In Denver alleyway, a piece of graffiti evolves
At the beginning of June, in an alley, I came across a guy on a ladder painting a picture onto a long white wall.
Nearby, a younger guy stood next to a crate full of cans of spray paint, watching. He told me that the guy on the ladder was Gamma, and he was Gamma’s apprentice.
My wife has been leading walking tours of Denver’s street art, and through her I knew Gamma’s work. I told him I’d seen his stuff around town, and I admired it. He came down the ladder and shook my hand. He looked at what he had painted and compared it with a photo, of a man holding his head in his hands. Gamma said this piece would be about a man who had the weight of the world on his shoulders, who was stressed out by the problems all around us.
“What about you?” Gamma asked. “What keeps you up at night?”
My mind, of course, went blank. I struggled, managed to say, “Um. Global warming?”
“Yeah,” Gamma said. “That will definitely be a part of it.”
He said he would be working on it for a few days, so I made sure to walk past the spot from time to time. A few days later, further down the wall, a floating image appeared of Barack Obama, drinking bottled water, and George W. Bush, eating corn.
As the days passed, the piece began to take the form of a triptych. In the left panel, the man holding his head in his hands was painted over with horizontal bands of bright color.
In the center panel, a mysterious figure appeared above the two presidents. To the left flew a drone, to the right a farmer walked a parched field, and below the presidents, within the darkness of their suits, riot police battled.
Meanwhile, in the right panel, a rocket blasted off between a man in a hazmat suit carrying a flame thrower and a rough sketch of a girl.
Nothing happened for a week or more after that. Then, the center panel changed. The mysterious figure over the presidents was painted over with a portrait of an old white guy (I think it is Rupert Murdoch, the media baron). And other images appeared: a man ogling a girl in a bikini with a drink, a pile of pills, cash changing hands. Below the flame thrower flew a giant bee.
Again the piece remained unchanged for a while. It was nearly the end of June when I next noticed that it had been worked on. And it was done.
In the left panel was Gamma’s tag, the title Insomnia, and a new black and white image of a child at a fence. Greater definition had been worked into the image of the man holding his head in his hands, including vicious teeth and brains that seemed to burst through his knuckles (if you looked closely, the folds of pink brain spelled GAMMA).
In the center panel, the drone had been replaced with a figure in an orange prison jumpsuit. A sort of Big Ben tower had been added, and odd, dark little heads hovered in the distance behind Rupert Murdoch.
In the right panel, the figure of the girl was gone. The drone reappeared here, as well as a satellite and an oil rig.
Here’s a thing I began to think about while I watched this process: As a writer, I know how crooked the path of the artistic process can be — in writing a novel, characters and scenes appear, vanish, move, combine, and split while the story finds its own best shape. And I also know that the crooked path sometimes turned into a dead end, the story is a failure. In that case, I put the story away someplace where no one will ever see it. (Really, no one. Not ever.)
Watching Gamma’s transformation of the white wall, I admired the courage of creating in public — not just kind of public, but super public, in bright colors, on a surface the size of a billboard, beside a busy through-street, while fools like myself wander up to snap pictures. For a writer, this looked terrifying. But it is the nature of street art, a public process for a public display. It requires a particular artistic fearlessness, to say: This is my work and my best expression of myself at this moment, and whether it succeeds or fails, whether you like it or not, here it is, all of it, I’m giving everything I can to this, this gift for you.
As for me, I like it. It is political without being overbearing. (Why a bottle of water? Why corn on the cob? I don’t know, but I adore the humanizing, vaguely surreal quality of presidents in the act of ingestion.) It is clever without being sneering. It is gaudy, ambitious, striking, emotional.
It is one heck of a wall.