Guerilla Gardening with Jolt, Denver Street Artist Deluxe
This is a story about a graffiti artist. A graffiti artist who, by his own admission, has found various additional outlets for his talent. He’s done commercial work, he’s been commissioned to create massive public murals and he paints fine art pieces. He’s curated art shows, run a gallery, started his own studio and founded a clothing line.
Make no mistake, though, he’s still a graffiti artist. “A lot of people think I’ve graduated from graffiti artist to ‘real’ artist,” says Jeremy Ulibarri, a.k.a. Jolt. “It couldn’t be further from that. My career has grown in so many directions along the way, but I’m just doing art — and as much as possible. With all the different avenues, I’ve just bought my time to do exactly what I want to do.”
If you had the chance to ask Jolt exactly what that is, he’d probably answer simply: More graffiti. But his thoughtful eyes and slight grin betray that unassuming response. As do a couple fellow artists who work from Jolt’s GuerillaGarden studio
who inform me before he arrives for our sit-down that he’s been “working like crazy.”
Jolt’s passion for what is considered by many merely street art at best, and outright vandalism at worst, is undeniable and unwavering. And even with all of his mainstream success, it remains a cornerstone of both his work and identity.
“You can still drive through the city and see my gorillas” — distinctive gorilla faces, typically green, are Jolt’s calling card — “and it still represents something very street to people and something that people who buy my fine art are perceived to be afraid of,” he says. “I don’t really even want to change that image. If you’re scared of graffiti, cool. If you don’t get it, if you’re that close minded, stay away.”Gorillas are Jolt’s “calling card.”
That sentiment is genuine. Jolt grew up in North Denver, honing his craft at the pre-renovation Flour Mill Lofts building and a water refinery plant in Globeville, and he’s unapologetic — downright proud — of his spray-can-infused youth.
“Those were the places that were accessible from my neighborhood,” he says. “A 15-story graffiti canvas and a chemical yard where we ran wild and painted. You don’t find that just anywhere, and it really nurtured a great graffiti scene.”
Changing and Creating
Ultimately, it also nurtured a local painter who loves the city and believes art can make it a better place. On the surface, Jolt’s GuerillaGarden is a large studio space located at 38th and Steele in a brick industrial complex. With thousands of open square feet, hundreds of paint cans strewn about and countless tools and supplies collected on shelves and disorderly desks, it’s the epitome of an urban workshop. GuerillaGarden, though, is a philosophy, too.
“It’s about changing the environment and creating growth,” Jolt says. “Instead of going against the environment, using graffiti — using public art — to improve it.”
Sure, the improvements started with adding colorful characters and mesmerizing designs to a drab and abandoned building in the middle of the night, but Jolt has no need to keep those kinds of “work” hours now. “Other than that’s about the only time I can do it,” he laughs. “Running the business, being a single father … I’ve got a lot going on.”
Today, when Jolt sees a wall that seems to be in need of a facelift, he simply talks to the owner. “I show them what I do and a lot of the time they’re cool with it,” he says. “Sometimes they recognize my work, but more often they recognize that I’m offering them their own piece of public art — and that that’s a worthwhile thing.”
And according to Jolt, Denver’s public art definitely deserves some national recognition. “These bigger than life, crazy pieces, like the blue bear and the horse at the airport, they are amazing,” he says. “The fact that the city supported David Choe to come in and do a mural at the Denver Performing Arts Complex is awesome. The city takes some chances and does some really bold stuff.”
Sometimes the city participates in a bit of its own guerrilla gardening, too. Jolt routinely writes grants to fund painting projects on habitually graffitied walls. “We research how much money they’re spending to cover it up, because if we paint it, there’s a good chance it won’t be graffitied again. It’s a great argument because they’re saving money and time, and adding to the public art scene.”
To date, Jolt’s biggest contribution (literally) to the local public art scene is “La Alma de la Mariposa,” which graces the side of Tapiz at Mariposa, the apartment complex at 1099 Osage, just north of the 10th and Osage Light Rail station. It’s a mammoth, 5,000-square-foot, eight-story-tall mural that was commissioned by the Denver Housing Authority.
The work embodies the idea of GuerillaGarden. “La Alma de la Mariposa” not only beautifies the overall structure, improving the environment, but Jolt hopes it will also create growth by inspiring tomorrow’s artists, the kids in the neighborhood and on the passing trains who see it every day and decide they want to create.
This story originally appeared in Confluence Denver here.