At Large  February 22, 2022  Colleen Smith

Denver RiNo Art District: The U.S. Capital of Street Art

RiNo Mural Program. Photo by @nikkiaraephotography.

View of Denver Central Market - Parking Lot featuring work by artists Squid Licker, Adam Vicarel, Ashley Joon, Ladies Fancywork Society, Lindee Zimmer, and MPEK.

RiNo Art District envelops four Denver neighborhoods and features more than 200 murals. As executive director and co-founder of the RiNo Art District Tracy Weil told Art & Object in a telephone interview, AFAR proclaimed the district, ‘Street Art Capital of the U.S.’ in 2019. To back up this claim to fame he adds, “Wynwood Walls in Miami has a lot of murals, but our district is 400 acres, so we have a bigger footprint.”

The murals, which adorn the exteriors of public and private buildings, are more than pretty and they generate pretty pennies. The outdoor gallery transformed neighborhoods once known for their gritty railyards, mucky riverbeds, and some of the world’s worst air pollution. Now, RiNo is a destination that draws visitors.

RiNo Mural Program.

RiNo ARTgateway.

The art district’s logo depicts a rhinoceros, but RiNo is an abbreviation of “River North,” an area of Denver in redevelopment.

“This is primarily an industrial corridor that our district is located in,” explains Weil. “Over the years, our murals helped create a new sense of place for people. The art has driven people to the area. They come and look at the murals. Pretty soon, visitors need a cup of coffee—so a coffee shop pops up. The murals have been a catalyst to drive jobs for artists, to create a sense of place where small businesses can thrive.”

RiNo Mural Program.

Artists Adrienne Norris, Gina Ilczyszyn, and Romelle painting their LaRae Orullian Mural for Womxn's History Month.

The murals are also are political and inclusivity is a keyword. “We focus on a diverse group of local artists and promote BIPOC and LGBT collaborations. We’ve had murals in honor of Native American Heritage Month, Black history, Asian history, and murals about disability empowerment,” says Weil. “We’re supporting groups and giving them opportunities to create work authentic to them and make sure they get paid.”

Denver City Councilman Chris Hinds sees public murals as pragmatic for the Mile High City. “Creating public murals gives new life to otherwise un- or under-utilized areas of our city. It also provides wayfinding and instills a sense of community where there might not historically be community,” he explains via email. “In a city like Denver—full of transplants from other cities, states, and even countries—public art is a way to help transplants feel welcome while also quickly sharing our values.”

RiNo Mural Program.

Artists Valerie Rose and Chloé Duplessis photographed in front of their collaboration for Disability Employment Awareness Month.

The RiNo Mural Program started in 2021, with about twenty-five murals added to the art district and closer to thirty planned for 2022.

“We used to have one big mural event in the district, but feedback was that people like to see the murals spread out throughout the year,” Weil adds. “Now, activations are happening all the time. We created our new program to facilitate monthly installation.”

The mural painters draw an audience. RiNo’s tagline is “Where art is made,” and the mural installations allow visitors to witness the artistic process firsthand.

“The mural program is super helpful, especially for the holidays. People come by to see how it is created. They watch the artist laying it out, and people are talking to the artist, so it’s quite interactive,” Weil says. “Sometimes we have special programing: artist talks or community mural painting days. We did one with Burton [Snowboards] and had a youth collaboration, a mountainous scene.”

RiNo Mural Program.

Mural by Tracy Weil and Drew Myron.

Weil also is a muralist in the RiNo Mural Program. “Our theme for last year was collaboration, and we paired up artists,” he says. “I collaborated with a good friend, Eva Zimmerman, who can make things 3D.”

Weil can attest to the challenges mural artists face. “Height is the biggest thing,” he says. “Translating the concept to larger scale on these surfaces is always tricky. Sometimes it’s corrugated metal or heavy brick.”

Another artist with a mural in RiNo Art District is Diane Allison. She’s known for her large-scale, wheat-pasted photographic murals. Allison, invited to do a mural in 2018, wheat-pasted seventeen of her three-by-four-foot posters on the exterior walls of an architecture firm’s building.

RiNo Mural Program. Photo by @nikkiaraephotography.

Kids Mural Program, run with help from artists Greg Gandy and Shawn Bowman of Two Bee Industries.

“I love the ability to bring large-scale photography to life by pasting in interesting and unexpected spaces” Allison confides. “The subject matter was my typical fare: sunsets, billowing clouds, and macros of nature.” Her goal is an “attempt to bring nature into the city.” The wheat-pasted pictures lasted a few years and, “the patina tells the story of the surrounding environment.”

If a picture tells a story, these murals tell the story of RiNo. Allison was invited back to add a second mural in October 2021.

Weil explains, “We have more than 200 murals, and we’re building on that every year.”

About the Author

Colleen Smith

Colleen Smith is a longtime Denver arts writer and the curator of Art & Object’s Denver Art Showcase.

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