Across the country, cities are embracing graffiti art as a tool of urban revitalization, often in places like Detroit, where the form took root long before it became mainstream.
Pueblo's graffiti roots may not run as deep, but they're significant, particularly for a small city. That heritage is what 33-year-old Mathew Taylor knows will draw graf writers and muralists from across the country to participate in the inaugural High Desert Mural Fest this month.
The Pueblo native has traveled a good deal to paint around the world, which he began doing after becoming a professional illustrator at age 18.
At 15, Taylor would trespass onto the railyards behind Pueblo's Union Depot to check out the rolling canvas of train cars painted by artists from all points nationwide, including El Mac, whose name was coming up from Phoenix at the time.
"I'd go crawl around through there and see all my favorite artists," Taylor says. "Super famous artists filled this whole yard."
That was in the '90s, Taylor says, when "kids went crazy in Pueblo, spray painting everything," including virtually every exterior surface of local schools. "It was ruthless."
A gang culture developed around the tagging, too. But there was a silver lining inside the rough scene: Talented and serious artists emerged, as well.
"Instead of being like, 'yo, I'm a gangster,' they're like, 'I became a graffiti artist out of that culture and rose up out of it." And today, he says, "Pueblo embraces graffiti art."
Members of the nationally regarded Creatures Crew call Pueblo home and regularly host crew members and collaborators from around the country who come to paint.
Several Creatures walls provide the backdrop to PBS' "Music Voyager: Sun City" episode, which was filmed last year and features interviews with crew members.
Adding to the city's reputation as a muralist's destination is the Pueblo Levee Mural Project, which began to take shape in the 1970s around the downtown portion of the Arkansas River levee when a group of artists illegally painted the first mural. In the decades since, the now-sanctioned mural has grown to more than three miles in length.
(The fate of that art remains foremost in many residents' minds as the levee undergoes construction today.)
What's more, a permit was recently obtained to paint a city crosswalk, and various local government and nonprofit organizations have thrown support behind the High Desert Mural Fest, including financial donations.
Taylor has arranged for artists to fly in, with many murals expected to be complete by month's end, in addition to works along approximately six blocks of buildings, many empty, accessible via downtown alleyways primed for painting.
Seeking approval, Taylor says all of the building owners "were like, 'you mean that fucked up wall behind the abandoned building? Go ahead.' Not one person I asked said no. 'Cuz either way they get a new paint job on their broken-ass building."
Call it irony, but legal graffiti art murals actually deter illegal vandalism, he argues, with other taggers and artists being "pretty respectful" in Pueblo, Taylor says.
"I've never had any of my murals vandalized," he adds.
"The city will come paint a gray square for someone to do it again, or you can put up a mural and then that won't happen anymore."
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