If walls could talk

by Jessie O’Brien

The thick stench of spray paint and quiet hiss of the can are barely noticed under the cover of night. The artist moves quickly, painting bright broad strokes with expertise on the brick wall as he keeps an eye out for headlights. It’s only a matter of minutes before he’s done with his masterpiece and off into the cloaked darkness, unnamed and unnoticed, at least until sunrise.

A number of things drive an artist – amateur or otherwise – to graffiti a wall. Public spaces are a way to show work without the confines of a gallery and no-guarantee submission fee. Tagging a wall is also a visual rebellion for the simple sake of irreverence, or possibly a retaliation to the corporate advertising – or pro-Trump and Pence signs – that are crammed down our throats on a daily basis.

Graffiti has been around since our ancient ancestors marked the walls of the Chauvet Cave, but what we recognize as American graffiti exploded in popularity in the 1970s in New York City, before moving indoors to galleries a decade or so later. Renowned artists like Lower Manhattan-bred Jean-Michel Basquiat, whose 1982 painting depicting a skull (“Untitled”) set a new record high for any American artist at auction, selling in 2017 for $110.5 million, started their careers during that same era. Basquiat’s art was first honed on the walls and signs of Lower East Side Manhattan during his time as part of SAMO, a graffiti duo known for tagging jaw-dropping epigrams across the borough during the early street art scene days. Thanks to those grass-roots pioneers, in much of America, street art is mainstream, but in Durango, the scene – while it does exist – is limited.

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“There are plenty of tags,” said Dakotah Andreatta, an artist who runs the Everyday Gas Station rotating mural project, a group that commissions bright street art to be painted across the side wall of the gas station on College Drive and 8th Avenue.

“(The City of) Durango is pretty vigilant on the more renegade style art. …When new things are discovered by law enforcement, they catalog it and keep a tight book of pieces that are reported.”

Andreatta said cops will mark new pieces with a little “X” to inform the taggers that they’ve been documented.

This vigilance is obvious when walking through the alleys between Main and 8th Avenues. There are tags and stickers, but also just as many dumpsters and electrical boxes with buff marks or off-color paint jobs.

Obviously, though, the trails in Durango are worlds apart from the streets of Bushwick, where no surface is safe from the end of a flat-tip Sharpie. The city’s massive walls, freeway signs, and subway cars make for proper canvases, especially when compared to Durango’s historic mountain town facades. In many cases, street gangs in large metro areas use graffiti to mark their presence or claim their territory, a phenomena not evident in this town in Southwest Colorado. And, cities often have more culturally or politically-provoked communities, many of which feel the need to make visual art statements in protest of social issues or in support of their communities. Hip-hop culture is also closely linked with the art form and is synonymous with city life, a culture that Durango is blatantly devoid of. So, it’s no surprise that street art doesn’t have a massive presence here. Still, graffiti can still make an impact outside of concrete jungles.

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Chip Thomas, also known as jetsonorama, is a clinician, photographer, and street artist from Shiprock, New Mexico. One of his wheatpaste photographs depicting a Native girl on a swing was installed at Fort Lewis College in 2016 in celebration of the school’s first-ever Indigenous People’s Day. His work often depicts intimate portraits of Indigenous people, prompting the viewer to acknowledge that their lives are often ignored or misunderstood. Thomas has been commissioned to create towering murals in major cities, but some of his installations are on abandoned shacks in the middle of the desert, or in low-density population towns. This is counterintuitive to many city street artists’ compulsions to put up work in prominent places to have it viewed by as many eyeballs as possible, but nonetheless proves that street art can be just as powerful without the street.

Debra Greenblatt is one of the few vocal street art supporters in Durango. She is a native of New York City who lived through the golden era of street art, and left a few of her own marks along the way. She launched the Dumpster Beautification Project in Durango in 2009, which is responsible for the whimsically painted dumpsters depicting surreal scenes that can be spotted around town.

“(Street art) has to be a private enterprise because it is not a city-endorsed enterprise,” Greenblatt said.

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She has proposed the idea of dedicating an open wall, much like the Everyday Gas Station wall, for artists to use at will. Muralist Jeff Hamner, who also works for the dumpster project, said there is a lack of advocates who want to paint Durango, but there are plenty of places that can be beautified and restored. Hamner suggests getting businesses on board to donate walls or create community events centered around public art.

But, in order to create those events, one has to dance around the red tape and follow the rules. While street art started as a guerrilla tactic, this art in its purest form is illegal.

“If you can make art without the fear of getting arrested, that’s awesome. There is no shame in that,” Andreatta said. “But, there is something really good about putting art out, regardless of what anyone else says.”

The alleys at the south end of town are mainly where you’ll find a few garages coated with aerosol tagging, and old spray paint peeling off fences.

“It always goes through phases,” Andreatta said. “Every year there is a group of people who get into it.”

The tagging scene here has been consistent, but some disagree, including Greenblatt, that this kind of marking qualifies as art. Others think it’s just an abstract version.

“Myself personally, I would consider tags or stickers part of street art,” Andreatta said.

Pull back from a heavily tagged wall, labeled with the monikers and marks of individual taggers, and the culmination of symbols becomes an abstract mural in itself.

“Art in the alley isn’t hurting anybody. It’s next to dumpsters and grease traps. It’s not taking away from it. It’s adding to it.”

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Street art isn’t just about spray paint, though. Locals may have come across the work of The Lego Bomber, who glues Lego pieces on street signs or windowsills, an abstract Picasso-style face, or the little chickens on dumpsters that have been covered up many times.

Street art is ephemeral in nature, but for graffiti to last more than a couple days, the artist has to channel their inner ninja. A good example of this is the troll under the 32nd Street bridge who comes in the form of the Michelin Man. He has been living above the river for years because the location is to difficult to get to and buff away. Andreatta said he still sees tags by his friends who have moved away years ago.

But where some marks remain, the energy for street art hasn’t, if it ever existed at all.

“With the right reception from the town, it could totally take off,” Andreatta said. “There are a lot of wonderful artists within our community that is (sic) into street art. If that’s something people want, that’s something they can have.”

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