From spray to acrylic, stencil to freestyle, legal and not-so-much, Denver’s urban art scene is erupting. Over the past few years, Denver residents have seen what was once considered a fairly low-brow community rise and take ownership of the streets. There are murals and pieces showing up on walls daily, some commissioned by the city itself, some privately and some not commissioned at all. This urban art scene is alive and well, thanks to a growing base of painters and shifting public views. What was once considered destructive is slowly becoming artwork: the city and its local businesses are wanting their walls painted, and a community of rising Denver stars is all making it happen. We’ve met up with some of the city’s most interesting painters in various realms of the street art scene to talk about their art and the state of urban art in Denver
Emit started painting graffiti in the late ‘80s on the East Coast. When he moved to Denver a few years later, he found a city that was young to the street art world and he quickly became one of the key players in the development of urban art in Colorado. With experience in both the legal and illegal sides of graffiti and mural art, Emit has an insightful view of the culture of graffiti and the development of the art form over time.
Where are you from and what were your early years like in the graffiti world?
I grew up in Connecticut, right outside of New York. I became involved with skateboarding and BMX and the hardcore music scenes. Eventually, I met other kids that were from the city and they introduced me to graffiti. I was also introduced to a couple of books that were the only graffiti publications you could get at the time: “Spraycan Art” and “Subway Art.” For people in the ‘80s and ‘90s, they were the Bibles of graffiti. These books were the only place you could read about graffiti and see people painting and documenting what had been going on. My friends and I tried to emulate those books and eventually started driving into various parts of the city to see graffiti first hand. We took pictures of everything we saw when we walked train lines and found tunnels and bridges. This was 1989 and happened in the Bronx, which was the founding epicenter of the art form.
At that time, the highways were lined with graffiti, which has all since been eradicated. A lot of the stuff you saw on the highways was what people consider straight graffiti bombing; two colors, bubble letters, and fill-ins. Once you got to the train lines, especially the commuter lines, the bridges in the area were like art galleries. All the pieces lined up; it was elaborate. Most of the pieces were done at night, and all of them were done illegally. That’s how everybody learned: in the dark and by repetition.
One of the big things back in the day was stealing paint: as a kid you couldn’t afford it and graffiti was being done in the inner city. It’s typically not a bunch of rich people painting graffiti. At some point, I was able to buy paint, but it was a stigma. You were a real writer if you stole paint and if someone wrote over you, you wrote back. In comparison to what is considered street art now, it used to be such a process and such a risk to get anywhere.
I’ve heard about graffiti artists working with mentors. Can you tell me a little about that?
In some of the early traditions of graffiti, especially in the ‘70s subway graffiti, there were strong mentor relationships between an experienced graffiti writer and an inexperienced one. Whether it was an older brother, older friend, whoever, they gave you a name and styles to practice. You would go with them, and they would teach you how the different caps worked and they’d have you fill in their piece to help them do their work so that you could gain experience before you went and scribbled and made a mess. That way when you finally did your own piece, you were already at a level where you had experience and knew what you were doing. You didn’t just jump into it blind. When I started in ‘89, no one did that for me. So my first few months were really really bad.
Eventually I met experienced New York guys, and I was like “whoa how did you get those lines like that, are you using tape?” and they were like “no, these kind of caps spray a nicer line” and they started teaching me can control. It’s like learning any other kind of painting: you learn how to control the brush, and you can learn how to control a can of paint. Without seeing it done first though, it just didn’t click.
Did you ever get involved with any crews at that time?
I had a best friend at the time that I considered my “bombing partner.” It’s not something you want to do by yourself. We met other people and developed crews... As it grew, we did more, and I met more people in New York. You start striving to get into a more well-known crew. There are crews that you’re looking up to, and you’ve seen their work and you’re magnetized to them. Even in the early ‘90s, there was so much mystery behind all of it because you didn’t know anybody. All you saw were hundreds of names, and you didn’t know who they were or what they looked like or where they were from. You didn’t know anything. You couldn’t look them up online; the only way to see them was to find their art in the streets.
The art back then was created for other graffiti writers. The public sees it, but the real people that are getting it are other writers. In the city, it was a battle: everyone was trying to out-do each other with who’s got the best pieces and who’s got the best styles and who is up the most. Especially with who is up the most — that was the main goal. Early street art was done by guys like Keith Haring and Basquiat, taking a lesson from graffiti writers and expressing themselves illegally for the general public to see.
