Artists, organizations find ‘unlikely’ canvases to transform Denver

Denver artist Tommy Nahulu said painting murals is about bringing beauty into the city


Tommy Nahulu can still remember his first mural-style painting, a set of Masonite boards that depicted his classmates at East High School when he graduated in 1978. His art teacher handed him the boards and told him to paint. The mural ended up hanging in the main office at East for the next five years.

“Art just felt like I was wired to do something there,” said Nahulu, who lives in Washington Park and has been painting in Denver for the past several decades.

After he graduated from East, Nahulu began attending the Art Institute of Colorado. He would skateboard to the bars and restaurants where he worked. The owner of Rick’s Café in Cherry Creek asked him to paint the inside of the bar, which Nahulu said was his first paycheck for a mural. (The restaurant closed in 1993 and is now Chopper’s Sports Grill.)

At the time, many murals were painted inside buildings, Nahulu said. There were a lot of hoops to jump through to even try and get permitting to do art outside. But after reading about murals in school, Nahulu knew it was what he wanted to do.

Tracy Weil, co-founder and creative director of the RiNo Art District, which runs the annual Crush Walls event in the River North neighborhood, said the festival’s goal was to bring art from inside buildings outside onto the streets. The festival was started in 2010 and is now one of the largest street art events in the city. This year’s event will be held from Sept. 3-9 in RiNo.

Robin Munro, a street artist in Denver, started Crush Walls with a small group of local artists. Now, the festival draws artists from all over the world.

The event has helped to spark other street art festivals throughout the city, Weil said. “I think Robin was onto something quite early.”

The art district has helped raise about $600,000, half of which will go toward artist stipends. It was important to the RiNo Art District to make sure paying artists was part of the plan, Weil said, because artists help to create the vibrant areas Denverites know and love. Artists should also be able to make a living doing what they love.

“It’s super important to value art,” he said. “We’re trying to change that paradigm: Artists move in and make everything cool and then they can’t afford it anymore.”

Creating for the community

Nahulu’s work can be seen scattered throughout Capitol Hill, from a large butterfly painting he recently completed on the side of a liquor store at 600 E. Sixth Ave. to murals of Jack Kerouac and Johnny Cash on Colfax Avenue.

Many building owners have started to have murals painted on buildings to avoid being tagged by graffiti artists, Nahulu said. He thinks street artists respect other artists work, and that’s why they won’t tag it.

But making art is about more than preventing tagging for Nahulu. He enjoys bringing something beautiful and new into the community. Weil agreed, saying that one factor that makes the Crush festival so successful is its ability to get people to spend more time in art-driven communities.

Kate Barton, vice president of executive office and special projects with the Downtown Denver Partnership (DDP), said the organization also works to create art in the city hoping to bring more people into unused spaces. The DDP is a nonprofit that promotes arts and culture in the city.

“If you can help people reimagine how you use a space through art, it’s a really fun way for people to be able to come together as a community,” she said.

The DDP controls 14 alleys in the core area of downtown, some of which have murals painted in them.

More recently, the DDP launched an installation project, Between Us: The Downtown Denver Alleyways Project. The art pieces can be found in the alleys between Stout and California streets, Champa and Stout streets, Curtis and Champa streets, Market and Larimer streets as well as 14th and 15th streets. Each artist has his or her own alley space and includes Carlos Fresquez, Kelly Monico, Stuart Semple, Joel Swanson and Frankie Toan. The project launched in conjunction with the “Happy City Denver,” an art installation by Semple, which started in May. The alleyway installations will be in place until next May.

“That was rooted in trying to take back control of those spaces, as really dissuading negative behavior,” Barton said. “This next step of alley art really took it to the next level of trying to encourage people to find memorable moments throughout the city in places that are traditionally underutilized.”

The alleys project is part of an art strategy the nonprofit has developed to beautify different areas of the city. In the past the DDP also did an installation where an artist painted hundreds of trees in the Theatre District blue. The organization also painted a large parking garage with a colorful mural on Lincoln Street between East 18th and 19th avenues.

“That is really at the entry point for a lot of people to downtown,” Barton said. “That’s another component, figuring out these unlikely canvases to try and transform (them).”


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