art by @jaysaybay
STREET ART IN DENVER (and beyond)
Despite our name, our tour explores mostly Denver's best street art and murals found in the RiNo Art District.
But that begs the question: What's the difference between graffiti, street art, and murals? And what about RiNo and the history of the area? There's more to discuss than could fit on this page, but as a general primer ...
What does the tour cover?
First off, the walking tour discusses the best murals in Denver, as well as illegal graffiti and other forms of Denver street art like wheat pastes, stencil art, and sticker graffiti.
There are conflicted feelings about what's happening in places like Denver's RiNo neighborhood. Big money has come into the area, bringing with it the hipster bars, restaurants, boutiques and breweries. Some people love the energy of the new offerings. Others decry the gentrification of a neighborhood and displacement of long-time businesses and residents.
The tour spends most of its time discussing the street art and artists, but it also puts the art in the context of what's happening in this rapidly changing neighborhood.
Graffiti v. street art v. murals
There are numerous distinctions to be made between graffiti and murals, but the biggest is legality. Graffiti is most often illegal, painted on buildings without permission. It's most often letter writing in the form of artist's graffiti name.
There are varying levels of graffiti from the simple single-line scrawl -- or "tag" -- to the bubble letters with maybe a color or two to the "piece" or "burner," names given to the intricate lettering with multiple colors and often a dimensionality to it.
Check out these three, first up a wall of simple tags.
Then you've got the bubble letters like these seen in Denver's RiNo district, covering up a mural by Hyland Mather.
A further step up from that bubble lettering is a full-on "burner" or "piece," usually with multiple colors and dimensionality, like these found in RiNo Art District.
Graffiti is also very much a culture into itself and very much intertwined with hip hop and b-boying. It has its own code and hierarchy that demands respect for those who give respect.
On the other end of the spectrum you have murals, which are more often character-based and are at least permitted, if not actually commissioned for pay. For instance, here's one of Denver's best murals by street artist Michael Ortiz (aka Ilson), also found in RiNo.
The term street art can mean a lot of things, depending on who you ask. To us, it falls somewhere between graffiti and muralism. Sometimes it's aerosol based, other times it's stickers, stencils or wheatpastes. Sometimes it's legal, sometimes it's permitted. It might not surprise you to know that a world built on counter-culture expression and an artist mentality does not have a governing body regulating these terms.
A history of graffiti, please
A (very, very) truncated history of graffiti.
Modern-day graffiti as we know it largely came out of New York City in the 1970s. It began as simple line letters and was driven by a sense of community and a need for recognition. Writing your name on a wall claims the space, and then it's a battle to own as much space and be respected enough to retain that space.
In an effort to outdo other artists, simple letters evolved to bubble letters, which evolved into more complex and mechanical tags called wild style like these Denver pieces in RiNo.
Artists sought to further differentiate themselves from others by incorporating characters into their works. You also start to see wheat paste art (a thin poster adhered to the wall with flour and water), sticker graffiti, and stencil art.
Eventually, the culture creates its own big-name artists like Basquiat, early on, and more recently, those like Shepard Fairey and Banksy.
RiNo? Five Points?
The area currently designated RiNo Art District is what many Denver natives would know as Five Points and Curtis Park. Historically black and hispanic neighborhoods, the area thrived for decades. When the core of manufacturing moved out, artists started turning vacant warehouses into studios and galleries. By 2005, they had designated the area as River North Art District, or RiNo for short.
It was the start of a pattern repeated across major cities around the world. Artists create a cool culture, people want to experience that culture, business follows the people, and more money starts to change the area.
If you're from Denver, especially the East Side, the rebranding is not welcome and carries an implication that what the area was before needed to be changed.
How is the art/artist affected?
What started as a rebellious culture intent on reclaiming space and jockeying for recognition among peers has evolved into a mainstream acceptance of street art. Mural festivals like Denver's CRUSH Walls are popping up all over the country. Art enthusiasts flock to areas like Miami's Wynwood district and New York City's Bushwick area to explore the best open-air museums in the world. Denver's RiNo Art District is quickly entering that echelon.
The consequences of this are positive and negative. An art form that previously got you no money (and in some cases got you jail time) now pays real money. The downside is the money comes from an ever-changing cast of businesses that have changed the neighborhood from what it was when the artists moved in.
Some artists will go so far as to say street art is being co-opted by big money because it is the "in" trend. As one local artist put it, the murals in RiNo are "wallpaper for gentrification."
That said ...
What RiNo Art District is doing
The RiNo Art District is a Rorshach test for Denver residents. Like the "new" Denver? Then the organization has done a fabulous job cultivating arts and shepharding smart development. Hate what Denver is becoming? Then it's a wolf in sheep's clothing, putting a kind face on what is commonly derided as gentrification and its negative consequences.
What we know is that the RiNo Art District's business improvement district has given more than $80,000 to help develop ArtSpace, that will create up to 130 live-work spaces for artists in the coming years. The group has also contributed mightily to building CRUSH Walls into a premier street art festival with a 2018 budget over $600,000 that attracted 77 local, national and international artists.
What about Denver Graffiti Tour?
Our goal is to expose people to the beautiful murals found in RiNo and the stories behind that street art. While we believe a truthful tour does not shy away from the issues going on in the neighborhood, we strive to educate, not lecture. We love the art and want more people to access it and appreciate it.
Hope to see you on a tour soon!