Believe it or not, there’s still room for more murals in the RiNo Art District.
They’ve spread around the district’s territory in the Five Points, Cole, Elyria-Swansea and Globeville neighborhoods, creating a brightly colored and highly photographable environment. And at least some of the area’s transformation into an art exhibit is thanks to CRUSH Walls, an annual event featuring days of live mural-making by local and out-of-town street artists.
(Since we assume you’re asking, yes, CRUSH is an acronym. It stands for Creative Rituals Under Social Harmony.)
This year, the festival that started as a grassroots event organized by local artists is going international. Founder Robin Munro last year gave the reigns to the RiNo Art District, who this year brought in Carlo De Luca of Montreal’s Station 16 Gallery to take the helm as executive director. Under his leadership, CRUSH is tripling in size in 2018, expanding across 30 blocks and incorporating sculpture, photography, film screenings, live artist battles, workshops, art talks, print launches and guided tours of the art. Around 80 artists are involved, with the large collection of locals joined by the likes of Shepard Fairey, UK duo Nomad Clan, Spain’s PichiAvo and Montreal’s Laurence Vallières, who builds large animal sculptures out of recycled material.
CRUSH’s abrupt growth is a signal that outsiders are taking notice of Denver’s art scene, and that the RiNo Art District is positioning itself on a bigger stage.
“As we have worked with the founders of CRUSH to bring it under RiNo’s umbrella, we try to stay true to the original values, which were about local art, community and creating access for all. Every event is totally free and open to the public,” said Jamie Giellis, president of the RiNo Art District. “So certainly we look at this event as first and foremost a way to create a platform for exposure for local artists, but definitely to continue to promote RiNo as a destination in the city for creative activity.”
The art district became one big gallery. And outsiders are taking notice.
The RiNo Art District was just a few years old when CRUSH started nine years ago. Since then — spoiler alert — the neighborhoods the district calls home have wildly changed. What was once a lightly trafficked industrial pocket of Denver is now teeming with new businesses, new buildings and new people. Artists who once lived there cheaply or rent-free have been pushed out by development and skyrocketing rent, though some have hung on to see success and drawn creative businesses to the area.
And all the while, the district was becoming a free, open-air art gallery.
Large-scale murals and small-scale street art seem to cover every available surface. Wander the area and you’ll see work by dozens of artists, local and non-local. (Take a scroll through the RiNo Art District location tag on Instagram and you’ll find endless mural-backdropped portraits.) Street artists have always found good canvases in the blocks and blocks of boxy buildings. CRUSH catalyzed that and turned the creation of murals into an attraction.
The event has been so successful that the RiNo Art District Board invested just under $300,000 in it this year and was able to fundraise the rest of the money needed to put on the event, which Giellis said tripled in budget to match its tripling in size. They found De Luca and Station 16 through the Zeppelin family, who’ve worked with them in the past and mentioned the gallery’s experience as a partner in the Montreal Mural Festival. (That’s not the only wall-based art festival Denver has in common with Montreal. Our Side Stories festival is based on a similar program in the Canadian city.) There were other candidates, but De Luca and his team of 20 were chosen to run what Giellis said is now the art district’s signature event.
“Relaunching CRUSH Walls has been a fantastic opportunity, and that’s down to the already-thriving art scene that’s grown here thanks to the determination of some of the country’s best street artists,” Munro said in a statement. “As they’ve worked across their own increasingly ambitious projects within the district, it’s not only created a deeper sense of community and connection within RiNo, but has also highlighted Denver’s own unique potential.”
The growth of CRUSH is great news for local businesses, too, who participate and see crowds from the event. For Denver Graffiti Tour, it means fresh interest from potential customers and fresh art to tour.
The tours started back in May, inspired by the owners’ trip to Bogota, Colombia, where they took a similar street art tour. To put on the tours, they’ve interviewed more than 30 artists whose work can be found in the RiNo Art District. They’ve reached out to all of them, co-owner Erin Spradlin said, but some never reply and some don’t want to discuss their work. It’s a fun and easy way for locals or tourists to learn about Denver art.
They are, of course, acutely aware of what they’re really touring.
“I think one thing we’ve noticed is that the art is really beautiful and it’s super exciting to see big-time artists coming into Denver, but with that there’s a lot of gentrification and housing affordability issues,” Spradlin said. “So we try to talk about the art in the context of Denver as a growing city. In many ways it’s awesome and in many ways it’s not awesome.”
She’s also aware that some might see the tours as a contributing factor to gentrification or a symptom of it.
“We think the most respectful way to respect that is to address it,” she said. “It’s beautiful, it’s exciting that it’s here, but it’s not good for everyone.”
Denver Grafitti Tour also gives back, she said — 5.28 (yep, 5280 reference) percent of proceeds goes to local arts organizations.
