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The history behind the art you pass every day in Denver

As Denver continues to grow and change, the images in the River North Arts District reflect that. The Denver Graffiti Tour wants to tell you how.

DENVER — Erin Spradlin and James Carlson have been married for four years but for the past 11 months, they've also been business partners, co-founding the Denver Graffiti Tour. 

Their inspiration struck when the couple was on a trip in Bogotá, Colombia last year. 

"We did a fantastic street-art tour there," Spradlin said of their trip to Bogotá. "We loved that tour because we felt like we got to know more about the politics and the history of the city and we weren't stuck inside a museum."

A few weeks later, the couple had returned to Denver and was having dinner in the River North (RiNo) Arts District, a community north of downtown Denver known for its creative industry and hip restaurants and bars. 

"We've always loved this neighborhood," Spradlin said. "We were walking around noticing people kind of having the same experience looking at all the art. So we started asking people, 'Do you know anything about the art?' And people were like, 'No, but I wish I did.'" 

Spradlin said it was that curiosity that fueled her and Carlson to start their own street art tour. 

"We thought, if we can talk to the artists and they can tell us their background, maybe we have a story. And it kind of just snowballed from there," Spradlin said. 

Almost a year later, the couple's idea has attracted nearly 2,500 curious people who have embarked on the 2-mile trek that is the Denver Graffiti Tour. 

"It can surprise people that this is not just some 14-year-old with a can," Carlson said. "These are high-end artists. They just choose to put their work in the open-air gallery."

The couple and the two tour guides they've hired stress one other subject perhaps as much, if not more, than the art: The neighborhood it's in. 

"Denver is growing so quickly and I know people have mixed feelings about that," Spradlin said.  

The Denver Graffiti Tour aims to teach people about the stories behind the art and the changes that the neighborhood itself has experienced and is currently undergoing. They spend time researching, talking to local artists, creating relationships with residents, and scouring the internet and social media platforms for insight. 

"Yes we are talking about the art, but that’s kind of the dessert," Carlson said when asked about how much art history and local politics people can expect on the tour. "We get into some of the vegetables a little bit and you’re going to learn something about this city."  

Tour guide Lauren Cross agrees. 

"I think people should know how deeply connected the art is to the city," she said. 

Cross said she works hard to educate each person on the tour about how much the neighborhood has changed, from once being Five Points to recently being "rebranded" as RiNo, and how residents have responded to those changes. 

"So much of the art that we see here is reflective of the changes that RiNo and that Denver have gone through in the past 5 to 10 years," Cross said. "I think that when people come on the tour they’re often surprised because we’re not just talking about the art and the methods and what each piece means – there’s so much more to it." 

To learn more about the art in River North Arts District, visit the Denver Graffiti Tour website. 

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