On the following pages, you'll find A&E content from our February 2013 issue. Read about street art going mainstream on this page, click the "Next" link at the bottom of the page for three of our top A&E picks, and then read about the Utah Museum of Fine Arts' new curator on the last page of this section.

From Back Alley to Main Street

Street art, once seen as vandalism, is being commissioned by the mainstream.

Gerry Swanson works on Indian on Indian, now completed.

In a graffiti-covered back alley in downtown Salt Lake City, Gerry Swanson is working on his newest mural, Indian on Indian. Sketched out on a 15-by-30-foot section of wall is an American Indian astride an iconic Indian motorcycle.

“It’s based on the classic painting, End of the Trail,” Swanson explains.

The artist rattles a can of spray paint, then steps back from his canvas—a cement-block wall partially obscured by an overflowing dumpster—to decide his next stroke.

“It looks woven,” says Swanson of the grid he’s filling in. “To me, that woven look means blankets and quilts—family.”

Not far away is another mural by the artist depicting the romance—and violence—of the early West, as bandits shoot it out with Indians. Around the corner, a third Swanson mural celebrates Utah’s state gun, the .45-caliber pistol carried in a dozen wars by the U.S. military.

“I incorporate the history of the West into my art,” Swanson says. “I’m proud to be from Salt Lake, and I try to make that part of my work.”

The medium of spray paint on concrete or brick walls usually brings to mind street art, or worse, tagging or graffiti—a controversial genre that urban business owners usually dismiss as vandalism. But Swanson is doing his murals on paid commissions from property and business owners.

Sri Whipple, a Salt Lake painter who has done a few murals, explains the attraction of streetwise art for retailers: “Find an artist you like, and for the price of not much more than the paint, you get art. You’ll have something younger people will notice.” Swanson hopes to make a living in this unlikely intersection of street art and retail, where artists are paid to celebrate commerce. For instance, Salt Lake Running Co. on 700 East, paid to have a wall covered in happy feet in motion. Elizabeth Jenkins, master of marketing for the Running Co., explains, “We had a big empty wall, and we wanted to jazz up this side of town. People like to get their pictures taken in front of it and our customers love it.”

Many property owners, however, see the murals simply as a defense against graffiti vandals. As one modern-day Medici explained: “I got tired of the random graffiti on the building. Taggers don’t paint over another tagger’s work.”

Well-known Salt Lake artist Trent Call, who has worked on murals for Salt Lake Running Co., the Downtown Alliance (100 East block of Broadway) and Park City, fears that business types don’t respect the art work as work, let alone art.

“A lot of these people don’t understand how much work goes into it. They think they are doing the artist a favor to let him paint on their wall.”

Adam Price, executive director of the Utah Museum of Contemporary Art, delights in street art. But Price believes street art, particularly when it has an underlying commercial goal, should have its merits judged like any artwork. 

“Great art is transformative as opposed to simply commercial,” Price says. “In the way that great art can open possibilities and bad art can be deadening, it’s exactly true for street art. You can do a thing on a wall that confirms again what everyone already believes.”

Price isn’t convinced that a wider acceptance for graffiti art, originally a subversive act, is an entirely good thing artistically.

“[Sanctioned street art] does change its significance. There is something about an intervention that is not authorized, but is none the less fantastic. It’s magical when [infamous British graffiti artist] Banksy shows up on a street or a wall.”

Take a tour of Salt Lake’s street art in the service of commerce:

Salt Lake Running Co., just off the 700 East exit on westbound I-80

Higher Ground Coffee, 2005 E. 3300 South 

Evening Ease, 1321 E. 3300 South

Fice, 160 E. 200 South

Cosmic Spiral, 920 E. 900 South 

Downtown Alliance series, 100 E. block of 300 South

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