The Artist, The City, The Framer, And Their Lovers

My favorite contemporary artist across all of the visual arts is Banksy. When he came to New York City on a painting spree, he hit a garage door across the street from my studio in Chelsea which I documented. I’ve never been involved myself in using any kind of ink or paint in public but I get a lot from it as an effected viewer. In Boulder, my favorite artist is Smile.

Banksy and Smile each have their own beautiful style and message.

I’ve given a lot of thought to why I like their work so much. It’s outstanding with technique and beauty, it’s full with rebellion and anonymity, but ultimately, it’s their selfless rejection of recognition that makes their famous work so exciting to me.

Smile begins in the studio creating elaborate stencils that can take hours to cut, and then paints the pieces by layering colors on the streets. You only need your eyes to excavate the strata and ponder how it could have gone. There is often splatter which helps blend the work with the surface, almost always utility equipment, postal boxes, or other common urban eyesores.

The whole thing is completely illegal. That’s part of the thrill, and the beauty of unauthorized street art in general.

Appreciating one of Smile’s works tends to involve that obvious quality of life on the edge, pure with rebellion and risk. That’s not enough, in and of itself. Smile’s work is exceptionally beautiful, and the technique is exceptionally beautiful. Smile’s subject matter is also exceptionally beautiful, and fitting, generally domesticated animals on the threshold of the wild, or the wild looking in, here in Boulder where we do live on such an interface with the edge of the forest. Smile is outstanding.

The publicly commissioned works around town don’t have this wild and free quality. They are great to many and they play a great role with their purpose, though they are confined, tame, civically approved, and perfectly compliant.

Smile, though a bandit, essentially passes the tame test anyway, aesthetically speaking, inoffensive and generally non controversial in subject matter and placement. Smile is generally respectful to private property, and often appears on what would be hard to argue would look better without it. Over a 100 paintings likely exist around town, it could be way more. Many have become somewhat iconic for some neighborhoods and areas of town, enduring for years, through flood and fire. Clearly rarely wiped.

To my surprise and appreciation, this summer on the 14th of June, 2022, a new Smile appeared front-and-center upon my own stomping grounds.

The Canyon bridge tunnel that connects Eben G Fine park with The People’s Crossing is a prime location for graffiti, covered over with a fresh canvas on a regular beat by the city. It’s only ever been blank for a day or two before someone comes along to add anew, and the cycle repeats — the city makes its rounds again, cat and mouse in perpetuity.  You could say the tunnel is an ongoing, active conversation between those who add graffiti, those of us who experience it, and the transportation department workers sent to remove it.

I see all kinds of graffiti here, with all kinds of intent, sometimes artistic, sometimes not. When I saw this Smile, I immediately felt a familiar connection, a sense of excitement, and I felt at home. I was probably one of the first few people to notice and appreciate it which also felt special to me, personally. It was fresh and bright, unfaded and uncorrupted. It made me wonder where the artist was, as if maybe the artist was still nearby.

But I immediately wondered what would happen! It was added right onto a spot that gets wiped every time, how would it survive this regularly wiped location!?

If you were with me at that moment I would have bet you that it wouldn’t get wiped. I would of placed that bet based on all the others around town that didn’t get wiped. Maybe if Smile had placed it in the middle of the tunnel…but it was neatly tucked up into the corner, respectably placed as could be if it could be, more like a designed cornerstone. I was confident that it would be left and that something would be proven by that that I would witness fully – the value of Smile’s work to the city, actually.

If it would be left alone, as the city came to paint over the other graffiti on the tunnel, it would act as proof by example of the tolerance the city actually has for Smile’s work. Like Banksy, I believe Smile’s work is adding value to the city, not distracting value from it, and such a result lends to validating this idea.

When Banksy creates an illegal work on the street, it becomes so valuable property owners and cities spend great amounts to preserve and protect the work.

Each day I walked that way, to the tunnel, so enraptured each time that it would be the day, after the city came to do their wiping…and I would get to see. I was just waiting. There was other graffiti in the tunnel that was relatively harsh and violent and would 100% get wiped and it was just a matter of time, I knew it.

Almost two months later, before the city made it’s routine rounds, on August 5th, someone else had come out on an escapade in the tunnel, doing up graffiti all over the inside, of exactly the kind that would typically get wiped, and they stopped to acknowledge and hit up the Smile piece with a response! It was a great response.

I mean, it totally ruined it, but it was also great at the same time. Had you been with me again at that moment when I first saw it, and smiled, I’d declare all bets off! 

How would the city look the other way around at all of this? I was concerned the city would probably remove it all, including the Smile work, which was no longer in any way discreet. What would they do!? Just look above at the size of that fuchsia fluorescent butt. No way will that fly, It was all too much, too close and integrated now, and it was just a matter of time before  I would find out what would happen.

I had Smile on my mind too much. I went through this tunnel more often than I would, three times a day on average. Finally it happened! August 10th. Look at what the city did!

What a case for Smile! The city wiped everything else but left the Smile! This is an incredibly strong affirmation from the city of Boulder all together that Smile brings the city value, not strife. The city not only left Smile’s work while wiping all the rest, they meticulously did so, impossibly able to look the other way, for they could of only looked square at it, as they literally framed it with their own cover-up paint, where the city itself became an abettor to the crime: The Picture Framer. The city literally added to it, artistically, in a full-on collaboration!

