There’s a shop on Broadway where graffitists and street artists can meet and mingle, shop and learn, develop their skill without judgment and view an ever-changing flow of graffiti murals from their mentors and peers. On paper, Community Service, as the place is so cleverly named, is a street wear and art supply store. To its patrons however, Community service is their friendly neighborhood graffiti shop.
Like Community Service co-owner Bryan Cappel, most of the people who frequent this haven are more than just your average vandals. They see graffiti as a creative outlet: another medium for them to hone their skill and create something beautiful.
“It’s an art form to us and to other people its vandalism,” Cappel said. “The line is always going to be changing depending on who you’re asking.”
True enough; graffiti has translated negatively onto the general public for many decades, seen by many as nothing more than the defacement and destruction of property.
Recently however, there has been an influx of positivity stemming from the commercialization of graffiti by the media and its slow acceptance as an art form amongst scholars and their academic communities.
But the commercial success of graffiti is just the tip of the iceberg for pro-graffiti Denverites pushing to erase the negative connotations that remain. The fact is, while some may see a beautiful work of art, there are still those who will only see crime and violence.
Through the promotion of legal graffiti, Brittany Duncan, co-founder of Bacchus Community Events, is hoping to change those people’s minds.
“Vandalism is graffiti with no art conceptual design,” Duncan said. “Just chicken scratch on walls. And even good art is vandalism without approval from building owners.”
Co-worker Sean Montgomery agrees.
“If I replicated the Sistine Chapel on the front of your house it would be vandalism,” Montgomery said, “a work of art, but vandalism none the less.”
The goal is to deter young graffitists from being vandals and instead teach them to be artists.
Due to its rich history and artistic values, graffiti is used as an educational and inspirational tool in many urban community and youth outreach programs. Bacchus sponsors these types of programs in Denver and stands by the value it brings to the children and their neighborhoods.
“That’s what I’m fighting for!” Duncan said, “I’m working with all the youngsters trying to teach them how to do it legal and make money as professional architectural artists.”
Community Service has been involved in several education opportunities as well.
“We’ve gotten involved with schools out here and their art programs,” employee Cappel said. “They’ve done field trips and have students come out here and really learn technique as far as using aerosol and that as an art form in itself.”
In addition to education, many believe that creating more legal walls will help those both inside and outside of the graffiti scene.
Therefore, while the city of Denver will probably always have their fair share of problems with the graffiti culture, there are those like Duncan, fighting to form a basic level of understanding between city officials and legitimate street artists that would allow for them to coexist. Legal street art is just one of the collaborative efforts in development as a result of their hard work.
But graffiti has been an expensive problem for city governments for decades, and no matter how quick the cleanup or how many the fines and citations, illegal graffiti continues to rise, leading some to believe that the decriminalization of street art is to blame. According to Denver Public Works, there has been an average of more than 1,400 graffiti abatement requests a month in 2013, an increase of over 30 percent from 2012.
And unfortunately, since there is no evidence to support a relationship between designated walls and a decrease in graffiti vandalism, efforts for more legal walls seem to be futile.
Denver street artists said goodbye to the infamous Jewel St. wall this summer, leaving behind the last remaining legal wall in the state of Colorado.
“We had the Jewel wall just down the street [from Community Service], that recently changed, but as of right now, really the only legal wall is up in Boulder,” Cappel said. “But if we had more spots where people could have that outlet, I think that could change a lot.”
A recent article in The New York Times suggests that the disappearance of these legal walls is not just localized to Denver. New York City has been experiencing a slow depletion of their infamous graffiti galleries over the last couple of years, the most recent of which was the sudden whitewash of 5pointz in Queens in mid-November.
The New York Times article states, “The gradual loss of these walls has street artists wondering where they — especially younger, less established artists — will be able to paint.”
Luckily, in Denver, private-property owners can authorize graffiti on their buildings without any input from the city, allowing pro-graffitists to share their building canvases with those who no longer have a public space to paint or view local street art.
“Once the property owner authorizes it, from our standpoint it is no longer illegal,” Denver Public Works spokeswoman, Daelene Mix, said.
Community Service has collaborated with local and national graffitists to create a new mural on their shop building’s back wall several times a year since they first opened.
So while the fight for graffiti acceptance continues, Cappel is happy that he can offer something that the city currently can’t.
“Providing our back wall to have people come out and see a huge mural that’s constantly changing…even that helps out a lot,” he said.
To learn more about Community Service, watch the interview with co-owner Bryan Cappel below.