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Wall flowers no more 

Graffiti emerges from under bridges, even making its way into the Fine Arts Center

click to enlarge In 2010, El Mac (right) and Fuse collaborated on the Springs' "graffiti warehouse," visible from I-25. - MATTHEW SCHNIPER
  • Matthew Schniper
  • In 2010, El Mac (right) and Fuse collaborated on the Springs' "graffiti warehouse," visible from I-25.

Larry Masters, who paints as Fuse, now lives in Colorado Springs, but the Aerosol Exalted co-exhibitor has spent three decades immersed in graffiti.

Fuse grew up in Los Angeles and first saw graffiti when he was a teenager in the mid-1980s. Inspired by the exciting colors and the newness of the art form, he was determined to learn how to spray paint. With no Internet or social media at his disposal, Fuse ventured to the "gritty, grimy places" in L.A. to find the people doing graffiti. Underneath freeway bridges, he watched other artists and slowly developed an understanding of the technique.

Eventually, he helped form one of the largest and most influential graffiti crews in the world, AWR/MSK. Through his connections to globally renowned artists El Mac and Retna, Fuse was instrumental in bringing Aerosol Exalted to the FAC.

Indy: How is graffiti generally received in Colorado?

Fuse: I moved to Colorado in 1993, and I believe I was the first graffiti artist to actually paint in Colorado Springs. Back then it was very difficult here. People would scream at me when I was painting a mural: "I'm gonna call the cops!" It was considered a crime back then ... because there weren't legal walls to paint, there weren't accessible places. Now, business owners are finally relaxing, there's more community involvement, and more support for people that want to do it.

So in Colorado and especially in places like Denver, where [graffiti] has been happening now for decades, the scene has grown to the point where people — it's crazy — but people are actually flying from L.A. out to Denver because it's actually much easier to get permission in Denver. So the scene here in Colorado is actually pretty awesome, and it feels good to know that I can live here and now I can actually do it legitimately and not have to stress about getting arrested if I don't have a physical permission slip on me. So it's really changed here, and I think that's because so many people have moved here from big cities and the [people here] are familiar with it, and it's become part of the culture.

Can you talk about graffiti crews?

Crews are basically just a group of friends that collaborate together. There's a misconception that graffiti crews are gangs, but they're not. They are the same guys who go to — we used to call them "paint yards" — places we'd go together just to stay safe.

There's many facets to a crew, but one of the facets is you all watch out for each other. [Since you had to paint] illegally, you had cops, you had gangs, you had crews that were more like gangs than artists. Then you had vigilantes, people that took it upon themselves to regulate. So you could be doing an illegal wall and somebody out of the blue who just hated graffiti with a fiery passion ... would try to make your life hell. So at that point nobody was on your side but your crew.

Graffiti has largely been synonymous with "illegal." What drives the need to create artwork illegally? How has that changed since you started?

Wow, that's a loaded question. Basically, I would say now there's ample opportunity to avoid having to paint graffiti illegally but there's something to be said for doing — and I don't advocate illegal graffiti, I'm not saying that — but there is something to be said for going to an old abandoned building or something that's been discarded by society and beautifying it. That really drew me in especially, going to a place like underneath a freeway tunnel that normally is just blank walls, but we go in there and we create a piece of artwork that is going to stay there for awhile.

I think in that whole surrounding area of decay, there's something beautiful that comes out of that. I think that was the allure to me. I can go into these bad neighborhoods or an alleyway or drainage culvert and there's this masterpiece of artwork. That made it that much more beautiful that I didn't have to go into an art gallery, which I couldn't do at that age anyway. It was accessible and that was the beauty of it. It didn't matter what neighborhood, rich or poor. The fact that it was accessible to everybody. That was the allure.

click to enlarge More than just a name on a wall: Fuse highlights the elaborate nature of graffiti typography. - COURTESY FUSE
  • Courtesy Fuse
  • More than just a name on a wall: Fuse highlights the elaborate nature of graffiti typography.

Do you think that has changed? You said now there's ample opportunity to avoid painting illegally.

Yeah, especially in bigger cities. North Denver is a good example where businesses like Epic Brewery ... are giving their walls over to the artists. There are city blocks that are dedicated to this art form. So it's great, it's like the galleries have exploded open to the streets and there's public art everywhere and I think that's amazing. I never thought I'd see that day. It used to be so suppressed and people hated [graffiti] but I think that resentment only furthered the cause. And that's what kept me doing it for so long, the fact that it was so vilified, to me made it that much [more interesting]. I'm like, "it's art, so why does it have to have such a negative connotation?"

Now I understand that tagging and all that, which unfortunately comes with it, but I think we have to make a distinction.

There's definitely a difference between tagging a wall and doing a masterpiece. And my experience growing up was that most people couldn't separate those boundaries.

And how do they separate the boundaries now?

I think by legitimizing the art form like the FAC is doing. Pulling the art into the galleries and into the museums and making it accessible, not only to young people, but to everyone. So the fact that establishments like the FAC are willing to open their doors to street artists is a huge testimony that it's come this far. It's become popularized, which is good and bad, in my opinion. But at the same time, I think it's great that we're able to get into places that 20 years ago it would have been unimaginable.

This does seem a little outside the box for the FAC.

I think it's exciting and it is out of the box. I think a lot of us have a healthy respect for a lot of the shows that have been there ... we appreciate fine art, too. We're not a bunch of vandals running around with spray paint trying to write on people's property, you know. I started when I was 14, I'm 42 and we've gained a knowledge and an appreciation of fine arts and now those two worlds are colliding and 20 years from now, who knows what it's going to look like.

You've said you wanted to turn the typically negative reaction to graffiti into a positive one. Do you feel like you've achieved that?

Maybe in a small portion, possibly. I don't know if that's ever going to be achieved. But at the same time, if [graffiti] is ever completely socially acceptable I think it might lose part of its appeal. I think the thing that still drives it is that people still hate it, for whatever reason. Maybe it's my inner rebel, but that makes me more drawn to it. So there are people that absolutely hate it and I don't understand why ... but I'm not trying to convert everybody to it.

All we're trying to do is expose people to that culture that aren't normally exposed to it, especially at the FAC. It's going to be really interesting to see what the reaction is going to be. I'm excited to be at the forefront.

  • Graffiti emerges from under bridges, even making its way into the Fine Arts Center

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