When Billy Schwartz and his brother Michael were bad as kids, their mother would force them to read a chapter from the Bible. They'd have to summarize the passage and whatever lesson they'd learned.
"We had Christianity battered into our heads," says Billy, now 23.
Today, Billy drops "frick" instead of the F-bomb, or "ace-hole" for its anatomical counterpart. He's humble, as is his dress, usually accentuated by a porkpie straw hat.
And when he and his brother bust out the spray-paint cans, they do it legally.
Graffiti art's long been associated with illegality, and for good reason. According to police code enforcement administrator Ken Lewis, the Springs has 27 illegal graffiti crews. They forced the removal of over 18,000 individual tags in 2008, at a cost to taxpayers upward of $40,000.
In Denver, the scene is much more intense. Its Metro Area Graffiti Task Force recently posted the names of more than 130 suspected crews online. Just for painting in rival territory, Billy says, "they'll straight-up roll up on you with clubs — they've killed people."
But that's the ugly side of this hip-hop element. When you step into Phantom Canyon Brewing Co. and see Billy's first solo show, A Snack After Nap Time, on the first-floor back wall, you'll see the fun, humorous and — dare we label it — fine-art side.
Michael and Billy, better known as "Halo" and "Hint," respectively, run halodezign.com, a graphic and Web design business, out of their homes by (mid)day. Most people know the brothers from their involvement in the West Side Tattoo mural on Colorado Avenue and 21st Street, but their client list includes schools, businesses and even the government and military.
Halo, now 32, rebelled against his devout upbringing at 18 by joining the Air Force. It was in San Angelo, Texas, that he met up with other graffiti artists, who, ironically, brought him back to religion; they formed a Christian-based crew called Daystar Tribe, which Hint later joined. (Hint also runs with a group called Creatures Crew, out of Pueblo.)
Hint, who doodled Disney characters through school and got serious at 16, says Halo influenced his artistic evolution. But a few years ago, several friends told him that his and Halo's work looked the same. It was up to the younger brother to innovate.
One way to do that proved to be through healthy challenge. Eight of A Snack After Nap Time's 23 canvases and two skate decks feature co-artists, including Halo, local coffee-as-medium painter Leo Vihildo Rivera and Focus One, co-founder of local B-boy crew Soul Mechanics.
"If I wasn't working on a lot with Focus," for one, says Hint, "I wouldn't have put so much effort in. I wanted him to go, 'Oh shoot, that's sick!'"
For a follow-up show in May that will hang in Kansas City, Hint has slated 12 co-conspirators. Sometimes the collaborations start with one artist tagging his name in the bold (and often hard to decipher) text characteristic of illegal wall signatures. The second artist will then work around the script, adding, in Hint's case, a bird, bear or some other animal.
In a piece called "Eye Candy," Halo painted a recurring character, a large elephant, atop a neon-bright bubblegum-and-lime-green spray-painted background. In the fore, Hint placed a leering giraffe, his favorite animal muse, with a grotesquely long tongue snaking toward blue cotton candy full of glossy eyeballs on a stick.
Hint's work speaks to themes like being yourself and putting your ego in check — departures, again, from the more gangster side of larger cities' graffiti culture.
"Everything we draw about is a joke," says Hint. "It's us acting like we're wannabe hardcore, because that's all we're around, is wannabe hardcore people. So we feed off that and play it off as a joke."
Envy and lust
The only subjects outweighing wildly proportioned animals are even more wildly proportioned monsters. Hint's drawn to them for basically the same reason he was drawn to graffiti.
"I loved the fact that an 'H' doesn't have to look like an 'H.' You can make the letters how you envision. If you're supposed to paint a bunny, you have to have a little nose, two eyes, two big ears ... but with monsters, if I want to have one eye on the top of his head, I can do it. I can do whatever I want with a monster. Essentially, it's my own creation. That's what monsters are, they're people's creations."
The monsters star in a vibrant Seven Deadly Sins series, a highlight to the Phantom show. Showing a mastery of space and composition, Hint plays off his characters' busyness by balancing the toothy, gaping mouths and enormous, shiny eyeballs with strategic negative space.
In each of the 1-by-2-foot canvases, the sins are wildly exaggerated and "PG'd" by Hint's humor. In "Gluttony," a pinkish, two-headed blob wearing an "I beat anorexia" T-shirt gorges himself from dumpsters while a scrawny house cat looks on pleadingly. (Study the graffiti on one dumpster for a playful jab at one of Hint's local rivals.) "Pride," which looks cheery enough to hang in a nursery, shows a horn-backed purple monster so full of ego, says Hint, that he's hooked up to an air compressor that's inflating balloons, which drift through the panel.
"The Seven Deadly Sins really knocked my socks off," says OpticalReverb curator Jason Zacharias, who brought the show to Phantom after seeing its one-night-only debut at Blondie's earlier in December. "I was really drawn to his work because of its energy."
Hint maintains graffiti's spontaneity on canvas, although he often transfers his creatures from paper, then uses paint markers and acrylics. Atop the spray-painted background, the creatures pop, adding depth.
"Everything I do, I try to make as loud as I possibly can," he says. "The color has gotta be screaming off the canvas. Everything's gotta be irritating the eye."
And to those in the graffiti scene who might be irritated with his in-bounds approach, he has only one thing to say.
"I'd rather be legal and good, than illegal and suck ace-hole."