When did you come to Denver? What was the difference between Denver and New York?
I came to Denver in 1995. At that time Denver’s graffiti scene was pretty young. New York was 20+ years ahead before smaller cities started doing stuff. There was illegal graffiti in Denver, but there wasn’t a strong movement toward mural art. It was under bridges and hidden, and the city hated it. When I moved here, I immediately tried to get more walls and tried to promote my graffiti writing. I didn’t do it as much as I did in New York City because there wasn’t the drive here. There weren’t hundreds of names up. Denver was way toned down, and they buffed stuff faster, it was a cleaner city. I honestly thought I wasn’t going to paint anymore after leaving New York. When I was painting there, it was like an addiction. It was all that my friends and I did; we lived to go out and paint every night. We stayed out until the sun came up, trying to find every last can we could paint with. When I left that, I just felt like I wouldn’t do it anymore.
But as I met people here, they were way more laid back and friendly and open to ideas outside of the classic New York traditions. In New York, you wouldn’t get the same respect if you broke out of the traditions. Here people gave me respect just for coming from the east coast. People were doing creative things with graffiti and tested out weird ideas, and that became fun. They’d try new styles. I had a piece up in Boulder that was there for 18 years before someone tagged over it. Since then we’ve redone it, but that was cool. It was one of the only murals up in Boulder. Most graffiti is never permanent; you accept that from day one, whenever you paint, especially if it’s illegal — it’s never permanent. You do it and kiss it goodbye; it could be gone the next day.
Could you describe the different kinds of street art?
There are so many types of art, but I think people usually mean graffiti or murals. They’re both like learning how to ride a bike. The street art kid in the city is like a downhill mountain biker — they’re going in full-on. The artist getting legal walls and doing murals — they’re more like a beach cruiser. They both take time to learn, but one has way more risk than the other. The real roots of street art are focused on illegal art. I always want to call graffiti what it is.
So the distinguishment is more in the content or the legality?
The legality I think. Urban art or street art is an easy term: it’s any art that’s outside of traditional art venues. I don’t mind the term because it’s easy and popular; it makes it easy to have open dialogue with people who might not have been involved in that world. It turns graffiti from being negative to people seeing the artists as talented. There are a lot of well-known street artists who come from a graffiti background. They’ve grown up and are looking for an avenue to make money because they’re talented artists. It’s a natural progression.
Do you consider graffiti art?
That’s tough. Some of the first things I ever painted when I moved here were inspired by the beauty of Colorado: the mountains and the desert. So I started adding scenery as the background and then painted graffiti over it. When you put that all together, it’s art. I think artists might have a different perspective and see it as art, but for some people it’s hard to see graffiti as art.
It’s funny how those perceptions can change when you have the pioneer types of people come through and bring things into the public light. Like Banksy with graffiti. It was such a frowned-upon thing, but then he comes in, and it’s cool to the masses.
Yeah, Shepard Fairey too. It’s timing: they both came into that world during a big transition time in the ‘90s. There were a lot of publications out, the Internet was coming to be and things were seen more on the global level. s artists, they are so smart and creative. It’s much harder now to find a niche like they did because so much has already been done. People say Banksy is not a graffiti artist because he uses clip art and stencils, but he’s still doing it illegally and has a creative message. He has gotten away with it for so long, and that’s part of it. How smart can you be to keep getting over on the man and being prolific? Both of those guys were hanging with graffiti writers, and they used that technique but added a message to it. Graffiti is selfish, you’re just writing your name; these guys were doing something bigger, tapping into a bigger voice. They definitely sparked something.
Can you comment on the way Denver street art has progressed?
I think Denver used to have murals, but they were the Denver Broncos or flowers,that type of thing. There just wasn’t a ton of public art. There have always been muralists and sign painters. Graffiti writers just didn’t get as much exposure, and that’s different now. People are getting legal walls now. I think Denver is a really young city for the street art movement. The coastal cities have more going on there — we’re still catching up. There was a time several years back when the City of Denver was going around cleaning up graffiti. They were finding legal walls with murals and painting over the walls because someone did it with spray paint. They were undeniable pieces of art and the city construed it as negative. The city has stopped doing that now. At that time, there weren’t a lot of studio artists out painting stuff, mostly just graffiti artists. That’s pretty different now.
