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 are 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.
Jaime & Pedro
Despite the fact that Pedro Barrios and Jaime Molina don’t consider themselves such, they’re some of the most well-known street artists in the Denver scene right now. These painters carved their beginnings in the fine arts, both becoming well-known in galleries in the city, yet they’ve found a huge demand for their work in the public sphere. This mural-making duo has left their mark all around Denver in the past six months and they’re showing no signs of slowing down.
Jaime (left) and Pedro (right)
Can you tell me a little bit about each of you individually and how you got into what you’re doing?
Jaime: I’ve been into art ever since I was little, I was always drawing and stuff. I went to college for fine art—I got a BFA with an emphasis in print-making. I came into street art from living in Buenos Aires, Argentina, because it’s just so popular there. I had a friend whose mom had an apartment there and he offered to let me live in it. My wife and I, and our daughter, who was four at the time, moved down there. That kind of art is just so accessible there. You can paint everywhere you want. They’re not super cool with illegal graffiti, but they love murals. You can knock on a door and ask if you can paint on someone’s wall and everyone will say yes.
Pedro: I was also into art as a kid, I always wanted to paint and draw. As far as street art, I went backpacking through Europe when I was 18; when street art was just evolving. I was in London, and I saw this book as I was walking by a store. The book was about street art. I bought the book, and as I was traveling, I started finding all these artists that were in the book. When I got to Amsterdam, there was this group of artists called The London Police, who were in the book. They were doing a piece on a building down there. I ended up hanging out with them for the rest of my stay. I came back very energized. As far as me painting murals, there was a company that saw my work at a gallery and asked me to paint for them. I asked Jaime if he would paint it with me and now we’ve snowballed to where we are today.
Do you guys do the majority of your work together?
Jaime: Yeah I’d say so. We’ve each done some separate stuff, but the majority of our work has been together.
How did you meet each other?
Pedro: I used to live in Vail in the wintertime. As I came down to Denver every once in awhile, I would stop by this shop called The 400, which was a sneaker store/art gallery and I came across Jaime’s work and I loved it from the very beginning. One of my friends I was with that day had gone to highschool with him, so he told me all about him. I didn’t meet him for a long time, but I knew about his work for months before I met him.
Jaime: Same, I knew his work before I met him. I saw it at Crema actually. My wife and I both loved his stuff. I finally met him at my going away party before Argentina, actually. We traded pieces; he brought a piece, and I brought one and told me to call him when I got back. Shortly after I came back, we did a mural together for New Belgium.
Can you tell me a little about the similarities and differences between your aesthetics?
Pedro: We were just talking about this the other day. As far as our work is concerned, I think my style can be very tight, and Jaime’s is more loose in some ways. So I think we kind of push each other in a lot of different directions. We make each other uncomfortable, and it’s very exciting. It’s not something I get in my personal work.
Jaime: I think it’s good in that we compensate for each other’s skillsets. Things that I don’t do or am not good at, Pedro can do. He can draw these super-precise patterns, and my work is a little sloppier, but it adds balance. It’s clean and precise combined with organic and loose, and it makes for a balanced composition. It’s striking. It’s hard to do that as one artist because you usually lean one way or the other, so it works for us.
Pedro: As far as color palette, we were already working with the same colors to a certain degree, so that clicked. We can go to the paint store and both of us grab the same colors without talking to each other.
What colors do you lean toward?
Pedro: It depends on the piece; we make the works specific to the site. We don’t draw it beforehand. We see the wall and get inspiration from the architecture and surroundings.
Jaime: I’d say the current piece we’re doing is the most muted. We always use bright colors; we’re not afraid of color or mixing color. But the one we’re doing now is three grays and an espresso brown and some light pink and green. The building we’re working with is very structured, and we wanted the palette to fit with that. It’s an apartment building. To me, when I named my kids, I didn’t want just to think of a name and slap it on them you know? I wanted to see them and know them and figure out who they were. It’s the same with our pieces.
What do you think of the street art world in Denver right now?
Jaime: I feel like I’m pretty isolated from it. I live out in the ‘burbs in Lakewood, so I come down to paint and then I go back home. There’s not a lot of street art in Lakewood. I know people in the scene and it’s a fun community, and I’m blessed to be a part of it, but I don’t always know who is doing what. Location-wise I am on the outside a little bit.
Do you guys stay pretty busy with murals?
Jaime: Luckily yeah, we had a really good summer. We did our first piece in April for New Belgium, and we’ve got a lot of work since then.
What do you do outside of mural painting?
Jaime: I make art full-time as of April. I used to do construction, and now I’m doing art construction instead of home construction. I also have two kids, which is a lot of work as well
Would you say Denver has a particular aesthetic?
Pedro: I don’t think I’ve lived in Denver long enough to know, but if I had to say, I’d say it’s still trying to figure itself out. With all the changes that are happening in this city on a day-to-day basis, I think it’s coming up and gaining its identity but I don’t think there’s a specific style yet.
Jaime: I don’t see a style or anything we’re known for. I’ve been in cities that do have a style that’s from there. I think anymore it’s hard because that stuff used to develop before the internet and information didn’t move very fast so things would get very isolated and evolve that way. I just don’t think there are many places that are incredibly unique, and everybody knows that style is specific to a certain place, I don’t think it applies. Denver doesn’t have anything like that.
