How Graffiti Artist “Jolt” Preserves Denver’s Urban History
Writer and graffiti artist Jeremy Silas Ulibarri (who goes by the moniker “Jolt”) is a leading figure in Denver’s art community. He carved out a successful career in commercial art as a creative consultant for brands such as Pepsi, Newcastle, Jeep and Adidas. He has since established Guerrilla Garden, a studio that serves as an educational center and hub for emerging artists. In addition, he has been commissioned to create countless public and commercial works around the city as a means to improve communities. He was named one of Westword Magazine’s MasterMinds and curated the magazine’s most recent annual art showcase, Artopia.
For as long as Jolt can remember, he was surrounded by art, and his coming-of-age story as an artist was backed by endless canvases waiting to be brought to life. He was constantly in the company of creative people, most notably his father, who created detailed drawings of classic cars, depictions of Native American life, and made elaborate carvings from animal bones.
He grew up in the North Side and Globeville neighborhoods of Denver, which were communities known for housing activist murals from as far back as the 1960s. Characterized by intersecting highways and looping overpasses—which Denverites lovingly refer to as “the mousetrap,”— Globeville was a poorer part of town, and was once home to the ASARCO smelting plant where heavy metals were refined. “The smelter was still operating while I was there,” Jolt recalled. “You would go outside and be able to taste the toxins in the air.”
While the Globeville of the past may seem like a post-apocalyptic landscape to some, for Jolt and other graffiti artists, it was an outdoor museum, a fertile playground for creating rich, masterful pieces of artistic expression. The area around Globeville proved to be an environment ripe for budding graffiti artists, a subculture that was also fueled by the city’s vibrant hip-hop scene. “Hip-hop culture played a huge part in my community,” Jolt recalled. “There were a lot of B-Boys, MCs, and DJs.” Murals depicting the Chicano movement also had a major influence on his artwork. He pointed out Colorado’s instrumental role in the Chicano movements of the ‘60s and ‘70s, citing the efforts of activists from the Brown Berets and of poet Corky Gonzales.
From the influx of Eastern Europeans in the 19th century to the prevalent Latino population of today, Globeville has long been the immigrant’s neighborhood. However, residents of Globeville are preparing for an inevitable transition, as plans have been ratified to commence an urban renewal project in the community. For Jolt and many other residents who have lived in this community for years, the redevelopment of Globeville raises concerns about the hidden effects of gentrification.
Many of Denver’s neighborhoods have been revitalized, including areas like the River North Arts District (“RiNo”), a hip and industrial neighborhood lined with art galleries, boutique shops and trendy restaurants and brewpubs. While these projects serve to rejuvenate the face of neighborhoods and bring in business, redevelopment often has the habit of placing disadvantaged people out of their established communities.
In response to such developments, Guerrilla Garden and four affiliates founded the WiNo Arts District. Through WiNo, Jolt aims to preserve Denver’s underground scene, along with its tradition of hip-hop culture and activist art. Insisting that he wasn’t entirely against developments like RiNo, he admitted to the benefits of Denver’s urban renewal projects. “I have kind of mixed feelings on it. It’s not all bad and it’s not all good. The place where I got robbed at gunpoint on the first day of high school is now where I go and eat frozen yogurt with my daughter,” Jolt says, “And more people coming here with money and experience outside of Denver, who bring art and culture with them or who have an appreciation for it – that’s good too.”
Still, Jolt worries that the city’s increasing homogenization has the capacity to erase the culture and history that he loves. “I don’t want to put my (signature) gorilla on something to make the land worth more so that I can sell it to somebody,” Jolt says. “My interest is not in bringing up the property value, so to speak. My interest is in bringing up the value of life, the quality of life, the culture, the art – those things.”
When developers eventually claim the land surrounding the Guerrilla Garden studio on Brighton Boulevard, Jolt says he’ll simply move to another abandoned place, and will breathe life into that forgotten part of town. That is exactly what artists do – create their own realities rather than be defined by society’s. “I look out the window every day and watch people survey the land, the property, big groups of businessmen walking around with investors. And I see it. It’s changing.”
Currently, Jolt is exploring the notion of economic power and commercialism in his latest series dubbed The Art Of War. Drawing his work from the theory of Gothic Futurism, Jolt views the scrawling script of graffiti as words that are armed against oppression. At the heart of this theory is the observation of the physical shape of letters: “All of these letters, they have weaponry, they have arrows, the arrow being one of the most classic symbols for a missile or a weapon.” He goes on, “Graffiti is somebody’s self-expression. It is incredibly imaginative, creative, funky and forward-thinking. If anything, graffiti art is telling you to be an individual and represent your individuality, whereas billboards are telling you to do the opposite.”
Jolt leaves us with the idea that graffiti art is about finding beauty in everything, and that artists can take abandoned places and disheveled materials, bring them out of their shells, and all the while include the community in the process. “Once destroyed, things are now seen as a canvas,” he exclaims. “It gives a truly unique perspective to the graffiti artist – the ability to find beauty in rust and decay.” Thus, through his art, Jolt will continue to tell the stories of a city and its people who are often left in the literal and proverbial dust.