Would you say the awareness of street art has changed the graffiti world at all? Are kids still getting into graffiti or are they just jumping straight into commissioned murals these days?
Hmm. I heard this rap song the other day, and it was a song from the late ‘80s. The lyric was “there’s a thousand MC’s on the planet Earth” and you’re like… a thousand? Think of how many people do hip-hop music now. A thousand in Denver… I mean that’s the same thing with this movement of urban art. Back then, there were probably a few thousand graffiti artists, and now there are hundreds of thousands. The crazy thing with the graffiti movement is that it’s this huge entity of people all over the world. For instance, a crime syndicate grows and spreads to the cities, and they’re all linked but when the powers that be want to take that down, they go to the top bosses and break down the ladder and pull the system apart. With graffiti, there is no hierarchy. There’s no way to take down one guy and stop the other ten guys he knows from producing illegal graffiti. So it’s a huge group that actually has a lot of power, if they wanted to put a message out, they wouldn’t be shut down.
Like with Shepard Fairey: he made those “Andre the Giant has a posse” stickers, and everywhere he went he would just hand out thousands of stickers and everybody adopted that same thing. They stuck them on skateboards and ramps and buildings, and it spread so fast. It was an organic spread. It was viral without social media.
What’s your advice to anyone wanting to get into street art?
There are always people that are ignorant of the bigger picture and the history. Most of us aren’t going to go down in history as a Picasso; we’re just a stepping stone in this whole movement. If you’ve been influenced by somebody, make sure to let those people know they’ve influenced you and make sure you spread the awareness of who your influences are. Respect the things that the people who came before you have done and then hopefully you can get to a point where you impact people. You’ll inspire others and then someone will come after you and look at you that way. Some people just jump right in and think that everything revolves around them, and they don’t realize the connection to all these other people. If you can realize that connection, that there’s a bigger picture — that’s a good foundation for any artist to have.
A lot of people doing graffiti are a little turned off by the gallery side of the art world because parts of that world are pretentious. A lot of graffiti artists grew up in poorer communities and had a rougher lifestyle. They have a different outlook on it all, but still, the name of the game is respect and paying your dues. If you do that, then there’s nothing to hold you back from growing and getting better. If you’re closed off to everybody else and you’re just a street artist that shows up and uses tape and stencils, but you don’t have any knowledge of why people spray paint or where it came from, you’re kind of shooting yourself in the foot. The more knowledge you have and connections you make in the scene, the more respect you will gain.
I have to ask, what is Emit?
It has no significance. I went through a bunch of graffiti names and never found one that stuck. I picked up a dictionary, started at “A” and flipped the pages looking for words. I got to Emit and read it and liked it. The first few times I went out to paint, I couldn’t even paint the letters and have them balance with my aesthetic. So I’d write another word and then write “by Emit.” If there was a “Graffiti 101” class, one of the things you’d learn is foundations of letters and how letters piece together. Certain letters are just really awkward to flow together. It goes with graphic design — the same principle of kerning in typography. Graffiti artists can see the subtleties in this stuff, for other people it might not be so apparent.
What is your aesthetic?
That’s a good question. I’m known for good, clean sharp lines. People still joke with me about how I paint lines so clean. I’ve always done graphic design, so people comment a lot on my color palettes. I never do anything that’s just full-blown crazy colors, it’s always like muted tones mixed with something bright. I’ve always liked the concept of traditional graffiti, but I try to add more dimension to it: so it would look like you could almost grab it off the wall. Then I like to add my own twist of small subtle details and overlapping designs.
What have you been working on lately?
After 25 years of doing this, you get burnt out, and it’s hard to innovate while maintaining a style that people recognize. Last summer, to stay motivated I was taking a lot of photos, and I met some other guys and we took photos of decaying stuff; lots of old abandoned buildings that were left to rot, but with graffiti in them. Every picture I took was of a graffiti piece, but you can see the environment around it. Usually in graffiti photos everything is cropped around the piece and you don’t see the scene. So we took a new angle that incorporated both the environment and the artwork.
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