Gentrification is always a looming issue for the RiNo Art District, of course, and during CRUSH the team is careful to keep things local. The event can draw an out-of-town or even out-of-country crowd, but as Giellis said, it stays free and stays focused on the locals. Every single artist, local or not, will receive a stipend and have their materials covered, De Luca said. And the idea is that finding a bigger patronage for Denver’s outdoor art gallery will help the local scene.
“We came in this year to try and bring CRUSH Walls to an international level so it could help spotlight the Denver local artists — bring in some international artists to shine a spotlight on Denver,” De Luca said. “That’s how people discover local artists.”
What’s new this year:
Because it’s gotten so much bigger, CRUSH is going to be much more carefully organized.
“We we curating this year … it wasn’t just ‘grab your cans and go paint.’ It was really thought out where [it would be] and how it would look,” De Luca said. “We’re keeping the history of what was there, we’re just going to build around it.”
“The big change, of course, is having major artists like Shepard Fairey,” he added. “They’re coming from Portugal, Spain, the West Coast here in the United States, two artists are here from Canada, and we also have artists coming in from Mexico. To have them all in 30 blocks for those seven days is going to be awesome. It’s like having rock stars here.”
There’s a lot more happening this year, in addition to the live mural creation the event is based upon. Here are a few of the events happening Sept. 3-9 that the art districting is highlighting:
- Opening party – Sept. 4 at the Juxtapoz Clubhouse at B-SPOT, from 7 to 10 p.m., featuring Grandoozy artists
- Secret Walls – An unparalleled live illustration battle where two teams of artists have 90 minutes to paint their walls against the pressure of the clock, at a secret location to be announced
- BYOB – Bring Your Own Beamer event – in collaboration with Supernova Digital Animation Festival: participating artists will project their digital artworks in alleyways
- The immersive art installation Juxtapoz Clubhouse – The first edition of Juxtapoz Clubhouse to take place outside of the Art Basel, Miami circuit: a massive and immersive art installation, including live performances and site-specific works by high-profile and emerging urban artists.
- Vauxhall Screenings – Held in the theater hall of The Ramble Hotel in RiNo, a two-night film screening highlighting street art culture and social practices in urban art throughout the world.
- Denver Bazaar Arts Fest – In partnership with Red Wolf Collective: gallery pop-ups, exhibiting artists, live mural painting and street art demonstration hosted by Red Wolf Gallery at Boozhall RiNo
- Zine Art Fair at The Source – Come print your own Zine Experience workshop with a small print shop
- Denver Orbit Pop-up Story Booth – Pop-up booth by the award-winning magazine, featuring voices, stories and music from Colorado’s creative community, and recording station to tell one’s story – at Zeppelin Station.
- Outdoor Stencil and Chalk Spray Workshop – Held in collaboration with the Denver Public Library, children from all ages will be offered the chance to express their creativity in a Chalk Spray and Stencil Workshop
- Literary Crawl Denver – A tour of literary landmarks and thought-provoking talks held across numerous venues in the city, the literary crawl is held in conjunction with At The Inkwell, Lighthouse Writers Workshop, the FBomb, Mile-High MFA (Regis University), Tethered by Letters, Colorado Humanities and BookBar.
There’s also going to be a mini-skate park set up at Zeppelin Station throughout the festival, with a skate deck exhibition curated by Jean-Claude G/Raud of France. Art talks in collaboration with the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver will be happening throughout the week, as will limited-edition print releases. And, notably, CRUSH will have the first edition of Juxtapoz Clubhouse ever outside of Art Basel, Miami. The massive, immersive art installation will offer live performances and site-specific pieces. Plus: De Luca says one of the artists, whose name is being kept secret, will be DJing a party. (We bet you can guess.)
CRUSH is also involving more RiNo businesses in 2018.
“The focus this year was to try and make sure that all arts-related businesses and merchants have an opportunity in CRUSH this year,” De Luca said. “You want it to empower the community, which is not only local artists, but the merchants, the developers — the whole community.”
His team reached out to every art district gallery, and Giellis said they “made a focused effort this year to look at how we incorporate the creative businesses … while keeping the street art at the heart of it.”
“The artist community has said to us, ‘We love what you do at CRUSH and it’s great that you support street artists, but what about all the other creative venues here?’ And I think it’s a really valid point.”
You can probably expect to see more people out there, though it’s hard to know when no tickets are sold.
“I think we’re definitely anticipating more people,” Giellis said. “Last year, particularly on the weekend days, we would see 15,000-20,000 people per day coming through the district. I expect at least that and significantly more this year given the exposure and the number of artists involved and the promotion that’s happened. We’ve been talking to some folks who’ve reached out and said they are coming to town.”
Everyone involved will be watching and learning throughout the week, taking notes for next year. It’ll be CRUSH’s 10th year, Giellis said, “I expect we’ll start planning that on Sept. 10.”