Denver’s River North neighborhood built its reputation on art, and nothing helped to make its name more than Crush Walls, the annual street art event that grew from an underground happening hatched by a group of local graffiti artists to a big-budget mural festival taken over and amplified by the quasi-government agency known as the RiNo Art District.
It was a legendary affair in this city and beyond.
The fest is part of RiNo history now — done in by factors ranging from over-corporatization to the coronavirus pandemic, to sexual assault allegations against founder Robin Munro (who has denied the claims) — but its legacy lives on in a new event called Art RiNo, set for Sept. 5-11 on the streets of the downtown district.
Like Crush, the new incarnation will feature murals. But, like RiNo overall, where a rush of development has wrought major changes and metamorphic gentrification, this fest will be different than in the past.
RiNo Art District executive director Tracy Weil describes it as “not a mural festival but a festival that includes murals.”
Which is to say people can still go to watch artists paint the sides of buildings over the course of a week, though there will be fewer of them. At its height, Weil noted, Crush produced nearly 100 murals created by artists who were invited from around the world to paint. This year, six artists are featured.
The focus will be on a more rounded definition of “art.” The event will include Luminade, a three-night, light-based festival within the festival, and Art RiNo will coincide with the Westword Music Showcase, set for Sept. 9-10 in and around the neighborhood’s Mission Ballroom venue.
Put together, it’s not necessarily a smaller event, but it will likely attract a crowd different than the folks who showed up in the past for edgy, urban art.
Like the kids who will come for the craft-friendly Camp RiNo. Or the sports fans who will come for a street-closing, pop-up party sponsored by the Colorado Rapids, which includes such attractions as lucha libre wrestling and a live viewing party for the soccer team’s match against Vancouver on Sept. 10.
And it’s difficult to know who will be drawn to the light fest, though it promises to be a flashy, family-friendly spectacle. Lumina is produced by the tech-savvy IRL Art and features such artists as Bild, Mr. Hanimal, DAS, Tuke and other names. The public can expect immersive light installations, along with music, performance and more.
Art RiNo will also be a chance for folks to check out the new RiNo Art Park, which has been developed with support from the city of Denver and includes public artworks, galleries and other attractions. An event called Picnic in the Park, with live music, vendors and food trucks, is on the schedule for Sept. 9.
As for the invited muralists, the emphasis is mostly on local creators.
“In the past, there was an unfair balance between locals and out-of-towners,” said Alex Pangburn, a Denver muralist who programmed the participants this year. “And we want to support local artists.”
Five of the six call this region home, and because they work here, their murals (if not their names) may be familiar to fest visitors: Yazz, SpeakS, Patrick Kane McGregor, Koco Collab and The Obanoth. Styles range from afro-futurism to animal portraiture.
The invited guest is the artist Smug, who is from Scotland. He is something of a superstar in the mural-making community, known for his hyper-realistic portraits of everyday people that cover the sides of large buildings scattered around the world. His pieces capture every nook and wrinkle of the human face enlarged to massive proportions.
Smug has painted in Denver before, Pangburn said, as a guest of RiNo in 2020, but his piece was covered up, a fate inflicted on a lot of the city’s street art. This time he will make his mark, on a building on 33rd Street, between Blake and Walnut streets. The effort will be hard to miss, at 50 feet tall and 17 feet wide.
“He is really very community-oriented,” said Pangburn. “And, hopefully, this one will stick around forever.”
Community-oriented matters with a mural fest, because they tend to be spectator events as people show up to see the pieces progress over time and often chat with the artists while they work. Some artists are open to that more than others.
This year, the painting starts on Labor Day and continues until each work is done. There is no specific time to show up, but a few drop-in visits to RiNo over the course of the first days of fest will serve as an education on how murals are conceived and executed.
There may be less art than in the past, but it’s still big art, and there will be plenty to go around. And — sticking to tradition — it’s all free.
IF YOU GO
Art RiNo runs Sept. 5-11 in the RiNo Art District. Info, schedules, maps and more at artrino.org.