Taking it to the street
A neon traffic cone, laced with street grime. A rusting gas meter. A dilapidated building.
These items aren’t obviously beautiful and probably don’t invite conversation or debate. But in the mind of the street artist, these serve as a canvas.
This is what artist Frank Kwiatkowski finds so captivating about street art.
Kwiatkowski, 37, is a man of stocky build and tattooed limbs. Sporting a worn T-shirt, baseball cap and long rust-colored beard that only grows along the underside of his jaw, he is an intimidating man who makes mundane objects beautiful.
Kwiatkowski started poaching traffic cones in 1999 for his projects and has been using them as templates for posters ever since. Splicing open a carefully chosen cone along its length, he rolls it open and begins to carve his images. His weapon of choice? A linoleum cutting tool.
Once the template has been shaved and the shapes have been formed, he inks the surface. He presses paper to it, and the image he carved is mirrored on the poster. He most often returns his work to the public place from where it came, replacing the cones with his posters on nearby telephone poles or electrical boxes, usually in the downtown Denver area.
Returning his work to the streets doesn’t exactly make up for the traffic cones he’s stolen. He’s been caught only once, which resulted in him paying a fine.
Kwiatkowski is fascinated by the impact that street art has had throughout history. “Anytime you have activities out on the street, it opens people up to meeting different types of people. It’s good for there to be a dialogue.”
But does it serve a purpose?
A Denver street artist who goes by the pseudonym Theo of uni Studios sees the purpose of his art differently. Theo stenciled Jack Kerouac’s face in places in Denver where Kerouac had spent time.
Theo described the thrill of the movement of his hands, and watching a work take form, knowing that he’s fulfilling the talents he was given.
“I don’t intend to convey any messages with my art,” Theo said. “I’m not campaigning against or fighting for any single cause apart from just one: There are too many objects in this world that aren’t much to look at.”
Where most artists differ is the purpose of what they do. For some, like Theo, creating art means making something more subjectively beautiful. For other artists, the reason to create a work is to share a message. For some, it’s both.
Kalyn Heffernan rolls up to the corner of 44th and Tennyson in Denver. She’s a small woman with bright eyes and a fierce passion for social justice. For Heffernan, street art is important aesthetically and politically.
“It’s so revolutionary because it cuts out galleries and politics, because a baby and a grandma are probably going to walk by it on the same day,” Heffernan said.
It’s the idea that everyone owns a public space, and you have the right to say what you want in public.
Except that you don’t own it: Someone else does. And Denver bans it.
Art vs. graffiti
The lines separating street art from graffiti are blurred because both are often illegal, Terrance Roberts, founder of the Prodigal Son Initiative, said: “Street art leads to urban development and beautifying an area. Graffiti leads to urban decay.”
Graffiti or “tagging” is more often, but not always, associated with gangs or crews who want to get their name out there or deface someone else’s property. It’s this kind of “art” the city of Denver spends more than $50,000 a year cleaning up and trying to prevent.
The Graffiti Task Force and Urban Arts Fund work closely together, said Mary Valdez, the city of Denver public art coordinator. Urban Arts Fund keeps in contact with several local muralists who are responsible for obtaining permission to work in local graffiti “hot spots.”
“The artists are so involved in the community. We let the artist direct the space,” said Valdez.
Urban Arts Fund also seeks to educate. Money is allocated to educational programs for at-risk youth about art and graffiti. Local artists meet with a group of kids for one- to six-week programs, during which youths learn about the negative impact of graffiti and how to practice their artistic skills productively.
Art for the taking
Denver artist Matt Scobey thinks a lot about graffiti and street art.
“Graffiti has its roots in marketing. It can be kind of obsessive and usually done by people who are maladjusted, honestly,” Scobey said. Scobey, who has shown work in several galleries and in the Denver Art Museum, has turned his questioning about the purpose of art into action: In his project “Not for Sale,” he places art in public spaces for people to take.
Every few months, Scobey has taken several of his latest works and arranged them in a public “gallery” — a parking lot or other open space — and posted a sign inviting people to take what they find beautiful. Then he leaves. At his last Not for Sale, held after one of his showings at the Denver Art Museum, all 35 of his works were gone within the hour.
“It’s teaching me to let it go, to give my work away and divorce value from it,” Scobey said.
An international street art venture called “Inside Out Project” attempts to strengthen communities through modifications to public space. It was started by a street artist from France named JR, who printed large-scale black-and-white photos of people’s faces and pasted them on the walls of buildings.
Turning his own personal project international, JR built a website and invited people from all over the world to join him. Anyone can send in black- and-white photos, and a few weeks later they will receive the posters in the mail, ready to paste. JR’s statement on insideoutproject.net explains, “People who often live with the bare minimum discover something absolutely unnecessary. … Some elderly women become models for a day; some kids turn into artists for a week. In the art scene, there is no stage to separate the actors from the spectators.”
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