to form a panel and hopefully get submissions for the rest, on the theme of censorship. We've already gotten a lot of interest from artists in the community."

From one of TOSA's landlords, too. Mike LaMair watched the police in action that day, searching along the property that stretches from the street back to the South Platte, emptying dumpsters and carting off rubbish. "Three people have painted this building, none with permission," he notes. First there was a tagger who hit the old brick storefront that TOSA moved into eight years ago. Then there was the graffiti artist who turned the tag into an entire mural discouraging vandalism, a work documented on YouTube. And then there was the DPD.

LaMair has met with TOSA to make sure that the replacement mural does no harm to either the historic brick of the structure or the neighborhood in which it sits — "I don't want it to look like graffiti," he says — but still celebrates freedom of expression.

A celebration that almost got wiped out by the DNC.

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