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Can the New Pueblo Levee Retain its Lawless Legacy?

What started as an act of rebellion is now an act of application that will force artists and Pueblo to question who gets to make art on the levee.

When the city of Pueblo announced the start of a large-scale construction project to make necessary repairs to the historic Arkansas river levee over five years ago, the community of artists who contributed to the world record-breaking mural spanning its nearly four-mile length were understandably devastated. The construction meant the destruction of the largest mural in the world since 1995, as noted by the Guinness Book of World Records.

Now that repairs to the levee are finally finished, it appears as though Pueblo is hoping to reinstate its world record-holding status. The Pueblo Conservancy District (PCD) has made an official call for submissions of original mural designs from local artists to be featured on the newly renovated Arkansas river levee. But submissions aren’t without guidelines, applications and fees. And while this may be an exciting opportunity for the artistic community in Pueblo to resurrect what was once the largest continuous work of art in the world, regulations on their contributions diminish the creative spirit that the Pueblo Levee Mural Project was founded on.

There’s no doubt that regulations are to a certain extent necessary. Leaving submissions to the levee mural completely open without any sort of limitation on content consequently leaves the project open to depictions of obscenity, profanity, racism, vulgarity, gang-related tagging, etc. And of course, there has to be some sort of size requirement put in place in order to accommodate the existing space limitations on the levee. But each stipulation that is added to a creative project inhibits the amount of creative freedom available to its constituents, and thus chisels away at the project’s authenticity.

When the Tee Hees (a group of students from then University of Southern Colorado) painted the infamous “Fish in the Bathtub” that was the first installment of what would go on to become the world’s largest mural back in the late ‘70s, painting on the levee was prohibited altogether. The students worked under the cover of night by flashlight, staking lookouts, communicating by whistles, and hopping the train from 4th Street to Union Avenue to escape the cops. No one gave them permission to do this, and they didn’t ask for it. They acted out of pure creative spontaneity, and like all great artists, they started a conversation, which in turn started a movement. What began as an act of so-called illicit activity laid the groundwork for one of Pueblo’s greatest artistic accomplishments to date.

This is what I mean by the spirit of creative authenticity behind not just the Pueblo Levee Mural Project, but Pueblo’s street art culture as a whole: it’s very much grassroots. It is a product of the community. It was a movement that started completely on its own and spread like wildfire that the city knew better than to try and extinguish. By the time it was destroyed, upward of a thousand artists had lent their hands to the levee mural’s expansion. It’s worth noting too that even without a shred of regulation on design and content as the mural was being created, it still did not become just a string of vandalistic graffiti – a fact that speaks to the integrity of our artists here in Pueblo when left to their own devices.

Now the city wants to bring back the levee mural, but only on their terms. Under the guise of newfound support for local artists, the PCD’s true intention seems to be to exert creative control over a project they had virtually nothing to do with in the first place, and lack the proper credentials to be doing so now. Well-known local artist and muralist, Mathew Taylor, has unfortunately been met with censorship at the hands of the PCD already.

Taylor was awarded a grant through the Colorado Department of Health to paint a community mural dealing with themes of mental health for the city of Pueblo that he felt the levee would make a suitable canvas for. He submitted an application including a detailed plan of how the mural was to be executed and met with the board on multiple occasions to secure permission, and was ultimately and abruptly denied on the grounds that his design – which depicted a person in meditation surrounded by uplifting words of encouragement – was “too religious.”

It’s surprising that such a well-known artist, whose work decorates this entire city, was denied access to paint on the new levee mural. “For this new board that was not a part of the levee mural in the first place to be able to have some kind of say on something that was originally artist-driven, and to try and take over that process, and within their takeover, inhibit our freedom of speech and freedom of expression is just totally unacceptable.” said Taylor.

Requiring a $100 fee of artists and imposing regulations on what is and isn’t permitted to appear on the new mural is a far cry from the original mural’s lawless roots, and isn’t consistent with the mural’s legacy in this community. “They’re definitely not honoring that tradition and honoring what that mural once was,” said Tayor, “It goes beyond just artists, it’s the whole community being affected.” The Pueblo levee mural was more than just an interesting focal point, it represented an unprecedented collaboration of artists and community members that gained world renown without intervention by the local government. To revive that sort of legacy will take more than an impersonal permitting process.

This isn’t so much to discourage artists from submitting their designs to be featured on the renewed mural. Despite its flaws, the project is still a major development in Pueblo’s otherwise stagnant creative activity; a joining of the seams of this community’s past and future generations of artists. But more so to point out that the creative freedom out of which the Pueblo Levee Mural Project was born isn’t of the same degree it will be moving forward.

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