Boulder County paints graffiti in a new light

By Kerry Parry

According to “The History of American Graffiti” by Roger Gastman and Caleb Neelon — one-time “taggers” themselves — graffiti is “an art form distinctly American in flavor yet global in its reach.” It was started by a high school boy in 1967 Philadelphia, who was attempting to catch the attention of a girl. The artform exploded in the 1970s, from freight train tagging to widespread displays of raw — albeit often anonymous — talent throughout large metropolitan centers across the country. The progression from tags to full-blown murals hastened. In the ’80s, galleries began to exhibit graffiti as artwork, sealing its place in the lexicon of modern American visual arts. Despite this, graffiti still straddles a tenuous line between acceptable and eyesore. Today, Boulder County communities are making it a priority to embrace street art while balancing the needs and rights of property owners.
Leah Brenner Clack, a fierce advocate for art and artists, has been tackling this challenge through the organization she founded,

And. Art. Space., a mural art consultancy and advocacy project in Boulder. More recently, she also launched Street Wise, which matches muralists with wall space. Brenner Clack told the Boulder City Council that artists in Boulder need support. “Many young, emerging, contemporary artists don’t fit into the traditional galleries we have here in Boulder,” she says. “These artists don’t feel seen.”

Lack of support and a need for freedom is, in part, what led anonymous street artist Smile to create his own path. Smile sees street art as a form of rebellion, a means of expression no matter what the setting, where the medium is an integral part of the message. “Art communicates on a lot of levels, and I think it also communicates on a subconscious level,” he says. “I think that’s why people have embraced my art, despite its dubious legal standing.”

Lindee Zimmer, a muralist and recent participant in the Street Wise project, understands Smile’s perspective. “I love Smile’s work. There is something so pure about art for art’s sake. But I think it’s really important for artists to get paid. Getting rewarded for the energy you’re putting out there makes art valuable to society. Art can be elitist, which is why public art is so important, making it accessible to everyone. I support all art.”

Patrick Maxcy, the artist responsible for the mural in the Twenty Ninth Street Retail District’s parking garage (a Street Wise project), admits to previous unsanctioned street art out of a need for expression, but claims it was mostly in his youth. He says one way to counterbalance some of the negative, ego-fueling energy that can come with being a full-time, paid artist is to look for ways to give back to the community through education and pro bono work.

Janet Russell and Bill Carlson, cofounders of Louisville Arts District, see firsthand the benefits of welcoming art and artists. They helped commission two muralists to do an alley project. The response was so favorable, city officials renamed the area Via Artista. Russell and Carlson say the art installment invigorated the neighborhood and started a beautification movement where property owners and businesses added improvements and installed additional artwork on their own. The Arts District is also responsible for the city’s popular First Friday Art Walk program.

Kimberly McKee, executive director of the Longmont Downtown Development Authority (LDDA), helped coordinate Longmont’s Rally in the Alley, which matches property owners in the Longmont creative district with muralists, such as renowned local artist Gamma Acosta. “The response has been great,” McKee says. “People are loving the public art. We’re hoping to fund more projects.”

Lafayette has an active street art program, says Stacey Bernstein, public art coordinator for the City of Lafayette. They sponsor an Art on the Street program, which places 18 to 20 sculptures throughout the city. They also support Alley Art Amazin’, which is run by volunteers who have painted nearly 70 murals. Bernstein attributes the success of the city’s arts program to the support of city officials, and the many artists who live in the area, as well as business owners who recognize it as an economic driver.

While there is no doubt that illegal graffiti as a means of expression will persist and is punishable by fines and/or jail time in Colorado, it’s progress to know that, at least in Boulder County, it will be alongside planned art designed to beautify our community and give a platform for local artists and social issues. If art greets you on the street and makes you think, or even just smile, the artist has given you a gift — we can’t think of anything more local in flavor yet global in reach.

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