Look down virtually any of the alleyways in the East side and Bessemer areas of Pueblo and at various locations downtown and in the business district, and you can find some form of street art. Pueblo is regarded nationally as a street art capital, and it’s no secret why. For one, Pueblo is home to many members of the high-profile Creatures Crew – a muralist/graffiti artists group that host collaborators and fellow artists from around the country. You can find some of their work gracing the walls behind The Klamm Shell in Bessemer, or the alleyway outside of Shamrock Brewing Co.
In 2015, local muralist Mathew Taylor hosted The High Desert Mural Fest here in Pueblo. And along the Arkansas River levee used to be the longest mural in the world as officially declared by the Guinness Book of World Records. The mural ran for three miles along the levee up until around four years ago, when the City of Pueblo announced that a nearly $15 million construction project to address repairs to the levee would mean the destruction of the beloved mural that had been around since the 1970s. Efforts were made to preserve parts of the mural, but it ceases to maintain its world-record status.
Other recognizable murals in Pueblo include a large brown bear surrounded by flowers in the Central Plaza area (painted by Taylor and co artist Michael Strescino), the famous faces depicted outside the Pirate’s Cove, a horse stuck in a tree down on Main Street (that was actually commissioned by the city to commemorate the flood of 1921) and many others ranging from simple to more abstract designs. Some of these designs cross into graffiti territory, but retain an obvious component of artistry that keeps people of the community and city officials from calling for their removal.
Therein lies a point of debate surrounding the street art movement in Pueblo. When is street art considered vandalism? Where do we draw the line between approved artistic expression and illegal tagging?
Taylor is firm in his belief that legal graffiti art murals deter the practice of illegal graffiti tagging. In his perspective, the artistic drive that goes into composing a mural commands a certain degree of respect. Tagging for the sake of staking a territorial claim is distinguishably less driven by artistic vision and marked by its hurried or moreover careless appearance. Thus completed murals tend not to be vandalized by gang-related tagging in his experience. In theory then, the more areas that are covered by graffiti art murals mean the less areas that are covered in plain-old graffiti. But are we saying then that as long as graffiti resembles art, it’s acceptable? And who decides what constitutes graffiti as art or eyesore?
The answer to that question may be the community. Let us consider again the Arkansas River levee mural. It began as a spontaneous act of illegal vandalism by trespassing street artists in the ‘70s. No one permitted them to paint the infamous image of a fish in a bathtub that grew to become the world-record long showcase of Pueblo’s budding street art culture. And had the project not gone on to eventually gain national attention, the conversation could have quickly turned from one of pride in that culture to the issue of defacing public property. When many graffiti art projects likewise work within a grey area between legal and illegal, it again begs the question: where do we draw the line?
Take the recently developed mural in the Gateway Park area of the Riverwalk: that mural (sponsored by Kaiser Permanente) is one of three in the state that is part of an effort by local artists to encourage the people of Colorado to end the stigma surrounding depression and mental health. Yes this particular project is an example of a legally sanctioned graffiti art mural, but that doesn’t change that it is also an example of how these artists’ work originates from a place of pure intention. So what then is a little trespassing if it means the liberation of a dedicated artist’s passion by contributing to a living work of art that speaks to a noble cause – an experience that very well may transcend that of seeing their work on display in a traditional gallery?
For Taylor and fellow local graffiti artists and muralists, their work stands for something more than personal legacy. It seems to me that their work does much to preserve a large part of Pueblo’s diverse culture as well as tell the story of our colorful history. The street art movement in Pueblo is rooted in strengthening our sense of community and showcasing our surplus of local talent with the added plus of improving our city’s aesthetic. Besides, if not a mural then what appeal do many of the rotting cracked concrete walls that serve as these artists’ canvases really have? Perhaps the reason Pueblo so widely embraces its street art culture is as simple as that: it gives us character.