Denver isn’t on the fence over political art

Times Staff Writer

Paul Trujillo decided it was time to do something positive and inspiring.

The 16-year-old graffiti artist’s moniker, ERA, was scrawled on retaining walls and in alleyways throughout Denver. But after the Democratic National Convention came here in late August, Paul decided to try something new: He and two friends spray-painted a 26-foot-long mural of Barack Obama along the rear fence of his grandparents’ house.

Now the city is ordering him to get rid of it.

Paul’s artwork includes the word “Vote,” which Denver officials ruled makes it an illegal election sign. The city gave him until Friday to come up with a new design.


“We took our time to do that,” Paul said this week as he stood in his grandparents’ kitchen, “and for someone to just come by and say you can’t have that . . . " He trailed off dejectedly.

Denver permits political signs that are 8 square feet or less to be displayed on private property. “It just doesn’t meet the code as it is,” said Kerry Buckey, an assistant city attorney.

The problem, Buckey said, is that the artwork is clearly political. He cited the two words that flank a black-and-white image of the Democratic presidential nominee on the mural. “It’s pretty clearly promotional when you say ‘Vote Obama.’ ”

Paul’s grandparents, Henry and Esther Vigil, describe themselves as “hard-core Democrats” and say they are proud of their grandson. Their bungalow in a blue-collar Denver neighborhood is crammed with artwork produced by generations of their family, including a son’s sketch of Jesus, pinatas designed by Esther and the intricate needlepoint samplers of the Vigils’ parents.

Paul -- who has grown up in the house -- regularly spray-painted the interior door of his bedroom before graduating to the back fence. He and his friends started displaying their personal logos there to cover up marks left by taggers, but they had never done a project that could be considered politically relevant.

Then early last month, his grandmother suggested he use his talents for something more ambitious.

“I said, ‘I don’t just want words up there, do something artistic,’ ” Esther Vigil said.

Paul said that he and his fellow graffiti artists were inspired by the red, white and blue Obama posters created by guerrilla artist Shepard Fairey.


The focal point of their mural is a portrait of Obama. The background evokes the colors of the American flag.

Paul -- slim and quiet, with piercings in his eyebrows and chin -- said the work was driven by political hope. “We need a change from everything that’s going on,” he said. “We need to get out of war. We need a change from prices all going up.”

Taggers have left the mural untouched. People stop by and take pictures. One visitor was Patricia Calhoun, editor of the alternative weekly Denver Westword, who was writing about how city police had painted over a mural just before the Democratic convention. She asked officials if Paul’s work would count as art. If so, it would qualify for an exemption from Denver’s ordinance under federal law.

But, Buckey said, the mural does not meet the legal standards. So once Calhoun asked them about the work, the city was obligated to cite the Vigils. The couple got a letter ordering them to alter the work or face a $150 fine, which would escalate over time.


The Vigils say they don’t know what to do. “You can’t fight City Hall,” Henry Vigil said. But Tuesday, Buckey hinted at a possible solution.

He noted that the family could appeal the citation to the city’s zoning department. The board responsible, Buckey said, has so many cases in front of it already that any hearing on the mural likely would be delayed until after the election.