Ravi Zupa meets me at his Denver studio with a package wrapped in brown paper.
"I don’t want to get shot by the police as I walk home," Zupa says. "Because it’s a very real looking firearm.”
The 38-year-old artist pulls out a sculpture that mimics a submachine gun from World War II. The piece looks very realistic, like all the works in Zupa's "Mightier Than" series. They even prompted a call in November to the Englewood Police Department from someone who saw art handlers packing up some of the guns. The caller thought they were real.
But Zupa’s guns don’t shoot.
“The main components are typewriter components," he said. "I’ll take apart a typewriter and paw through that pile and find pieces that seem appropriate.”
Typewriter rollers act as the barrels. Zupa turns other antique parts into sights and muzzles. He uses stapler guns for the triggers and the grips on his assault rifles and machine guns.
A new show of Zupa’s latest work opens at Black Book Gallery in Denver on Saturday and runs through April 9.
The title of the series comes from the old adage: “The pen is mightier than the sword.”
Zupa says he doesn’t own any guns. He’s shot a couple in the mountains -- a .22 caliber rifle and a 9 millimeter pistol. But it’s something else that guides how he builds his sculptures.
“The main thrust of all of my art comes from looking at books,” Zupa said.
He has everything from a gun almanac to books on anatomy and art history on a shelf in his studio. He studies them. And they inspire his art.
“I do genuinely think that words are far more powerful than guns are, both in the kinds of damage that words can do and the kinds of positive improvement words can do,” he said.
Zupa’s love for books stems from his childhood. He grew up in Littleton, Colorado. His father died before he was born. So his mother raised him and his siblings. She had a fascination with cultures and myths from around the world. And she filled the house with books and art supplies.
“It was just really comfortable, natural part of life," he said. "There was no sort of separation between us and art.”
As a kid, Zupa drew a lot. His mother taught elementary school art classes. And she not only pushed her young son to create, she did so critically.
“She’ll kind of look at children’s art with a really critical eye sort of in the same that way she’ll look at any classical master,” Zupa said.
Zupa says he didn’t like high school because he knew he wanted to be an artist. So he dropped out and got his GED. Then at 21, he moved to San Francisco for his first job as an artist. He drew animations for TV commercials, which trained him to be precise, but the work offered little variety.
"Animation is precisely the opposite of that," Zupa said. "It’s just the simplest, same drawing hundreds of times. It just really wasn’t interesting to me."
So Zupa quit and moved back to Denver. And he kept drawing things he loved, from animals dressed as renaissance characters to samurai to Aztec imagery.
“He understands that there are different ways to do things and there are different beliefs and let’s check all of them out,” Black Book Gallery co-owner Tom Horne said.
That includes controversial topics like religion and gun rights. And it’s the “Mightier Than” series that have drawn the most attention. Some viewers are shocked. Others are impressed. Horn said buyers include CNN anchor Anderson Cooper and hip hop artist Swizz Beatz.
The sculptures have come a long way since Zupa’s first in 2007. They started as pieces of larger installations and props in videos. He says he didn’t realize their poetic potential until later.
In 2013, renowned street artist Shepard Fairey displayed Zupa’s work in his Los Angeles gallery. That included a big sculpture resembling the Hindu god Shiva. It had six arms, and one held a gun sculpture.
“That particular show was sort of an awakening that it could be its own thing and it could stand alone,” Zupa said.
Zupa’s early guns used parts from cars, vacuums and sewing machines. But with typewriters, he can convey a stronger message and play off his love for words, he said.
Zupa doesn’t take a side when it comes to the gun control debate. But he does want to spark conversation around this complex issue.
“I do like to argue and get at the heart of ideas,” Zupa said.
The artist has shown his work in galleries in Mexico City, London and Denmark. In the future, he wants to take his art to other places -- like Japan and India -- that have inspired his collages, paintings and drawings.
After all, Zupa won’t be defined solely by the "Mightier Than" sculpture series, Horne of Black Book Gallery said.
“He’d stop doing that all together if it was either do these or don’t do anything,” he said.