Tag City: Denver Bars and Restaurants Struggle With Graffiti

Bar 404's windows are damaged from spray paint that contained acid.
Bar 404's windows are damaged from spray paint that contained acid. Molly Martin
While Denver is home to a lot of impressive street art, there has been a influx of another kind of painting in the city, and restaurants and bars are being targeted. Tagging is on the rise, and the damage is costing owners thousands of dollars in repair fees and security.

"We've had people break in, and others spray-paint the shop," says Kerry O'Brien, who opened Bar 404 at  404 Broadway late last year. "One of the last vandalism occurrences was someone spray-painted our windows with some sort of acid that ate into the window. We had three companies come in to try and fuss it out, but this particular paint went so deep into the window that when they tried to clean it, the window turned into a foggy mess. The worst part is that every time we repair them, someone comes back and spray-paints all over again."

This type of paint is called acid etching, something that's been around for thousands of years. First developed in the Middle Ages, when goldsmiths and gun makers would use chemicals to decorate their products, it's made a comeback and is used by graffiti artists because it's much more difficult to remove.

It costs around $200 to try and buff out this type of paint, but often the process leaves the glass foggy or does not erase the work at all. Businesses are then left to decide whether they want to drop over $500 on window replacements, or leave the damage as is. Frequently, businesses choose the latter, as chances are the business will be tagged again.

David Mot, the owner of now-closed pool hall Pharaoh's Lounge, at 333 Broadway, says that tagging using acid-etching paint was one of the reason he decided to shutter the business, noting that he spent $4,000 to replace the windows after they were damaged by vandalism. He's planning to reopen in Superior later this year.
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Tagging and broken windows have hindered progress at Tom's Starlight.
Tom's Starlight

Over at 601 East Colfax Avenue, Tom's Diner (which closed in 2020) is in the process of reopening as a cocktail bar and lounge called Tom's Starlight. "We've followed every guidance that the business improvement district and city gave us. We spent a lot of money on fencing and markings that delineate that this is private property," notes Antonin Robert, president of community development for GBX Group, co-developer on the project.

But despite precautions, the business continues to face unrelenting vandalism. People have broken into the site to smash windows and spray-paint and deface other elements of the property. "The wall that they're spray-painting is a wall that has porous rock and is considered to be historic. The chemicals and non-chemicals needed to clean it and preserve it long-term are difficult to find and expensive," adds Robert.

He says that law enforcement and the city have done little to protect these businesses, despite many owners reporting graffiti incidents. "This issue is getting worse every day. It's not just the cost to one business, but this community is being affected by criminals who are not being prosecuted. At some point the city will have to step in and do the proper job of protecting the citizens and businesses in the community," Robert says.

In addition to being costly, graffiti can be detrimental to a how a bar or restaurant is perceived by the public. "If you drive by, it looks like we'[re a very seedy bar where degenerates hang out," O'Brien notes. "I'd be wary walking in, so I'm sure others may be, too."

"It cheapens the neighborhood," Robert adds. "It creates awareness that there is crime going on and influences how safe people feel." His hope is that someone will finally step in to protect businesses, because while a little tag won't stop them from running, the issue itself is anything but small. 
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