Are you happy with the culture of street art right now?
Pedro: I don’t think we’re submerged in that culture. I mean I am in it in two different ways — from the gallery perspective and the painting perspective, but I still don’t feel like I am part of it. The gallery doesn’t show street art. We’re more muralists than street artists anyway; I wouldn't call what we do street art. Our paintings are on a different level, and they’re very reminiscent of our gallery work. They’re very labor intensive.
Jaime: When I think of street artists, to me, I define it as pretty much just street art. They have their thing; they do as much as they can, and they travel and do it in other places. Pedro and I do studio work — that’s where we both started. The mural stuff is more happenstance. We both fell in love with the process and audience, but I don’t picture myself as a street artist. I do work on the street, and I love it and that’s the easiest thing for people to label it, but I don’t identify with that term.
Can you tell me more about your process?
Pedro: Our collaborative process is pretty useless. We show up to see the wall, and we’ll meet somewhere to come up with a concept. We don’t have any paper or writing utensils or ideas or… anything. So we borrow paper from the bartender or a napkin. Borrow a pen from the person next to me.
Jaime: Yeah we usually drink beer and talk about it. We’re always like “I thought you were coming with the sketchbook.”
Pedro: As far as our collaborative process, it just works. Either Jaime or I will have an overall concept idea or something that will evolve to a concept idea, and sometimes he takes the reins as far as the visuals go. The drawing part of the murals is so easy and fun. It takes no time whatsoever.
Jaime: The skull piece at Rebel— I didn’t have any ideas for that and Pedro mentioned maybe it would be cool to do some roosters. It’s a long wall where we can do a lot of color. It evolved, we got rid of the roosters; they looked like they were fighting and that didn’t work for a restaurant. So we moved to skulls. We were each going to do our own skull. When we mocked it up, we’d each have our own stamp. In the end, it looked better visually just to have his design though and then I could add my stuff around that. That’s the collaborative thing: you don’t always have to have your specific image there, it’s more about what does the piece need? Visually what looks the best? Your ego doesn’t have to be front and center — you can just do what’s best for the piece.
That makes sense. You’re much more like a team than two artists who work together.
Pedro: Yeah, Jaime is one of my favorite artists in the world. So that constantly inspires and pushes me to try new things. I come from a side of being open and willing to try different things. In my studio work, I really wouldn’t do that as much. Usually you have a set deadline, and you have to sell the piece and you can’t experiment very often. The murals give me room for that — they let me be vulnerable.
Jaime: It’s the same for me: we have a deep admiration and respect for one another as friends and artists. But then our approach is like a band you know, you have 3-5 musicians, you can’t all be soloing at the same time. Everybody has their part and has room to shine if you all work together, or it’s going to sound like crap, all muddled. I think a part of it comes from being really good friends too, you know? We’re not just business partners.
Did you guys ever have to go through a period of finding walls? Or did that just happen organically?
Pedro: We’ve had to find walls because someone wants to sponsor us and then we have to find the wall, but we’ve never had to go looking for painting jobs.
Jaime: That’s a crazy fluke thing, that’s not how it normally is. We just got lucky, and our work was unique enough and the climate of Denver was right. It was totally the right place at the right time. Other cities might not have this level of demand for what we do.
Pedro: It’s been word of mouth, we don’t have websites and we are putting our names up. It’s been incredible that people have found us. It helps us too, in the end. The people who find us went through the trouble of finding us — so they’re going to let us do our thing.
Jaime: That’s another thing we’ve been blessed with. We’ve had really good clients who let us do our thing and trust us to do what we do. They don’t tell us what to do. They just want us to do what we’re good at.
You’ve both talked about your fine art backgrounds. What do you guys do?
Jaime: I have been doing a lot of sculpture work the past few years, just because I love it. It’s fun and challenging. 3D stuff takes a little engineering—paintings and drawings are so direct, but to build things, it takes a little more thought for me. People seem to respond to it. I also do traditional paintings too. I use acrylic and latex paint on wood. We use latex because it’s so inexpensive and it’s super opaque and covers well and it lays flat.
Is using latex difficult? Did you have to learn new techniques or a new process?
Pedro: With every mural I’ve been learning new techniques, personally. Every time I show up to a wall I feel like I’ve never painted a mural before. Even getting the image up on the wall has been hard. We’ve never actually had a projector that’s worked. Everything has been a learning experience through every process. Are we going to use chalk or charcoal or how are we going to get this on the wall?
Jaime: Yeah it’s crazy. Every one of our pieces is so different. People can recognize our pieces, and they know it’s a Jaime/Pedro, even though it’s not the same composition as the previous ones.
Is there anything you’d like to add?
Jaime: Well, Pedro falls off ladders a lot. At least three times a day when we’re painting. I’ve sent him ladder tutorials, doesn’t work.
Pedro: Yeah, I hate ladders. I think the big thing for me is that there is this interaction component to painting murals that you don’t get when you’re in the studio or a gallery. You get to interact with the public. In a gallery, people don’t see you making the work, they don’t know you’re the artist. To me, what street art has done, is that it’s made art accessible to the public again. At one point, galleries and art had this connotation of being abstract and intimidating and street art has brought art back down to the public level, because of the interaction.
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