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Arts & Life

Artists Find Platform, Release In Protest Art During Denver Demonstrations

In the midst of protests throughout Downtown Denver, graffiti artist Hiero Veiga added detail to the petals of a rose on the side of a storefront off busy Colfax Avenue. He and muralist Thomas "Detour" Evans are painting a portrait of George Floyd. Two weeks ago, Floyd was killed by a police officer in Minneapolis, sparking outrage across the country.

Against a backdrop that has seen property damaged during protests and police shooting tear gas and rubber bullets, the bright colors making up Floyd's serene gaze alongside the delicate flowers are a kind of respite.

"The time is really harsh so I think it's fitting to go soft right now," Veiga said. "To be a little more compassionate right now so I'm painting that way … as opposed to cutting hard lines. I'm smoothing things out."

And he hopes as people pass by, that they use the image to take a moment and think — something Veiga admitted is hard for many to do right now, himself included. Especially as he works inches from the image that has become so ingrained in the current movement.

"It's painful, to be honest with you," he said. "The whole time it's painful. I didn't want to do one. I told myself I wasn't going to do one. And here I am, planning to do three or four of them — with pride, for sure — but it's not easy."

For Evans, whose distinctive mural portraits have made him one of Denver's best known artists, the artworks are a way to make his voice heard.

"It's actually just good to use art as a way to make change, to galvanize people, to get them motivated," he said. "That's what I do anyway — I'm a full-time artist. But to do that during a tense time I think that's always something that's a little bit more special."

As Evans and Veiga work, drivers honk in appreciation. Over the next few days, they will work on several more murals of black lives lost at the hands of police, including Breonna Taylor and Elijah McClain.

"When people drive by, people of all ages, stopping and looking and talking, that's a good sign for me," Evans said. "To have people really connect with what's happening and everyone knows exactly what the mural is about."

And because art on a wall or a photograph will last long after the final protester goes home, Evans said he sees the protest art that's happening around Denver and around the country as a way to keep the message alive.

Denver photographer Yvens Alex Saintil does, too.

Since the first night of Denver protests more than a week ago, Saintil has been out with his camera, documenting the protests.

AlexSaintil2.jpeg
Yvens Alex Saintil

"I want to use my art, my voice, my platform to advocate and to show what it's like to be black in America," he said.

Saintil's works typically focus on issues of societal injustice and racism, including a series he did on Denver Uber driver Michael Hancock (no relation to Denver's mayor), who was charged for the murder of a passenger. Hancock was found not guilty. Most of his photos are black and white — a nod to the Civil Rights protests of the 1950s and '60s — but Saintil says it was important for him to photograph these protests in full color.

"The rhetoric of 'I don't see color' no longer exists. We have to see color. If we don't, we'll continue to repeat history," he said.

Some of the images are uncomfortable — protesters and law enforcement in a standoff, police deploying tear gas, faces twisted up in rage.

"That is the intention," Saintil said. "People need to be uncomfortable. If you're not uncomfortable (seeing these images) then it's not going to impact you. It's not going to stick."

Exactly how the series "Unrest in Denver" will be exhibited, Saintil isn't sure about yet. Right now, he's still poring over the thousands of images trying to curate them, looking at each through a variety of lenses. As a photographer. As a black man. And as an Army veteran.

It reminded me of my time overseas but this is happening in America. -Yvens Alex Saintil

"Sometimes I feel like, 'Is what I'm doing right? Am I portraying these people the way I should be portraying these people?'" he said. "But every night I go out there, it's always an overwhelming experience. I don't take any of it for granted. Even those days where we're getting tear gassed, and them shooting rubber bullets at us, it reminded me of my time overseas but this is happening in America."

Veiga says artists, like everyone else, must find the path of protest that works for them.

"In order for true change to come, we all must fight the good fight, 'cause eventually it will affect us all whether we see it now or later," he said. "So get out there and do your part, however it is. Maybe it's supporting a black business, supporting a friend of yours … I hear voting works, too, apparently. So, we're going to try our hand at that, too."

KUNC reporter Leigh Paterson contributed to this report.

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