Though I saw proof of what I thought and then didn’t think I would see, what I didn’t expect is that this discovery would ultimately harm my admiration for Smile’s work. Slightly.

As the hours and days went on, it sank in. Each time I saw a Smile around town, I started to feel differently about it. Maybe they are not so wild after all. It’s as if they are just as compliant as the city commissioned work. Could it even be possible that Smile has an unspoken deal with the city, I wondered? It’s fair to wonder for a moment, but you’d have to assume not. How else could the city justify removing some art while leaving other art? If there is no deal, the city must have a spoken or unspoken aesthetic rationale, I imagined, and so I became curious about the city code and the definition of graffiti as they see it. I also felt a bit of injustice for others. Slightly.

You know how it goes when it comes time to define things like art, any code dependent on something being art or not is hard to resolve. The Boulder code though doesn’t include much in the way of wiggle room, for what Smile does, or anyone else does, with paint on public and private property without permission.

The city policy:

Graffiti is a nuisance because its continued existence constitutes a visual blight upon the area in which it is located and acts as a catalyst for other antisocial behavior. Prompt removal is the greatest disincentive to graffiti and minimizes the blight and related effects.

Boulder Graffiti Removal Program

Graffiti means the intentional painting, scratching, or coloring (with any contrast medium whatsoever) of any public or private property except by permission of the owner of private property, the city manager, in the case of city property, or the supervisory officer of any other public property.


5-4-14. - Graffiti Prohibited. Ordinance Nos. 5186 (1989); 7146 (2001)

I sent an email to the city to inquire.

From: City of Boulder <boulder@user.govoutreach.com>
Subject: New Issue about Graffiti.
Thu, Aug 11, 11:49 AM

Dear Drew,

Thank you for using Inquire Boulder. We appreciate the
opportunity to assist you.

The Problem you submitted was:

  Request type: Graffiti
  Location: 80354 Boulder Canyon Dr, Boulder, CO 80302, USA
  Description:  Question about Graffiti created by the pseudo-anonymous artist named “Smile”. Per the attached photos, one can infer that the policy of the city is to allow work by Smile but not others. In the photos, you can see that another person came to respond to the Smile work, but apparently the city did not consider the response worthwhile while nonetheless considering the initial work to be worthwhile. Does the city have a formal or informal method for determining which works to remove based on aesthetics or other factors not listed in the city code?  I am seeking information for a public post on my twitter account, https://twitter.com/boulder_drew where I will note my findings with the city’s tolerance for some street art. Thanks!

You will receive a response within 7 days for this request.

I was immediately impressed that the time frame was definitive. It was going to happen.

I checked my email too much over the following days, and after day four came and went, I started to wonder what would happen if they didn’t respond in seven days. Anything? I wondered if they were working on an answer, maybe thinking about it too much too. It’s a good question and the answer is hard to explain, amirite?

Finally! WIth just 14 minutes to spare, before the seven days were up, the email arrived as promised.

From: City of Boulder <boulder@user.govoutreach.com>
Subject: Message About Request
Thu, Aug 18, 11:35 AM

Hello Drew,

The painting/graffiti that you are referring to has been removed as per city policy/code. Staff has been reminded that all graffiti needs to be removed or covered. The city does have a program in place for those who might be interested in painting a picture/ Mural on a city structures. If someone is interested, they would need to apply, through the city’s arts and culture program.

Thank you

Doug Rink
City of Boulder
Transportation Maintenance

Three minutes later, a second response:
From: City of Boulder <boulder@user.govoutreach.com>
Subject: Resolved Issue about Graffiti.
Thu, Aug 18, 11:38 AM

Dear Drew,

Your request # 103196 has been closed for the following reason:

Hello Drew,

Thank you for contacting the City of Boulder’s Transportation Maintenance with your graffiti clean-up request. Our maintenance crew has inspected and performed work in the area indicated in your request to cover up the graffiti.
We hope this service was satisfactory. We appreciate the community’s input on these areas so that we can address problems as they arise.
On occasion, requests submitted by members of the community can be misinterpreted by those of us scheduling the work. If you find that the maintenance needs you identified weren’t those that the crew addressed, please respond to this email and let us know. Please be as specific about the location as possible.

Thank you again and have a nice day

Doug Rink
City of Boulder
Transportation Maintenance

I took to the tunnel. Gone.

Dang. I don’t even know what to say, still. I should have been content with the conclusion I came to on my own. I already miss it. But also, I must say, while I may have messed it up for all of you, I got this one…I captured it, and it captured me. It left such an impression I’m here memorializing it. There is something special about it being gone now, too. 

On the bright side, I wonder if this demonstrates what is really going on, that we are deciding collectively as a city that it is great art. I think we are. Considering how pervasive Smile works have become, maybe some good can come from my unwitting interference. Would Smile’s works be more special if they were more ethereal to you? Perhaps we have it too easy. Perhaps Smile has it too easy. Smile has a free pass. The artist is compliant. Pre-approved.

I’m going to keep watching and enjoying, and I’m going to be sure and never contact the Boulder Transportation Maintenance department about any of this ever again! Now look at what we have: