Crush Walls is back — and it just might make your summer


Crush Walls returns to RiNo this week, scaled back a bit but still promising at least some salvation for a summer of cultural ruin.

It’s a welcome move, but also a logical one and, it must be said, a necessary one for those of us who rely on real, live, local art to stay connected to each other. Nearly everything else that powers Denver’s collective, creative energy — the big concerts at Red Rocks, the art fairs and the food feasts — was obliterated in 2020 because of coronavirus fears. Our best season has been bleak.

But the annual mural fest has advantages over those other events that allow the show to go on. It comes well into the pandemic, after we’ve learned much about how the virus spreads and how to avoid it. At this year’s Crush, everyone will be asked to wear a face covering and keep their mingling to a minimum.

If you go

Crush Walls runs Sept. 14-20 in RiNo. It’s free. Info, bios, schedules and maps on the website at

As for the other major COVID-19 precaution, social distancing, that comes naturally at Crush. The event is traditionally scattered over 30 blocks in the sprawling River North Art District; no one needs to crowd up to enjoy ing the artists paint their walls, which are usually big enough to be seen from afar anyway.

Safety measures will change some things. “High traffic alleyways” at the heart of the festival around 27th and Larimer streets will be shut down to the public at the busiest times. The parties, workshops and indoor events that always accompany the outdoor art-making will be canceled or modified.

One of the joys of Crush — chatting with the muralists informally about their process as they work — will likely be a challenge, too. Artists will have “safety zones” around them to keep spectators at bay. The fest hopes to replace some of that intimacy with simultaneous online offerings that will include live streaming and drone footage of the event.

And Crush, for better or worse, will be counting on everyone gathered to act responsibly. The restaurants, galleries and breweries that define the district’s character will be open to the extent that city rules allow. We’ll see how that works out.

Still, there will be plenty of spray cans emptying over the weeklong fest. More than 50 murals are set to go up, concentrated this year in the Five Points area, with a number of well-known regional and international street artists in the lineup, including stars El Mac, Taste, Max Sansing and Hiero Veiga (commonly known as simply Hiero).

In total, 100 artists will be working at Crush — and that’s no small matter. One of the reasons Crush is staring down the pandemic this year is that it has become a key source of their seasonal income. Every artist gets supplies and cash for participating.

“It was extremely important to make sure we paid artists during these difficult times,” said RiNo Arts District executive director Tracy Weil.

And they work hard for the money. Hiero, for example, will dive into a number of projects, including one collaboration with Bakpak Durden, a multi-disciplinary artist visiting from Detroit, another with Denver’s own up-and-comer Chelsea Lewinsky, plus whatever else he’s inspired to jump into.

“That’s just kind of my thing. I start a week early, go hard, and finish a week after,” he said.

Hiero is best-known for his murals in Miami, though he’s been spending a lot of time in Denver lately. This past summer, he worked alongside local muralist Thomas “Detour” Evans on a “Spray Their Name” series of wall paintings honoring victims of police brutality and violent crimes.

RELATEDWhat’s up with all the new murals popping up around Denver?

Among their projects is a highly visible mural outside of Leon Gallery near 17th and Park avenues depicting Isabella Thallas, who was shot and killed while walking her dog in the Ballpark neighborhood in June.

Hiero is highly regarded for a style that’s still rare in street art: photorealism. He’s able to incorporate astonishing details into his portraits — tiny wrinkles, whiskers, nose hairs — using only spray paint. “I can’t think any other way,” he said.

Each painting is precise and time-consuming, though Hiero says that’s the point of his process. He’s on the better side of a battle with substance abuse and painting is his therapy. “I started doing hyperrealism after I got clean,” he said.

“I need it to be difficult because I need to stay out of my head.”

Like a lot of streets artists, he’s self-taught, aside from taking an occasional line drawing or painting class when he could swing the money. “I never could afford school,” he said.

Instead, he says, he learned to look at people, the “hardened individuals with hardened features,” he encountered growing up outside of Boston in Brockton, Mass., and the more laid-back types he found after a move to Miami. It all influenced his thinking.

So did a few unlikely painters he studied on his own. Among them, Egon Schiele, the Austrian artist known for his moody, heavily lined portraits, and American illustrator Norman Rockwell, famous for capturing the vitality of his subjects.

You can see traces of both artists in his work, and there will be plenty of it on display at Crush as the week unfolds and projects come to fruition. That’s actually the real pleasure at this fest, ing things as they happen. Crush regulars usually go two or three times because things can morph quickly.

For the record, here are three other collaborative projects to look out for: Taste and Aerosol Kingdom at the Granada Fish building (near 24th and Broadway); Miles Toland and Jodie Herrera at American Bonded (27th and Larimer); and Sydney James and Max Sansing at Erico Motorsports (29th and Walnut).

And, just as a reminder, if the potential for mixing with other folks at a popular art festival is a deterrent right now, the works do stay up for awhile. Folks can Crush on their own after the actual event and still catch a lot of great art, for free.

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