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The game of tag

As a graffiti artist updates his most prominent work, he mulls the state of his craft

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Mike Schwartz and friends just reworked their West Side - mural. - L'AURA MONTGOMERY

Michael Schwartz holds a can of blue spray paint and hovers his hand deftly over the wall outside West Side Tattoo. He's going over the lettering that spells his nickname, Halo, in the stylized, angled fonts of graffiti art. The signature is proof that the mural he's producing here on the corner of 20th Street and Colorado Avenue is, indeed, his.

The work is a re-imagination of an already popular and controversial artistic feature. For two years now, West Side Tattoo's west wall has featured a cartoon Boy Scout looking through a pair of binoculars at cartoon animals: a squirrel, a deer. The new version that Schwartz and his younger brother Billy are creating, with the help of a handful of others, is more than a simple update. The Colorado state flag that had served as the background for the scene has been painted over, replaced by a mountain landscape.

On Saturday, Sept. 28, day two of the Schwartz brothers' three-day painting project, they work for 12 hours straight. Billy paints a squirrel with a "grill," or diamonds in his teeth. A friend named Filipino Jim paints a fox with brass knuckles. The older Schwartz paints a huge bear with an alarm-clock watch. Another friend, Emmit, paints his name alongside Schwartz's and next to Billy's tagging of his own nickname, Hint.

Overall, the wall is a composition of abstracted, angular letters balanced by decked-out woodland creatures. Schwartz intends the whole thing to come off as a parody on materialism.

Some passersby, however, have just seen it as a hindrance. Early in the day, "an old man in a sedan" approached Schwartz and asked him to produce a letter of permission for spray-painting the wall. Later, a woman in an SUV threatened to call the police. Schwartz wonders aloud how the motorist could have possibly mistaken him for an artist doing illegal work.

"We're out here with a scaffold in broad daylight," he says, shaking his head.

"Like any other art'

Schwartz, 31, is used to people speaking out against his art. When the original West Side Tattoo mural first went up in 2005, members of the Organization of Westside Neighbors tried petitioning to keep the graffiti-style mural off the wall. The attempt was unsuccessful.

"It was basically one lady who didn't like it," says Schwartz.

Nonetheless, the incident reminded Schwartz and Co. that graffiti can have a polarizing effect on a community.

"Graffiti art is subjective, like any other art," says Brian Moore, who, alongside his brother Aaron, owns West Side Tattoo, and thus the wall that Schwartz is painting. "Some people just aren't going to like it."

Because Schwartz has Moore's permission, he's operating legally. For Schwartz, seeking permission from business owners to do murals is just part of the process. Though he admits to tagging illegally in his younger days, he now sees legal graffiti as a way of legitimizing the art form.

"I did real "janky' places," he says. "Under drainage tunnels, behind supermarkets places no one would see. People want to get familiar with how to paint, so that's where they start."

Now, Schwartz participates in and helps organize Nocturnal Mockery, a popular annual visual art show featuring graffiti artists.

After the petition to take down the original West Side Tattoo mural was produced, Moore wrote up a second petition. His supported the work, and, perhaps unsurprisingly, given the colorful exuberance of the image, ended up earning more signatures.

Sensitive matter

Still, graffiti art is something of a hot-button issue in Colorado Springs. On Sept. 10, at a City Council meeting, Ken Lewis, the city's code enforcement supervisor, proposed a project to clean up what he sees as a graffiti problem. Instead of hiring a nonprofit organization to paint over the tags, as the city currently does, Lewis suggested making cleanup a way to earn community-service hours.

Council member Scott Hente went the opposite route; he wondered if the city could commission more murals like Schwartz's in order to curb the problem, stating that artists generally don't tag over one another's work.

No formal decision has been made on either proposal.

Back at the West Side Tattoo wall, Emmit (who refuses to give his last name) disagrees that city support would curb illegal tagging. He says that graffiti culture was founded on illegal art, and that there will always be artists who want to put their names up in illegal spaces. Despite his day job as a graphic designer, Emmit, 36, says he still leaves his name all over his hometown of Denver often illegally.

Schwartz remains firmly on the other side of the spectrum. He paints murals as part of his graphic design business. Among other wall paintings, his company has created murals at Coronado High School, Child Styles Hair Salon and, recently, in a child's bedroom at a Parade of Homes open house.

Schwartz thinks that if the city wants to curb graffiti, it should provide younger artists with a legitimate space to practice. He recently saw a commissioned mural of his illegally tagged over by another young, emerging artist. Were there open walls for the younger artists to legally cover, he doubts such an incident would have occurred. Young artists like the one who tagged Schwartz's wall would then have been able to create more elaborate pieces.

That, Schwartz says, would be a good thing. After all, graffiti art does have its share of advocates.

As he puts the finishing touches on his "Halo" signature on the West Side wall, a number of supporters counteract the negative comments Schwartz has heard over the course of the day.

One driver leans over the passenger seat of his truck to shout, "That's so awesome!"

Not more than 10 minutes later, two teenage boys walk by smoking cigarettes, trying to look tough. They stutter through some compliments before finally settling on one that they think the veteran artists will appreciate: "We just wanted to give props."

The artists don't smile at their young admirers. But their animated creations sure do.

scene@csindy.com

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