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Street art and graffiti artist Graham Lee poses for a portrait in front of the legal graffiti wall next to the skate park at Scott Carpenter Park on Friday, Jan. 8, 2021, in Boulder, Colo. (Timothy Hurst/Staff Photographer)
Street art and graffiti artist Graham Lee poses for a portrait in front of the legal graffiti wall next to the skate park at Scott Carpenter Park on Friday, Jan. 8, 2021, in Boulder, Colo. (Timothy Hurst/Staff Photographer)
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Editor’s note: This story was updated to reflect the correct spelling of Graham Fee’s surname in the photo caption. 

Those who walked the path along South Boulder Creek in 2020 may have noticed spray-painted messages, calling out everything from classism to direct comments about the police and Boulder City Council members.

According to the city, there were 520 reports of graffiti in 2020, up from 446 in 2019. In Boulder, people can report graffiti through Inquire Boulder, the city’s online customer service portal that allows users to submit issues to the city.

Graffiti is seen on the Boulder Creek Path between 13th and 17th Streets in Boulder on Thursday, Jan. 7, 2021. (Matthew Jonas/Staff Photographer)

For those in Boulder’s transportation and mobility department, graffiti removal is a year-round affair. However, Callie Hayden, Boulder’s transportation maintenance manager, said the city generally sees an uptick when the weather warms, beginning in April or May and extending into the fall.

“Current events that occur locally, nationally or globally can at times cause a temporary uptick as well,” Hayden said.

In a year marked by a global pandemic, social unrest and a contentious election season, it makes sense that tagging increased, according to Leah Brenner Clack, executive director of Street Wise Arts, a Boulder-based nonprofit group that advocates for street art, creates programs based on social justice and diversity and coordinates the city’s mural festival.

“It’s always been immersed with political uprisings or people expressing themselves with what’s going on,” she said. “It’s a form of political protest.”

While recent University of Colorado Boulder graduates Allyson Burbeck and Graham Fee aren’t involved in creating street art at the moment, both studied it. In particular, Burbeck examined the divide between community-based muralism, individually based street art and graffiti.

“Because the creative city requires public art to support, not critique, its surroundings, street art in the name of the creative city bastardizes artistic practices (i.e., graffiti writing and street art) that were created in opposition to capitalism, consumerism and other forces of subordination,” Burbeck wrote in her graduate thesis.

Boulder Bikeways Operation Maintenance Worker Sebastian Puertas paints over graffiti on an underpass on the Bear Creek Path near U.S. 36 in Boulder on Wednesday, Jan. 13, 2021. Reports of graffiti are up this year in Boulder. (Matthew Jonas/Staff Photographer)

Fee acknowledged that many of the people tagging the Boulder Creek Path or Bear Creek Path with anti-establishment rhetoric wouldn’t consider themselves official graffiti artists.

“A lot of the time it’s using the graffiti language as a tool of political dissidence or a tool to speak out,” he said. “It’s very much the same, but it’s different.”

Fee first came to love street art as a high school student growing up in Denver. He found a home in that community. Without graffiti such as the kind Boulder saw more of last year, Fee said he’s not sure public art would be celebrated as it is.

“I’d say they all kind of have to exist as this symbiotic culture together,” Fee said. “Without tags, you don’t have these large, elaborate mural pieces people love.”

“Without that … kind of messaging, I don’t think you end up with these larger pieces of the puzzle that are really embraced by the community,” he added.

Since the 1970s, Boulder has been working to integrate art into its built environment. It never had a unified approach until 2016, when the city office of arts and culture began to oversee it and the city officially updated its public art policy, according to Mandy Vink, who manages the city’s public art program.

“Public art and creative expression really helps humanize a built environment,” Vink said.

The past year illuminated a lot of inequities, she said, and the rise in graffiti likely can be partially explained by that and the fact that people had less opportunity for in-person discourse due to health restrictions and lockdowns.

The relationship between public art, street art and graffiti is an interesting one, Vink noted.

“It’s just fascinating, the ebbs and flows of how these definitions work,” she said. “And maybe that’s the thing: There shouldn’t even be definitions because it’s a response to the time and the place.”

But that doesn’t take away from the fact that graffiti removal puts a strain on city staffers who have to get rid of it, particularly when most departments in 2020 faced budget cuts, layoffs and furloughs due to the financial impact of the coronavirus pandemic.

Dennis Warrington, urban parks manager, said the city has been inundated. Parks and Recreation contracts with a company to remove graffiti, while transportation removes graffiti regularly on its own. The transportation department has a dedicated team that goes out once or twice a week, largelydepending on the weather.

According to Hayden, the process for removal is determined by the size and material used to create the graffiti as well as its location and the type of surface it’s on.

“If water or chemicals are used, then stormwater protection practices have to be used to deter water from the neighboring waterways,” Hayden said.

Some removal methods include sanding, repainting, restaining or pressure washing.

And of course, graffiti is illegal, though Burbeck said that is part of what makes it a draw for those looking to make a political statement.

The Boulder Police Department had 26 reports of “graffiti prohibited” in 2020, according to a records request. Those caught face a $50 fine. Likewise, commercial property owners also face a $50 fine if they fail to remove graffiti put on their property. However, Boulder Police spokesperson Dionne Waugh said a judge can order restitution for the expense incurred by someone who has to remove graffiti.

While many would distinguish between the graffiti that pops up on underpasses and sidewalks in Boulder and commissioned street art, Burbeck said those tagging often see it as a way to reclaim public space for themselves.

Similarly, Fee noted there can be an air of superiority in the art world. It’s often a space one must be let into. With graffiti, there is no barrier to entry, Fee said.

“You need a can of spray paint that costs you $3 or that you steal from a hardware store, and then you can go create whatever you want,” he said.